Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Preserving Variable Media at the DAM

The Denver Art Museum actively is collecting "variable media" artworks. 

This class of artworks includes video, audio, software-based, electronic, installation, and other types of artworks that have special preservation needs. Many need to be remade or copied into a new format to address technological obsolescence. Some need to be remade each time they are exhibited. Some may change in dimensions or arrangement for each new exhibition location. Information about all of the various forms of these artworks must be carefully created and retained to ensure the works’ authentic existence in the future.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York, one of the pioneers of this area of conservation practice, describes the variable media approach as formulating "the definition of an artwork independently from its medium."  The Indianapolis Museum of Art classifies such works as “variable art”, defined as possessing a “changing observable state.”  This may mean, for example, that a work originally produced on a now obsolete videotape format can be successfully preserved by copying it onto a new medium, such as a newer videotape format or a digital file on a server. In many cases, such artworks also include hardware such as video monitors or light bulbs that may become difficult or impossible to repair or replace. In those cases, the question arises of whether that hardware can be substituted with more readily available equipment. It is thus crucial to establish and document early on the immaterial qualities of the work that it is important to preserve.  

For the past 2 years, a team of Denver Art Museum staff including curators, conservators, registrars, collection managers, installation specialists, and technology specialists has been meeting to establish practices and protocols for the preservation of this vulnerable part of the museum's collection. Expertise from a number of different fields is essential, as is collaboration with the artists who create the works.

Sandy Skoglund, Fox Games, 1989, ©Sandy Skoglund Denver Art Museum: Purchased with funds from Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Benson, Jan and Frederick Mayer, Volunteer Endowment Fund, Ginny Williams Gallery, the Chanzit family, Suzanne Farver and George Berky, Richard and Cathey Finlon, Dr. William F. Griffith, Dr. and Mrs. Charles Hamlin, Dan and Annette Jacobs, the Kuyper Foundation, the David H. Lawrence Foundation, Andrew W. Milner, Judy and Ken Robins, Mimi and Eric Ruderman, Christy S. Sebastian, Lewis and Susan Sharp, Lewis and Sally Story, Ted and Joyce Strauss, Patterson B. Williams, the Vargas family, and an anonymous donor, 1991.36.

In recent months, the team has been working to develop documentation practices for variable media artworks that integrate with the museum's collection management database.  It is a challenge to record the highly specific, complex, and varied information that will be needed to preserve these works through the years in a system designed for traditional art objects.  The Denver Art Museum also is participating in ConservationSpace, a project to develop an open-source software application for management of conservation documents. We are bringing our needs for variable media conservation to this project, and it may prove to provide some flexible and user-friendly solutions in the near future.

Image credit: Alan Rath, Looker II, 1990-1991, ©Alan Rath, Denver Art Museum: Purchased with funds from the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.

Kate Moomaw is assistant conservator for modern and contemporary art in the conservation department at the Denver Art Museum.  Kate has been at the DAM since 2011 and her favorite artwork that has been on view here is Geneviève and the May Wolf by Kiki Smith.