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Call the tech squad

Video and new-media art requires careful conservation. Two California organizations are stepping forward to meet the challenge.

July 09, 2006|Tyler Green | Special to The Times

San Francisco — IN the late 1980s, Pamela Kramlich saw a work of video art by Peter Fischli and David Weiss titled "The Way Things Go." The 30-minute piece shows a perpetual-motion machine built by the artists: A car propelled by a kind of firecracker bumps into a bowling ball, which hits a piece of cardboard, which somehow leads to the ignition of a flammable substance in a saucepot -- and on and on.

Kramlich loved it. So she and her husband, venture capitalist Richard Kramlich, bought it for $350, their first video art purchase. "I started showing it at dinner parties," Pamela Kramlich says. "People loved it. Especially young people. I said to Dick, 'We should do more of this.' "

They have. The Kramlichs' video and new-media art collection now numbers about 300 works -- which has led the couple to consider some problems: How should they conserve this art? How could they ensure that the technologies on which it is shown don't become so outdated that someday the work might not be viewable?

In Southern California, the Long Beach Museum of Art had long been home to one of the world's richest archives of early video works: 492 boxes filled with more than 3,000 tapes and archival documents. It too was facing a set of problems -- problems remarkably similar to those the Kramlichs were considering.

Independently, the couple and the museum settled on entirely different solutions: The Kramlichs formed a nonprofit devoted to the preservation and conservation of video and new-media works and to forging key ties with major museums. Called the New Art Trust, the San Francisco-based organization also owns a portion of the Kramlichs' media art collection.

The Long Beach museum took another approach: It transferred its early video collection to the far-better-equipped Getty Research Institute, which is cataloging and conserving it. According to the Getty, it will also eventually exhibit the work.

Although disparate and organizationally unrelated, the New Art Trust and the Getty nonetheless are creating a West Coast locus for video and new-media works. Combined, their holdings span the history of video art in America. Perhaps more important, their efforts show promise not only for setting the museum-world standard for conserving fragile video and new-media works but also for making the art available to the widest possible audience.

"All in all, I think California has probably the greatest concentration of video in the country," says David Ross, who as a curator in the mid-1970s built the Long Beach Museum's video art collection. Later, as director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Ross helped expand that institution's focus on new-media work.

Christopher Eamon, director of the New Art Trust (and its only staff member), maintains that institutionally, California has "the highest concentration of media art anywhere -- I think it already is in terms of museums. SFMOMA is one of the leaders, certainly almost as much as Tate" in Britain.

The New Art Trust

THE New Art Trust has one of the most powerful boards of trustees in the art world. In addition to the Kramlichs and Judy Holme Agnew, director of the Bay Area Video Coalition, the trust's board includes Neal Benezra, director of SFMOMA; Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and Nicholas Serota, director of London's Tate museums.

"The trust serves as a forum for these three great museums, whose impact is almost impossible to calculate," Ross says. "The trust helps them take seriously their stewardship of new media."

The museums, in turn, take notice and participate in the trust in part because the Kramlichs have such a high-profile collection, including major works by Gary Hill, Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman and Bill Viola as well as all five of Matthew Barney's "Cremaster" films.

By bringing the museums together and "dangling these carrots out there of long-term gifts and support," Ross says, "the Kramlichs have created a level of awareness of media art in these three museums that might not have existed."

Since its inception in 1997, the trust has participated, with the museums, in a range of activities aimed at preserving and conserving video and other new-media works considered to have artistic, historical or social significance, Eamon says. In partnership with SFMOMA, MoMA and Tate, it has worked to establish "best-practice" guidelines for the art, with a goal of having other institutions follow the trust's lead. Staff members at the museums participate via trust-funded collaborations.

That effort, publicized through a Tate-sponsored website called Media Matters (www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/majorprojects/mediamatters), has created standards for museums and private collectors relating not just to care and handling but also to the loan process. According to the site, the project "aims to raise awareness of the requirements of these works and to provide a practical response to the need for international agreement among museums."

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