Acquiring ephemeral works

Ethics case studies
Dilemma:

A museum that collects contemporary art is considering purchasing one of Janine Antoni’s chocolate self-portraits, made by gnawing.

The curator and conservator understand that the work is ephemeral. Antoni is willing to make a replica when the museum is longer able to exhibit the original. Should the acquisitions committee authorise the purchase?

Response:

In many ways, this issue goes to the heart of what it means for a museum or gallery to have a collection. Traditionally, we have thought about museum collections as being permanent – a way of preserving items and artworks in perpetuity. The taxonomic approach continues to have value for collections of physical items and artworks. Yet ephemeral objects do not fit easily into the same mould.

Clearly, a museum or gallery should only collect such objects if this is specified in the organisation’s collections development policy. Ideally, this would also set out the specific approach that the gallery will take towards ephemeral works.

This would be in accordance with the Code of Ethics, which states that museums should: “Collect according to detailed, published and regularly reviewed policies that state clearly what, how and why the museum collects.” (Para 2.2).

There is nevertheless an issue about whether an ephemeral artwork belongs in the museum or gallery, and whether or not this is separate from the intellectual property relating to that artwork.

The acquisitions committee will need to consider whether it is desirable to own a piece of art that is temporary. How would this purchase benefit the current audience? And how would it benefit future audiences?

The Code of Ethics states that museums should: “Balance the museum’s role in safeguarding items for the benefit of future audiences with its obligation to optimise access for present audiences.” (Para 2.1).

In the context of ephemeral artworks, this balance is skewed inherently towards the present audience, given the difficulties of long-term preservation. But it is certainly not unethical to acquire such a work, provided that this is within the scope of the organisation’s collections development policy.

Indeed, in the case of Janine Antoni and many other contemporary artists, their work is intended to be temporary. The museums or gallery acquisitions committee is likely to place artistic value in the temporary nature of the work, but may also seek to preserve the work or the memory of the work for future generations through the replica on offer and/or through other possible documentation of the work.

It is good practice when acquiring such a work to consult the artist, conservators and curators from the beginning of the process to ensure that the correct procedures are put in place for any preservation efforts, and to ensure that there is clarity around any transfer of intellectual property rights to the museum or gallery.

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