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"The role of the contemporary artist in the conservation of their work."
Written by Daniela Ortega Espinoza

Translated by María Ritter Miravete
Daniela Ortega Espinoza

Daniela Ortega Espinoza studied a bachelor’s degree in restoration of cultural heritage at ENCRYM (National School of Conservation Restoration and Museography) in Mexico City. Since 2015, she has participated in different conservation projects, involved in diverse heritage assets: from archaeological to contemporary works of art.

For over four years, she has collaborated in conservation projects in different rural communities in Mexico, developing a great interest in the associations and social dynamics that occur around the objects she restores. Her passion for art, history and travel has led to her involvement in educational projects that seek to generate meaningful experiences around cultural heritage.

The conservation of a work of art is a multifactorial process, in which hundreds of variables, conditioning factors, and even a bit of chance intertwine. A multitude of actors and situations are involved in the life and transformation of any artistic object, however in the following lines we will focus on only one: the artist. Traditionally, this creative being is regarded as the orchestrator of aesthetic universes and the inciter of the artistic experience, but we rarely consider them as a determining agent in the preservation of the work they have created. This text attempts to answer the question: Is or should the artist be responsible for the preservation of their work?

There are two situations in the life of every artwork in which artists play a key role in their destiny and permanence. The first occurs at the very moment of creation and the second happens in response to any alteration that the work undergoes afterward.

The moment of creation

In the marvelous and complex process of artistic creation, there is a concatenation of decisions that the artist makes to give vent to their creativity. However, there is one that will determine largely the future of the object: the choice of the materials or media to be used for its creation.

Materials in art have always been chosen according to the intention that the creator pursues with each project. This intention has to do, in the first place, with what the artist expects their work to provoke in those who observe and interact with it. Nevertheless, the artist's intention also relates to the desires that the creator harbors for the future of their work.

For hundreds of years, artists sought for their works to transcend them and last for a long time, capable of conveying continuously the intention with which they had endowed them. That is why they used materials with stable and enduring properties in their creative processes (Gordon, 2013). In the guilds and later in the art academies existed a deep knowledge regarding the preparation and use of the materials with which the artists worked, which bestowed extensive knowledge upon the creators regarding the properties of each material, including how they age [1]. The production processes of raw materials for the arts were handmade and expensive; most artists used a limited number of them and with a fairly restricted range of variability in their handling techniques. In traditional art, the materials were only the vehicle for expression and were not considered part of the message to be conveyed.


Natural pigments and gums. Photograph by Ponto e vírgula. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At the dawn of the 20th century, new artistic currents changed art forever. Modern and contemporary art was nourished by experimentation and by the search for expressive freedom, regardless of what was established by traditional art and the academy. In the first ruptures, experimentation with materials was timider, modifying the type and nature of the pigments used, substituting handmade versions for their synthetic equivalents [2] and varying the dimensions and format of the objects (Rotaeche, 2011).  With time, the level of experimentation and openness to the freedom and individuality of each artist reached previously unimaginable levels. From the milestone of the appearance of the “ready-made” to the current controversial use of living beings as mediums for art, the incorporation of real life into the artistic process has caused an effect that Rebecca Gordon refers to as "dematerialization" of art, in which there are no longer clear boundaries between what makes up the support of the work and its message or intentionality [3] (Gordon, 2013).

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The application of color in this work, with fillings and brushstrokes of marked texture, denotes an expressive intention in the use of materials. Photograph taken at the exhibition La danza de los espectros presented at the Museum of Modern Art in 2014. Photograph by Daniela Ortega.


The increasing, though never total, abandonment of traditionally used materials in art and the introduction of new media can have many intentions. It may be that the choice of materials responds to aesthetic criteria if the artist seeks that their raw materials respond to their creative needs; or that the materials are selected for practical reasons if the creator favors materials that are accessible and common. Ideological intentions can also be pursued with the use of certain resources, when these are chosen under the premise of transgressing the established canons regarding the commonly authorized media for art (Rotaesky, 2001). In other cases, the choice of materials and media is in accordance with the expressed disinterest of some contemporary artists in preserving their work for posterity, incorporating its degradation as a fundamental part of their raison d'être. [4]

All these intentions can result in expressions in which artists use materials completely unaware of the behavior and type of interaction they will present in the future (sometimes as close as a couple of years).

