PCN Blog: Shelley Smith on Preventive Care for Aluminum Alloys at The Chinati Foundation

By Colleen Grant posted 10-31-2023 14:46


This interview is part of the Preventive Care Network's blog series, which features interviews with conservators and collection care professionals. The stories and insights shared in these interviews highlight the many aspects of collection care and its cross-disciplinary nature. If you have a project or story you'd like to share or know someone we should feature in this series, please contact us at

This edition of the blog is an interview that PCN Secretary/Treasurer Tara Hornung and Editor Wendi Field Murray conducted with Shelley Smith, Conservator at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, TX. It coincides with the PCN column in the November 2023 edition of AIC News, which focuses on the care of tin and aluminum objects to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Preventive Care Network.

Shelley Smith

Can you introduce yourself, tell us a bit about your background? What is your primary role at the Chinati Foundation?

I am Chinati’s Conservator and the head of a department of four persons. I am a graduate of the Queen’s University Art Conservation Program and have worked as an objects conservator since 2003. My conservation experience has included large-scale outdoor sculpture, ethnographic and archaeological objects, decorative arts, furniture, and modern & contemporary sculpture.

I hold a BFA in Jewelry & Metalsmithing from the Alberta College of Art & Design and graduated from Queen’s University in Canada with a Master's Degree in Art Conservation.  I completed post-graduate fellowships at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM), The Getty Museum, The Judd Foundation in New York and Texas, the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, and the Field Museum in Chicago.  I am a Professional Associate in AIC, and have published on innovative treatment techniques that have been cited internationally.

The Chinati Foundation is located on the former site of the Fort D.A. Russell in Marfa, Texas, where Donald Judd permanently installed his 100 untitled works in mill aluminum in two converted artillery sheds. The exhibit site is specific and part of the relationship of the artworks to the architecture and the land. Would you describe the challenges to a preventive conservation program for artworks exhibited in historic structures and bound by a very specific artist intent?

Our buildings are located at the edge of grassland which makes them vulnerable to insect infestations during periods of drought. The buildings are illuminated by natural daylight through single pane glass windows. There are no window coverings. There is no ventilation or HVAC system and no electricity. The buildings have received little work aside from the gutters since Judd altered them in the early 1980s. The windows and roof/gutters leak every time there is rain. The gaskets on the windows (which extend from floor to ceiling) are deteriorated, which means water also comes in through them these days. There is no way to prevent dust, insects, bats, birds, and rodents from entering the structures. The buildings have design flaws and require extensive engineering assessment and restoration work.

What specific challenges do aluminum alloy artworks present in these conditions?

The 100 mill aluminum works are not anodized and as such they are vulnerable to all conditions such as corrosive rainwater dripping from the cast concrete ceiling and through the windows, dust, insect, animal, and bird accretions, and corrosion from fluctuations in relative humidity and temperature. Plastic mats placed under the sculptures to isolate them from the concrete floor are deteriorated and require replacement.

For the permanent exhibit of 100 untitled works in mill aluminumhow do you balance the preservation needs with the restrictions of the artist’s intent?

We perform what I call HVAC-on-legs. The spaces are physically cleaned by conservation department staff as frequently as possible or as needed, for example after severe dust storms.  Rain comes in through the ceiling and windows, while any hail or snow that accumulates outside along the walls of the building has to be removed immediately because it comes in under the windows when it begins to melt. We have prohibited the use of salt for melting snow and hail and will instead close the spaces to guests until the thaw and melt have completed.

The only thing that could be altered in a restoration project would be to improve the way Judd’s added Quonset hut roof intersects at the gutters with the original flat roof of the artillery shed. We cannot make alterations to the appearance of the artillery shed as Judd left it. There are aspects of it that look unfinished, but he never altered them. It’s doubtful that visual improvements would be possible given the lack of complete architectural plans during his lifetime.

The Chinati Foundation is located in the Chihuahuan desert and experiences a semiarid climate with hot summers and cool winters. Situated at 4,685 ft., the diurnal temperature variation in Marfa is substantial due to its elevation and semi-aridity. What risk factors are associated with the far West Texas climate? How do these risk factors manifest themselves when managing the preventive program for a work such as 100 untitled works in mill aluminum?

Flooding, rain, hail, snow, and freeze-thaw cycles are all risk factors, as is extreme heat. The concrete floors and the sculptures themselves retain and emit heat throughout the day. The works physically move with changes in temperature, which can cause structural stress to their fasteners. 

We perform weekly cleaning of the floors and dust the sculptures. About ten years ago this was done monthly but with increased deterioration of the buildings (windows, doors, and roof) we have had to increase the frequency of cleaning the spaces and the sculptures.

Metals are often assumed to be robust materials. Can you talk about the way that you educate your colleagues and the public about the unique vulnerabilities of metal objects?

Prevention is what we focus on the most. Most visitors access our spaces via docent-led tours. Tours are limited to twelve guests, and they are reminded not to touch the works throughout the tour. Our docents receive extensive training in prevention & care and fill out incident reports to immediately report any visitor interaction or changes they observe in the spaces daily. The 100 mill aluminum works have markings from manufacture, from fabrication, and original transport to Marfa, in addition to damage sustained over time from water leaks and visitor interactions. It is not possible to prevent visitors from touching the works because they sit directly on the floor and there are no visual or physical barriers around them. There is an aluminum plate of sheet metal about 12 x 12 inches inside the building at the entrance of the first artillery shed for guests to touch and handle, but handling it is not enough to prevent curious touching of the actual sculptures. Most of this is accidental bumping and innocent curiosity. We ask guests to hold the hands of their children but this isn’t always followed and is not really enforceable. 

Unit 20 North Side of North Shed: Direct overhead leak

Disfiguring marks on the surface of modern metals such as aluminum have been attributed to packing materials, handling, and industrial processing. How do you address the legacy of surface vulnerabilities associated with aluminum alloy artworks in your preventive care program?

About ten years ago a local photographer and conservation assistant photographed all the 100 mill aluminum works. We use these photographs and condition reports to keep track of the artworks’ evolving conditions. This photographic record is invaluable and essential to keeping track of changes. The photographs provide a visual catalogue of old vs. new damage and can help to differentiate between damage acquired from metal production, fabrication by Lippincott, transport to Marfa, and subsequent damage from improper cleaning or visitor and animal interaction.

The works have been cared for by conservators at Chinati since 2003. Before that they were cleaned by Judd’s untrained staff for more than twenty years, using methods and materials that were not appropriate. It is not possible to precisely gauge the effects of that cleaning on the sculptures’ condition, but we can keep track of what we do now and continuously monitor its impact on the artworks.

What effect does anodization have on the long-term preservation of aluminum artworks?

Unlike other works by Donald Judd that have anodizing, the 100 untitled works in mill aluminum do not. Anodizing would have provided a harder, more uniform protective surface.  

What are the unique challenges of preserving works made of aluminum in the Modern Art context?

Conveying how vulnerable they are and that any damage sustained is irreversible and permanent. People think of tin cans and aircraft when they think of aluminum. Respect for the material is a difficult hurdle. Unmitigated climate inside the buildings will hasten their deterioration. Modifying the structures is a potential solution, but will not happen unless the sentiment of leaving conditions exactly as the artist left them changes in the future.

 If you enjoyed this post, check out PCN's other most recent blog, an interview with Lisa Young on Preventive Care for Aluminum Alloys at NASM.