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Protocols for initiating a conservation treatment are essentially the same for everything: a physical examination to determine the nature of the materials and structure, its current condition, and on-going deterioration. The examination also gives the conservator clues as to the history of the object and its previous treatment or repair.
Planning a conservation treatment also requires information supplied by the owner or custodian, including the future use of the object and the owner’s feelings about it – what they like about it, and what they think is wrong with it.
The conservator’s goal for treatments is two-fold: an improved presentation and long-term preservation. Potential changes in the appearance of the object as a result of treatment are an important part of the treatment plan; both parties need to come to agreement about its ultimate appearance. Such changes should not be a whim on anyone’s part, but rather should be informed by the history of the object: What point in an object’s life is most significant?
The usual choices are when new, when in use, or as collected.
Things we call art are usually in the first category. We want to see signs of the artist’s hand and the best possible depiction of his or her intention.
Utilitarian objects like carriages, furniture, or machinery are often shown as they were during use, although very fancy utilitarian objects that would have been kept pristine in their past life are kept in top shape if possible.
Many utilitarian objects are collected when they are no longer fit for use; they may be broken, or have missing parts, or simply look tired. In many cases, conservation treatment can bring the item to a state close to what it looked like when it was used.
The “as found” state is less common. Certain historical objects, like 9/11 artifacts, or houses left as they were when their (presumably famous) owner died are examples. These tend to be situations with a high emotional component.
In the nineteen seventies, when collectors of folk art started to lend to art museums, some collectors took up this idea and refused to allow even layers of gray dust to be removed. Perhaps because the collectors themselves had found these often unappreciated objects in out-of-the-way places, they wanted the objects to reflect the condition of their discovery. Whatever the motive, this preference has mostly yielded to the museum model of judicious cleaning.
Let’s look at some common categories of Folk and Outsider Art to see how they fit into these three patterns.
Traditional folk art
Traditional folk art was the first category taken up by museums. (The original name of the Folk Art Museum in New York was “The Museum of Early American Folk Arts.) The objects are largely utilitarian things that were appropriated as art by twentieth-century collectors. The category includes ceramic jugs, Shaker furniture, weather vanes, quilts, and advertising posters, among others.
Calling this material “art” has many implications. One is that humans are attracted to art and want it to be preserved and accessible to the public. “Art” has higher monetary value than mere decorative or craft items, and therefore gets the attention of dealers, and, eventually, presence in art museums.
The aesthetic of traditional folk art includes a respect for certain signs of age – no one removes corrosion from weather vanes. [However, this distinction does not belong to folk art alone. We also do not remove corrosion from Chinese bronzes, and many kinds of ancient art are exhibited with visible damage.]
Movable Commercialized Outsider Art
Outsider art has received the title of art from its beginning, probably because despite some unusual subjects and materials, the forms are familiar. Outsider art includes paintings, drawings, and sculpture, and, in many ways, is similar to “inside” contemporary art.
The category has, however, an unusual identity: it is defined not by what it looks like, but who made it. It would be difficult, for example, in a gallery with both outsider and academic-based contemporary art to tell them apart. They also often share a look of newness that is part of its appeal. Other than fixing damages, conservators’ role with contemporary art of both origins is to protect against light damage and physical damage in order to keep the look of modernity.
This category consists largely of buildings and sculpture gardens. In many cases, the artist both created the sculpture and set their placement; the overall design is considered sacrosanct. Given outdoor exposure, often on materials not designed for it, these works of art are difficult to preserve.