Perhaps the only brake on material experimentation and genuine disinterest in the permanence of the artworks is the artists' intention to insert their creations into the institutional and commercial sphere of museums, galleries or private collections. An object that seeks to enter this sphere must consider the needs of museums, collectors and patrons for the contemporary work of art to remain that unique and unrepeatable object. The insertion of contemporary works in the art and exhibition market requires them to materialize in some manner a symbolic and economic value that can be quantified and assured, meaning, an art piece that can be given a place within each collection (Rotaeche, 2001).

Thus, as soon as the work becomes part of a collection, it opens the possibility of a new participation of the artist in its future and permanence. However, this second participation of the creator is certainly restricted by the appearance of new actors and interests that come into play.


This piece is composed of potatoes, laboratory materials and chemical processes occurring in real time. Photograph taken at the exhibition Transformación, by artist Víctor Grippo, presented at the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo in 2014. Photograph by Daniela Ortega.

The moment of intervention

Firstly, we will have to accept that it has been common practice for artists to intervene, modify or update their works when the latter suffer some deterioration or must adapt to new conditions of the exhibition, storage, etc. This practice began to change with the consolidation of restoration as a professional discipline. In Mexico, cultural institutions, both public and private, have incorporated conservation-restoration as a discipline with its own methodologies and criteria whose interest is not only to maintain the aesthetic or material qualities of the artworks but to understand and preserve them as cultural heritage. However, contemporary art presents multiple complexities in its conservation. The first is of a regulatory nature, since only the work so declared by a decree issued by the Mexican Government can be considered artistic heritage (historical or artistic monument). In the case of movable heritage, it cannot be declared as an artistic monument as long as the artist who created it remains alive (Federal Law on Archaeological, Artistic and Historical Monuments and Zones, 1972). Therefore, a large number of contemporary artistic works are protected by the Federal Copyright Law and not by cultural heritage legislation [5].

Even when a work of art has been acquired by a third party and the patrimonial rights have been assigned to them, the author (and their heirs or in some cases the State) retains the moral rights over the art piece. These moral rights concede the power to oppose any deformation, mutilation, modification or any action that may cause demerit to the work or damage to its reputation, while granting the right to modify their work (Federal Copyright Act, 1996). That said, it is clear that artists play a very important role in all the processes of conservation and exhibition of their works. That is why any conservation and restoration treatment that is intended to be applied on the work of living contemporary artists must, above all, be communicated to the person who holds the moral rights of the author so that they may be able to exercise the rights granted by the Law. In practical terms, the Law enables authors to consent or reject any adjustment, modification or recreation of the materiality of their work, even when it belongs to a museum or collection (Rotaeche, 2001).

This obligatory communication between the artist and the restorer, in addition to implying respect for current legislation, has resulted in an extremely enriching process for the conservation of contemporary art. In the methodology that contemporary art restorers follow to intervene in any work, the interview with the artist has become a fundamental step. This interview allows access to valuable information regarding the materials used and the technical processes of execution, which in many cases only the author possesses. The interview with the artist can reveal specific details such as the commercial brands or preparations of the materials used, as well as the existence of technical problems that occurred during the creative process, as well as their solutions. However, even more, important than these pressures on the identity and origin of the materials, is the information obtained concerning the artist's intention in using them; since conservation is not only about the physical preservation of the materials that make up the object, but above all, about the preservation of the concept, idea or intention that the artist proposes with it.

In this quest to identify the material and conceptual nature of the object, a great truth has been revealed: the artist's intention is not immutable. Numerous examples have shown that the intention with which the artist created the work will not necessarily remain the same as when it will be intervened; many times the change and transformation of the work are incorporated into the artist's discourse once they have happened [6]. The artist's intention is a highly subjective concept and therefore impossible to determine categorically, and it is often multiple and fickle. As long as the artist or whoever holds the moral rights of the art piece is alive, the intentions he or she manifests must be taken into account every time the work is restored, modified, reassembled, etc.


Was the sprouting of a plant on one of the potatoes in this work intentional? Does it have any meaning? Should it be preserved? Photograph taken at Víctor Grippo's exhibition, presented at the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo in 2014. Photograph by Daniela Ortega.


