Behind the Scenes at MOMA

Last night I was super excited to get to go on a tour of the conservation department at MOMA. This was the first time that common-folk have been allowed inside, a special treat a-la AIGA's current "Unique New York" event series. Their lab, on the 15th floor above MOMA's galleries, is bright, open, and evocative of a pristine hospital operating room. Our guide, a sculpture conservator, explained that they consider themselves more like doctors and scientists than anything else.

{a portable set of microscopes}

He had a ton of fun stories to tell us about the challenges of working in the preservation and repair of modern art, which is particularly difficult because, unlike traditional art, there is no common technique, medium, or substrate. They can spend years examining and treating a piece, learn a ton about how it was made and how to fix it, and then likely will never encounter anything made like it again. Conservators are trained both in science {mostly chemistry} and fine art, and have a ton of cool equipment hanging around. We got to see a crazy-super high powered x-ray, an assortment of microscopes, images of microscopic cross-sections, and their high tech photo lab.

{a little packing crate that I though was really cute}

They have a nerve-wracking job—often working on pieces that are worth millions and millions of dollars, and where a tiny slip or unexpected chemical reaction could cause what they call irreversible "catastrophic damage," but there are lots of perks too. They get to travel abroad with the collection when the museum lends it out, and they get to do artist interviews when they're working on a piece of someone who is still living.

{our host Roger, explaining why Jeff Koons' piece Three Ball 50/50 Tank is a conservator's worst nightmare}

A few fun tidbits from the talk:

• A long time ago, when a piece got damaged, they'd contact the artist to see if the artist was interested in fixing it. They stopped doing that because often the artist would go back and change things about the piece they had never been happy with—like completely redoing the composition.

• When they ship stuff in convoys of trucks, there's a $125 million dollar value limit per truck. So sometimes there will be a gigantic truck cruising along with only one painting in it.

• Charles and Ray Eames went through 16 coats of paint before they finally settled on white for their prototype of La Chaise. {We got to see the digitally enlarged microscopic cross-section—nifty technology-times.}

• Even the building's maintenance people have extremely limited access to the lab. If they're needed—say a light bulb burns out—a work order is submitted and an appointment is set up. Everything in the studio is moved out, and then, under supervision of a conservator, they can come at the appointed time and change the light bulb. And after they've left, the whole studio can be reassembled. The space is also constantly monitored by video surveillance, and patrolled by guard once an hour.

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