The topic of contemporary art conservation is central: over 3000 artworks stored at MoMA in New York can not be exhibited anymore for conservation problems, and also the collectors are aware that collecting contemporary art “It’s a gambling” because of the economic side and the lifetime of materials. Which is the best practice for preserving contemporary works? What are the balances that set the relationships between artist’s volition, collectibles and conservation?

“My act of composition ends when my handiwork leaves the studio. The rest is your job “- said, few years ago, Enrico Castellani to Isabella Villafranca Soissons, Director of the Department of Conservation and Restoration of Open Care, author of a research project that will lead shortly to the publication entitled “In opera. Conserve and restore contemporary art”.

We met the researcher to explore issues relating to the conservation of contemporary art, where in many cases the original idea of the opera lives in the theory of his ephemeral value. Isabella Villafranca does not like being called a restorer. She propose instead a working method that has its foundation in the study of materials, considering each time the possibilities and ways to reactivate the artworks, expecting the interview as a vehicle for deepening the artist’s intentionality.

Before starting the interview would you mind to introduce yourself and tell us something about your profession and your actual research?

I am an art conservator formed practicing. When I started, no one was talking about conservation and training didn’t exist. It was pretty clear for me the field I wanted to work in. So I enrolled in a university that would provide me notions of chemistry, materials science and applied physics lighting museology. However, I missed the contact wisubstances so I graduated restorer in Restoration in Florence. I am sorry, but by that time in Italy was not much research in the field. I decided to work in English-speaking countries, the first deal with pragmatic and scientific approach to the problem of preservation.

The first question that I would like to investigate is the definition of “contemporary” in restoration and conservation. In particular, to what extent the restoration of contemporary recognizes its own identity methodological than the Italian “theory of restoration” on the experience gained in the restoration of ancient art?

Contemporary art launches continuing challenges not only to the conservators, who have had to reconsider its approach to changing and updating their methods and philosophies of intervention, but also to those who deal in different ways. It is no coincidence that there is not still a unique line of thought as regards the start line of the contemporary art. The principles of the theory by Cesare Brandi expressed in Sixties today must necessarily be reconsidered. In Italy the debate on the restoration and preservation of contemporary art has officially started with a conference that was held in Rivoli in 1987, which was followed by many others in every corner of the world. Many others will follow, since it is a reality so complex and constantly evolving and is very difficult to establish unique principles.

foto ritratto

Isabella Villafranca Soissons

Some works are conceptually produced to be perishable, other times are the same materials production that is no longer available. What is your experience in this field? Can you tell us a critical case?

From the twentieth century, artists began to use an unlimited variety of non-traditional materials and / or serial, through more expressive languages; with intent provocative and polemical seek the perishability of matter until reaching the destruction of the work. An interesting case involved the activities where I had to play as mediator between the artist who had voluntarily sought the total implosion of the work, (although not as rapidly as was occurring) and the owner, who wanted not only slow down, but even block the degradation.

If the author is alive, as is done in the restoration of his works?

As for contemporary art, must be preserved absolutely the intentionality of the artist. When he is still alive, he is contacted to share the intervention, the methodology and the degree to which arrive. The interview with the artist is a well-established practice, although not all are available to do so. In the absence of specific instructions, the conservator has to retain as much as possible to the information obtained through any source (not only bibliographic-archival ones). Alternative sources of information are the past interviews, movies, newspaper articles, photographs that can be found in institutional settings or not.

What degree of sensitivity exists in the art collectors with respect to the issue of conservation of contemporary art? And in the artists?

The different modes of destination and use of collections, also involve different conservation needs that are characterized by different degrees of sensitivity and attitudes in respect of the maintenance; sometimes, the task of the restorer is to educate the good practice of ongoing maintenance, to avoid future costly and invasive restorations. The artists, especially young ones, more and more frequently require assistance in the choice of materials and the use of them

What is the relationship between your workshops at Open Care and training institutions in the conservation and restoration?

The report is continuous, especially as regards the incessant update. I myself, while teaching in various master and accredited academy, I attend several times training courses and workshops in Italy and abroad. Moreover, in the laboratories of Open Care, we host the students of Aldo Galli for the course that the Ministry has called “Restoration of artifacts in synthetic materials machined, assembled and / or painted”; in this way we give the opportunity to students to learn “on the field”.

On the occasion of a recent public speech at Open Care, you showed how increasingly rare detect publications that include the dissemination of the results of the restoration as an instrument of knowledge of the work, not only for the purpose of attribution but also in view of original critical studies. Do you believe that today the theme of the study of the materials is an aspect overlooked by history and Italian art criticism?

Unfortunately it is not always the most rare, in fact, even in the past, are very sparse cases where the catalogs were equipped with scientific equipment. Several times I happened to work with Artist’s Foundations or art historians, helping the technical point of view and analysis of the subject. For this reason, during the conference, I called for the creation of databases that collect the data of the techniques and materials typical of each artist, as well as detected by the conservators during the restoration.

Cover: Laboratorio Open Care


Deianira Amico


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