Nevertheless, it is necessary to make a very important clarification: although the rights that the artist possesses over their work make it essential for them to participate in the arrangements for its future and conservation, the artist's opinion should not have the defining character in the decision-making criteria and methodologies of the restoration treatments. Achieving a collaborative work with the artists will be a source of enrichment in the conservation of their works, as long as it does not cross the limits that separate a respectful intervention from an uncontrolled update, even if it has the legitimacy of having the artist's agreement. It is the restorer's job to decide and execute the necessary treatments for the conservation of works belonging to public and private collections. Mata and Landa have documented successful processes in which the artist works together with the restorer to find an optimal and efficient solution for the conservation of their works; however, in all cases, it is the restorer who determines the theoretical and practical parameters to be executed (Mata and Landa, 2011).

To conclude this dissertation we will return to the initial question: Is or should the artist be responsible for the conservation of their work?


Desvío a rojo. Exhibition by Cildo Meireles presented at the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo, in 2009-2010. Photograph by Oscar Hernández. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


The artist is a potential conservator of their work when they define its intention and decide on the materials and media to be used. The artist is also part of the conservation process when they exercise their moral right to be consulted on any treatment that may modify or alter in any way the material or conceptual integrity of their creation.

However, in the complex task of defining the future of their works they are not alone, different specialists  have much to contribute. The restorer specialized in contemporary art can become a great ally, since they possess the technical and scientific knowledge regarding the interaction of materials and the transformation processes they undergo during their aging. Thus, the artist-restorer duo offers many possibilities to enrich the artist's work, not only at the moment when an object has deteriorated, but also when the artist materializes their creative ideas. As Landa and Mata rightly state: "the interaction artist-work-restorer is not only of great importance in decision making, but, by exchanging ideas, it generates awareness in the artist about the advantages and disadvantages of their work techniques, as well as about the benefits of using materials with greater durability" (Mata and Landa, 2011; p75). Working together can provide effective technical solutions to achieve art pieces that can continue to delight, amaze, question, discomfort or disturb viewers for a longer period.

Of course, under no circumstances should the artists’ freedom of expression be curtailed to ensure the durability of their works, if that is not their wish. In such cases, it will be necessary to seek other solutions for the coexistence of the artist's intentions and the conservation needs of the institutions that acquire their works. 

The freedom and experimentation with which contemporary art is exercised also demands a great deal of creativity from those who aim to conserve it. This is a fascinating challenge for the restorer, but that subject will be the matter of another text.

1] It has been shown that some Renaissance painters were well aware of the effect that the aging of the varnish would have on their paintings. Therefore, they were able to manage the variables in the preparation of their materials to achieve  favorable aging of their work (Rotaeche, 2011).

2] Of course, this is closely related to the historical moment that was experienced as a result of changes in the means of production and consumption, which also impacted the art world.

3] Conceptual art is a clear example of this, since in this artistic proposal the important thing is the idea it seeks to convey and not the material object through which it is done. Happenings or performative events are also a challenge to the matter-symbol duality of art.

4] Some creators consider the ephemeral as a fundamental part of the message of their works, while others refer to their art as "processual" understanding that part of the meaning and aesthetics of the object is its change or degradation (Landa, 2011).

5] The regulations applicable to the conservation and restoration of artistic, archaeological and historical monuments dating back to January 19, 1934 with the issuance of the Law on the Protection and Conservation of Archaeological and Historical Monuments, Typical Towns and Places of Natural Beauty. In this sense, the first declaration of historical monument was published on January 8, 1943 and referred to the work of José María Velasco (editor's note).

6] Rebecca Gordon documents this phenomenon in the case of a work of art that uses organic materials of an ephemeral nature (Gordon, 2013).


Gordon, R. (2013). Material significance in cotemporary arts. ArtsMatters. International Journal for Technical Art History, 5-10.

Landa, L. M. (2011). La intervención del artista en la restauración de arte contemporáneo. Intervención. Reevista internacional de conservación, restauración y museografía, 74-79.

Ley federal del derecho de autor. (1996). México.

Ley federal sobre monumentos y zonas arqueológicos, artísticos e históricos. (1972). México.

Rotaeche, M. (2011). Conservación y restauración de materiales contemporáneos y nuevas tecnologías. Madrid: Síntesis.

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