This week’s contributing writer, Jessica Ford, is a graduate fellow in paintings conservation at Winterthur/ University of Delaware. She is working this summer at the Dallas Museum of Art, and she will spend her third-year internship at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
What was I thinking when I agreed to do the Great Debate? I asked myself this question countless times after the agreement was made. Instinctually, I knew I’d miss out on something important if I didn’t take part, this thought being fed primarily by the fact that it was the one and only Richard McCoy who had asked me to join in. Also, this was my first AIC meeting, so it was the only time I’d be able to claim in somewhat good conscience that I didn’t know what I was getting into. What I did know was that the Great Debate would involve publicly arguing about contentious issues with respected professionals in a field I am still in training to enter. It seemed best not to think about it too much, and just go for it.
For those who weren’t able to witness the event in the flesh, the second annual AIC Great Debate was held in a beautiful and intimidatingly large room featuring a cash bar. Two topics were discussed for 30 minutes each by teams that supported or opposed a stated position, and there were also question/answer sessions involving the audience. A key aspect was that the teams included individuals with varying backgrounds, who often did not personally support their assigned positions. Richard acted as moderator, expertly assisted by Laura Kubick, Kristen Adsit, and a huge ticking clock.
My teammates were Fletcher Durant and John Campbell, and together we argued against the idea that “the greatest act of preservation for inherently fragile or fugitive cultural property is exhibition, even if the duration goes far beyond what is currently recommended.” Defending the statement was the impressive lineup of Rosa Lowinger, Patty Miller, and Jodie Utter. These three delivered truly inspiring arguments about how contemporary art must be made accessible to contemporary audiences, to ensure the survival of the cultural story they represent. Fragile artworks such as the Watts Towers and the artwork of Thornton Dial were cited as powerful examples. Hiding such artworks in storage was presented as elitist and more dangerous than display, considering the risks associated with overcrowding and neglect. My team and I were also called out for being too young (not such a bad insult) and naive (zing) to understand how a conservator’s practice must sometimes differ from his/her ideals.
Fletcher responded with some sass of his own, saying our elders on the opposing side were effectively leaving a trail of intentionally damaged artwork for the next generation of conservators to struggle with when they retire. He expressed the need for preventive preservation and for patience until the evolution of technology improves methods of display. In the meantime, I suggested creative use of surrogates and digital galleries to make artwork even more accessible than a physical display. John brought it all home with a final plug for the AIC Code of Ethics. What else should we need, really? I’m not one to deny the obvious, though, and the audience poll after the closing arguments was clear: the young’uns had been schooled.
Our discussion was followed with an even livelier and highly entertaining debate between new teams around the statement: “while volunteers used on preservation projects often allow us to accomplish more work, they undermine our capacity to regularly employ conservation and collections care professionals.” The extended question/answer session demonstrated that the audience was just as divided and passionate as those on stage. Carrie McNeal has already written a superb review of this portion of the debate here, and I hope you’ll read it! The compelling points made by both sides should not be missed.
What started out feeling like a slightly crazy decision to argue with strangers in public turned out to be a crazy good experience for an emerging conservator. I’m so proud to have taken the stage with my teammates and opponents, all terrific people that I look forward to seeing at future AIC meetings. It can be daunting to step outside one’s comfort zone in a professional setting, but that is the mission of the Great Debate. What makes it so “great” is that differing sides of prickly topics are explored at length and with good humor, breaking the ice and providing a baseline for future discussions. The good intentions of sensitivity and the excuses of passivity are magically eliminated for a few minutes. How often do we have time to do this as a group? I can’t wait to see which young conservators will take part in the next debate, helping to bring openness into the future of our field.
*All photo credits: Heather Brown