A steep learning curve: developments in the field of time-based media art conservation in Australia

By Asti Sherring posted 12-17-2018 00:12


Since joining the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) in Australia, as specialist conservator in time-based art in 2015, I have researched the Gallery’s time-based media art collection. This growing area of the collection encompasses film, slides, multimedia installations, video, and work that involves kinetic, light, computer-based, sound and performance art. This research initiated a project to establish best- practice policies and processes for the acquisition, display and care of time-based artworks. The project recognises that artists will continue to adopt new media and push the boundaries of technology, and in turn, curators and conservators need to keep pace to understand, protect and preserve their artworks now and into the future.

In recognition of the significant historical, cultural and financial value of Australian time-based art collections, conservation, registration and curatorial departments have been working independently to develop policies, procedures and programs for time-based media art. These efforts are not moving quickly enough, however, to meaningfully reduce the risk of losing important twentieth and twenty-first century time-based artworks. The past efforts of individuals working in an ad-hoc fashion, while adequate to resolve minor issues at hand, does not adequately address the ongoing challenges of time-based art conservation as a discipline.

Consequently, many Australian institutions have fallen behind in the development and specialisation of time-based media art conservation; this lack of participation can be attributed to geographical isolation, a lack of financial investment and resourcing within Australian institutions, very little expertise, a lack of training programs for specialists in the field, and an absence of upper level advocacy within the sector. While the efforts of institutions such as the AGNSW have begun to facilitate a shift in thinking, combined with tangible momentum from conservation professionals working towards addressing the needs of Australian time-based media art collections, much remains to be done to ensure this progress can be both consolidated and built upon to bring about lasting, comprehensive change at a national level.

Internationally there are numerous conservation professionals who are attempting to engage with the full spectrum of time-based media art, as the only time-based media conservator in Australia, the professional opportunity to travel to the United States and participate in conferences that focused on the development and education of time- based art conservation has assisted in inspiring change regarding how Australian institutions see and manage their time-based media art collections. It was a privilege to be invited to present at AIC National Conference ‘Material Matters 2018’ American institute of Conservation, Houston, Texas, USA 29 May – 2 June 2018.

This opportunity provided international exchange with attendees from institutions such as the Tate, The Guggenheim, New York University, Taiwan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian, Museum of Modern Art, M+ Hong Kong, Art Institute of Chicago, The Whitney, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and National institute of Mexico. I participated in discussions, shared research and institutional procedures. This experience has forged my capacity to communicate and engage with other Australian conservators about the unique needs of time-based artworks and the ways we can better work together. As an outcome of this field research, I have had formal meetings and email correspondence with Museum professionals from a range of national and international organizations to share my knowledge and resources gained.

Since returning from the United States, I have presented at key conferences and events, such as:

  • Australasia Preserves Symposium at the State Library of NSW, where I presented on the topic: Embracing Variability and Change: Negotiating obsolescence and Artist intent through collection Management Practices at AGNSW.
  • Australian Centre of the Moving Image (ACMI) symposium titled Preserving the near future digital preservationon sessions surrounding The Fragile Present & Evaporating Near Future of Time-Based Media and Artists and Preservers in Conversation and Preserving More than Objects. During this symposium, I had the opportunity to chair a session with Keynote speaker, Ben Fino-Radin (Small data Industries), whom I met previously at the 2018 AIC national meeting.
  • Australasian Registrars Conference, Duration and Dimension where I presented: Techno-idiot: the convergence of minds surrounding time-based art and Mission possible, time-based art conservation at Art Gallery of New South Wales. Colleagues, Joey Heinen, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Alexandra Nichols, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Grace T. Weiss, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art also presented at this conference, so it was a great opportunity to discuss all things TBMA in Melbourne Australia.


I want to acknowledge that the specialist engagement and research gathered during this international exchange has strengthened my skills as a new generation professional conservator working with time-based artworks and artists. Perhaps the best news of all is that from 1st July 2018 the position of Time-based media conservator was made a permanent and ongoing role at AGNSW - another Australian first! (I was successful in securing this position).

To further support colleagues working in this field, AGNSW will be organising and hosting a workshop on time-based media art conservation in June 2019 Towards a flexible future: managing time-based media artworks in collections which will invite museum professionals based in Australia, New Zealand and Asia to create a collaborative network from time-based media art conservation.

I would like to express my sincere thanks to the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works and the AIC Electronic Media Group for supporting my professional development, with funding generously provided by Small Data Industries. I would also like to thank the Gordon Darling Foundation, Australia for supporting this incredible professional development opportunity. I would also like to thank my colleagues at the AGNSW for their support and encouragement, namely, Lisa Catt, Assistant Curator, International Art; Ivana Jirasek, Grants Manager; Carolyn Murphy, Head of Conservation; Justin Paton, Head Curator, International Art; Maud Page, Deputy Director; Michael Brand, Director.