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The Hirshhorn Artist Interview Program: Capturing the Contemporary

Posted on January 27, 2014 by in The OFI Blog



 Steven O’Banion is a Smithsonian Conservation Fellow at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and writes about the new Artist Interview Program

It has become globally recognized that artist interviews are an essential component in the conservation of modern and contemporary artworks. Artists continue to push boundaries by exploring unconventional materials and fabrication techniques. Further complications have arisen with the advent of installation and conceptual art. Communication with the artist is often necessary to elucidate not just how a work was made but also which components or qualities are central to its meaning, thus requiring preservation.

Steven O’Banion received a Smithsonian Conservation Fellowship to launch an Artist Interview Program at the Hirshhorn Museum.  While primarily driven from a preservation perspective, the Artist Interview Program is a museum-wide initiative with the goal of generating systematic face-to-face dialogues with artists. These sessions are recorded and then made available to staff, scholars, and the public.  A committee, comprised of members from the Hirshhorn’s conservation, curatorial, education, and exhibits departments, was formed to steer the program.  The committee then produced criteria for prioritizing artists to interview.   Participants are limited to artists (and those associated with artists) represented in the Hirshhorn’s collection, with special attention given to artists who are advanced in age or local to the Washington, DC area.  Further, there are several points in an artwork’s life when it garners the attention of everyone in a museum.  Examples of these junctures include acquisition, loan and installation.  The Hirshhorn utilizes each of these key moments as an impetus for artist interviews.

The staff that conducts the interviews varies on a case-by-case basis, taking into account familiarity with specific works, areas of art historical expertise, and personal relationships. This interdisciplinary collaboration, whether in conducting the interviews or preparing questions, has led to fruitful conversations.   Whenever possible, the interviews are recorded either at the artist’s studio or in the museum with the works being discussed at hand.

A minimal investment in recording equipment was necessary, as DSLR cameras and lights already used for photo documentation in the conservation lab could serve a dual purpose.  The bulk of equipment purchased for the program consisted of audio-recording equipment, which has been essential for interviews conducted in a gallery or at an artist’s studio.  Once recorded, the transcripts of the interviews, as well as the edited and unedited audio and video files, are archived.  To complete the archival process, the Hirshhorn is collaborating with Crystal Sanchez of the Smithsonian’s Office of the Chief Information Officer, which oversees the Digital Asset Management System (DAMS).  The DAMS is the Smithsonian’s internal, long-term digital asset repository that is designed to store and preserve high-resolution files.

Initial participants in the Hirshhorn Artist interview Program include Vito Acconci, Christo, Kota Ezawa, Ann Hamilton, Maggie Michael, Dan Steinhilber, and Andrea Way.  The interviews provide insight into the artists’ working methods and materials, attitudes toward proper installation and display, and views on preservation strategies.  The interviews also serve the valuable educational function of allowing Museum educators to use the recordings as training and teaching tools for interpretive gallery guides.  Additionally, video clips from the interviews are accessible to the public via the recently-updated Hirshhorn Conservation webpage: http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu/collection/home/#collection=artist-interview-program.