1MVB : Véronique Sorano-Stedman, you have now directed the CNAM-Centre Pompidou Department of Conservation-Restoration for nearly 5 years. You work in an institution with a concept and architecture designed as a crossroads rather than a showcase for art. What does the term interrelation suggest to you?
2Véronique Sorano-Stedman: The term interrelation always resonates strongly in the field of art and culture and all the more in the current context. The development of global communication networks, the media and new IT tools have extended the domain of these exchanges. In the past, artists' travels served as a rite of passage to discover and understand the "elsewhere". Stylistic influences therefore took mysterious pathways from one civilization to another. By studying art history we follow the labyrinths of the evolution of forms, and discover sometimes unexpected links between cultures distant in space and time. Travel has a different meaning today as movement has accelerated. Artists absorb the art of the past through a destruction/reconstruction process. The relation with the cultural legacy is more allusive and involves quotation rather than transmission. Past techniques and skills have disappeared enabling art to evolve by using new means of expression. Conservators must adapt to these new forms and develop the skills needed for their new tasks. Their primary role is to ensure the transmission of art objects and this presupposes a capacity to relate to works of art, artists and their environment
3MVB : Are the conservator-restorers at the National Museum of Modern Art, Centre Georges Pompidou, frequently called upon to work collaboratively?
4VS-S: As today's artists use increasingly sophisticated means of expression and the link between the material structure of a work of art and its meaning has become increasingly complex and subject to interpretation, it is essential to create the conditions for dialogue before any intervention. It is essential not to betray with good intentions, in particular in the case of ephemeral or physically changing works of art or conceptual art where the notion of restoration may seem paradoxical.
5 Moreover, a new player has emerged, the artist's assistant, who is usually the custodian of the artist's intentions and sometimes the physical perpetrator of his/her works. The assistant is very often the preferred partner with whom curators and conservators may seek the information needed for a more accurate understanding of a work.
6The main task of the restoration department at the Centre Pompidou is to conduct scientific and sanitary monitoring of the collection. This applies to different areas: to acquisitions where the problem is to anticipate the future physical deterioration of the works offered or proposed for purchase and any constraints for their satisfactory conservation and to loan requests which involve an assessment of the impact of transport and a search for ways to minimize the effects of transit. Finally, restoration interventions themselves, often no longer involve conventional treatments and require the development of special skills and collaboration with consultant scientists and laboratories. The Pompidou Centre has an in-house team which is a prerequisite for the long-term care of the collection and to anticipate problems related to the deterioration of certain materials or the obsolescence of certain components (electromechanical or luminous works for example). This integration of restorers also allows direct collaboration with conservation assistants who ensure the technical documentation and establish links with artists or galleries. This dynamic interrelation provides the best guarantee of a complete understanding of works that are difficult to decipher, reproduce, interpret or adapt to the museum context (installations and conceptual works).
7In addition, the presence of a dedicated restoration department is essential to promote synergy and complementary inputs of information and ensure the effectiveness of the preventive conservation measures implemented. It allows the institution to develop a restoration policy based on a hierarchy of needs or precise technical criteria and assess the feasibility of delicate interventions by carrying out research. The department at the Pompidou Centre, composed of ten specialist restorers in several disciplines, does not have its own laboratory, which is why we sometimes use the C2RMF (Research and Restoration Laboratory of the Museums of France).
8MVB : Can the Barnett Newman restoration campaign be regarded as exemplary in this regard?
9VS-S: The recent restoration of the work of Barnett Newman, "Shining Forth", is therefore an example of the collaboration required to perform an innovative restoration operation. This work, which was damaged in an accident and has also deteriorated because of the painting technique itself, has been presented to the public again after more than twenty years' absence. Since it was damaged in 1990, numerous experts have gathered around to examine it, generating many exchanges between specialist restorers. Recent research in cleaning methods made it possible to envisage a new approach that has now been successfully implemented. This restoration is the result of collaboration with the American scientist, Richard Wolbers and a C2RMF chemist, Nathalie Balca and could not have been performed in an institution without its team of restorers. These internal skills were essential to perform a risk assessment, make decisions and choose the type of treatment; the absence of any specific timeframe would have been incompatible with a public contract.
10MVB : What factors hinder these exchanges? What factors promote them?
