Restoring the new

Contemporary art deteriorates just like classical art. Giving rise to a new specialisation in the field of conservation and restoration

Contemporary art has become “fashionable” in recent decades: an enthralling adventure, like a modern Grand Tour in a globalised world that is crowded, multifaceted and sometimes contradictory. The roles of museum directors, curators, gallerists, collectors, artists and auction house managers are less defined and often overlap, as professions blend and their boundaries become increasingly blurred.

The substantial difference between contemporary and classical art does not lie only in the multitude of materials used, but also in the fact that the former has paved the way to new forms of collecting, to new professional roles, to changing relationships, ethical approaches and conservation methods. Contemporary art is often created for contexts outside of the museum, with the purpose of encouraging reflection, challenging established certainties and compelling us to ponder the idea of impermanence. In contrast to ancient art, which was intended to be preserved and handed down through history.

This break with the past began with the avant-garde movements, when artists started to use new expressive forms to represent the reality and technology of the modern world. To accomplish this change, they turned to materials found in everyday life, using a wide variety of non-traditional media, often daringly assembled: plastic containers, light bulbs, cement and garbage bags, as well as more organic and natural materials (blood, manure, animal hides, etc.). Artists no longer choose materials for their durability, as was the case in the past, but rather focus on the concept that they want to convey, which is often expressed in the implosion of the artwork itself. The new meaning attributed to the concept of work of art, the experimentation with new materials and techniques and the introduction of a dynamic dimension that transforms the relationship to time have brought about the need for a novel approach to restoration. Leading to a new specialisation, in order to tackle the restoration (or, rather, conservation) of contemporary art with a versatile and open approach.

Because established protocols and technical and manual skills no longer suffice; conservators must also be aware of the challenges posed by new materials, whose future behaviour is often unpredictable. Synthetic plastics are an excellent example of this: materials intended to last forever present manifold and diverse conservation problems, at times at odds with each other, since what is recommended for one material may prove to be detrimental to another. The conservator’s task is therefore to minimise decay and reduce the effects of time, keeping an accurate record of any change that may occur in the artwork.

The creative thought is given shape not only by means of multiple materials, but also through different expressive languages. Many artists no longer present static figurative images, but interactive environments and monumental works that modify our perception of space and cause a sense of disorientation. Any subsequent presentation of these installations often entails rethinking their staging or, conversely, the precise execution of the artist’s instructions. In these cases, the conservator’s role takes on a new and important significance: to re-configure the installations, preserving the materials, the appearance and the meaning of the artwork, it is necessary to make an in-depth analysis with the artist himself and to refer to new documentation tools.

In fact, prior to performing any conservation work on contemporary art, it is essential to carry out a long and accurate study of the materials used, always taking into account the artist’s intention. Consequently, the ideal situation is for the artist to provide detailed instructions on the manner and degree of intervention allowed on his compositions. In case this documentation is not available, or if the artist is deceased, it is necessary to consult the artist’s foundation, archives and relevant galleries. The information gathered often clashes with the thinking and interests of the owner, who normally wishes to preserve the artwork as long as possible and in the best physical condition; in such a divided reality, legal experts are often engaged in the difficult task of establishing theoretical principles and protecting the parties involved.

The restorer’s job has thus become multifaceted and complex, requiring the integration of insight and manual skills with technical knowledge in other fields. Contemporary art conservation is the furthermost boundary for a noble “métier d’art”, in which Italy has always excelled. A craft that has had to grapple with the new dimension of an unstable and perpetually evolving art. A fascinating profession that is facing a rich and engaging future and that is consistently ready to accept new challenges.


“In opera. Conservare e restaurare l’arte contemporanea” by Isabella Villafranca Soissons focuses on the fascinating theme of contemporary art restoration. The project was born from a cooperation between the Cologni Foundation and Open Care – Servizi per l’arte. Published in the “Mestieri d’arte” series (Marsilio Editori), the survey aims at assessing the state of conservation and restoration of contemporary art through important contributions from illustrious experts, collectors, artists, curators of museums and of private and public collections. The book investigates, under a new and contemporary light, the ancient craft of art restoration. A specialisation in which traditional competencies and new technical, scientific and curatorial expertise converge. The volume was presented in May 2015 at the Venice Biennale.