11VS-S: The Pompidou Centre department of restoration lacks partners in France since very few museums have an equivalent facility. French research in conservation-restoration lags behind that of other European countries. In Canada, Australia or the United States, sponsor foundations fund this research. Some progress has been made now that training courses encourage French students to pursue their research as graduate students working on European funded projects, usually outside France. This progress however is considerably hindered by the fact that the National Heritage Institute which provides training under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Communication, trains both curators who will occupy administrative posts and restorers who will be left to themselves in isolation with freelance status, in a competitive setting without any research opportunities since they will be subject to the rules of a public market and will not have the facilities or tools provided by collections, laboratories and other structures. As long as the need to integrate restorers and better involve them in the management of public collections in order to develop applied research and apply consistent professional ethics has not been understood, one cannot hope for any real progress, except to cling to foreign driving forces.
12Besides the problem of research, this absence of any fixed posts in a profession at the service of our cultural heritage has other repercussions. One problem too seldom mentioned is the absence of internal technical competence when awarding contracts, both during the analysis of tenders and when drafting contract specifications. Another drawback is the lack of an informed and impartial evaluation by an "in-house restorer" for the assessment of results and monitoring of interventions. In other words, professional conservator-restorers are not judged by their peers during their interventions and the analysis of their work by contrators is therefore subjective. The forced exchanges between professionals working together in museums, when they take place, are usually devoid of any critical dimension, since the context of the activity is competitive. Dialogue with competitors is difficult and ambiguous. Material issues also come into play: independent restorers who must practice their profession and earn their living are not in a position to pursue research at their own expense without a partner laboratory. There is no guarantee that when restorers propose a treatment, this is not dictated by a lack of awareness of alternatives, a personal preference or a legitimate concern to comply with demands.
13MVB : Is the work of the department of conservation-restoration at the National Museum of Modern Art Centre Georges Pompidou visible to the public?
15VS-S: The Pompidou Centre restoration department, like other similar departments, is out of the public eye as this profession does not have the vocation to be on display. There is however a real fascination for this behind-the-scene profession and the technical procedures performed on works of art. Some interventions have therefore been performed in public. The Orsay Museum recently undertook the public restoration of Gustave Courbet's "The Painter's Studio". The curtain designed by Picasso for the Russian ballet Parade was exhibited on two occasions during major revisions, first in the forum in 1987 and then in the south gallery in 2013. These spectacular interventions were primarily the pretext for providing sponsors with a necessary education. However, this communication is far from satisfactory in many museums, as popularisation has its limits when explaining technical matters and because it is often provided by art collection supervisors rather than restorers. Everything mentioned above has undermined confidence in the practitioner and created doubt not only about restoration practices but also about the need for any intervention at all. Consequently, restorations of classic masterpieces (the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes or The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne by Leonardo da Vinci to name but a few) still have a sour scent of scandal and provoke controversy symptomatic of a deep technical ignorance of the subject. Recently a newspaper mentioned the current restoration of da Vinci's "La Belle Ferronnière," in a few lines. The conservator had asked for a moderate cleaning of the varnish as this masked the"defect" of a too strong red on the lower part of the figure's face. This red is what is called reflected light in classical painting due to the reflection of the colour of the dress. Far from being, as the article suggests, an error of a great artist, this detail is a reality knowingly translated by the painter and to be respected. A drift in language? Inaccurate interpretation? The messages given to the media are often confused. In the case of the restoration of the Barnett Newman, it was decided to install simple and accurate direct communication because of the close relationship between the director and the departments in which restoration forms an integral part.
16MVB : Do you think conservators have a role to play in raising awareness about cultural heritage and contemporary art?
17 VS-S: It seems to me that although the dissemination of modern and contemporary art is one of the major roles of curators, art historians and gallery owners, conservation-restoration specialists can play a moderator role, both by helping artists in their practice with the choice of materials and by making predictions about durability to collection supervisors. A reflection about the durability of art has recently begun and this will become more acute in future as many works are destined to disappear. Self-destruction, irreversible ageing and obsolescence are very real threats that seem incompatible with the objectives of conservation . This interrelation between creators and the custodians of cultural heritage that we have discussed here, must be very closely maintained by professional conservator-restorers, and this profession which is a vital link in the chain, should be given its true place in institutions.