2018-02-22 - MOCA LA

Holding the Public’s Interest: The Show of Art Conservation

Ruth Osborne
2018-02-22 - Jackson Pollock Number 1, 1949 MOCA LA

Jackson Pollock Number 1, 1949 (1949). Enamel and metallic paint on canvas. Courtesy: MOCA LA

We reported a few years ago on the well-publicized (and well-sponsored) treatment of large canvases by Jackson Pollock from the MoMA (NYC) and Seattle Art Museum collections.  These were Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950, and his Sea Change (1947), respectively.

In the case of the SAM restoration, it was asserted this work was in “danger of degeneration” – though no detailed evidence of this was made known to the public nor to reporters. However, keep in mind that when treatment of major works of art for large sums of money are publicly announced or publicly performed, this encourages the science of art conservation to be turned into a sort of strange fishbowl curiosity show. The conservator must work to produce dramatic, noticeably different results on the canvas so as to prove to passersby that their months of work and the funding behind these long-term treatments, is worth it. Sometimes, such treatment is not even considered necessary enough for a collection – yes, even one as large as MoMA – if a corporate sponsor does not step in.

This month, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Los Angeles is to begin a six-month long cleaning treatment of Pollock’s Number 1, 1949 in an open gallery space at their downtown location on Grand Avenue. As per the above expectations of a the now-popular public conservation spectacle, the conservator for this project, imported from the Getty Conservation nstitute, is planned to be on hand during set times to answer questions from public at specific time slots. According to the GCI’s head of science, Tom Learner, the public needs to be shown through this process that art conservation science is fascinating and exciting, producing tangible results and making an impactful discovery:

Conservation is not always the most dramatic thing to watch – we have to figure out how to make it as fascinating as possible.

However, Learner has also said that the condition of this Pollock painting is “good for its size” and is simply being conserved because “it looks a little dull.” Then is an investigative six-month treatment going to truly help the painting itself? Or is it being undertaken half to brighten up a work that’s “a little dull”, and half to make an appeal to the public that the institution has some new entertainment for them?



Abbie Vandivere, Girl with a Pearl Earring‘s conservator at the Mauritshuis. Image: Ivo Hoekstra, courtesy of the Mauritshuis, The Hague.

The recently-announced Mauritshuis exhibition of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is completely conservation-focused and reliant on the work of the conservator as a type of discovery T.V. series called “Girl in the Spotlight”. Daily updates with the conservator leading the team’s testing of each layer of the work are being broadcast as daily “episodes”.


Bank of America doesn’t publicly list amounts given for individual project grants. So we reached out to them for approximate amounts granted each year in total for projects, just to see how these might figure into a museum like the MoMA’s typical budget for conservation. We were told they do not disclose these amounts. Nor do the recipients of the grant monies. But just to give you a sense of how costly major conservation treatments can be, the Getty Conservation Institute’s FY2016 public budget report shows that $1,011,000+ was given to other institutions across just 8 grants. That’s an average of about $126,000 per conservation treatment.


As journalist Tyler Green of “Modern Art Notes” wrote in 2011, art conservation labs on view in museums have turned this work into a spectator sport. Is it to make a greater effort to convince the public of the value of this costly work? Costly, mind you, for both the museum’s budget (or for its corporate or private sponsor), as well as for the surface of the work being poked, daubed, and overpainted. How does this display force the work of art conservation into the face of the museum or gallery visitor in a way that conflates the difference between caring for art and using it to convince ticket-buyers of an art museum’s appeal? Consider this the next time you see announcement of a conservation treatment on display.

2013-10-15 - MoMA conservator Jennifer Hick Pollock Number 1A 1948

Update: Pollock Restorations at MoMA Draw to a Close & Corporate America Steps In

Ruth Osborne
2013-10-15 - MoMA conservators Jackson Pollock One Number 31

Conservators at MoMA laying down Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950.

Last December, ArtWatch posted on three major works by Jackson Pollock then undergoing restoration at MoMA and the Seattle Museum of Art.

This was not to be the first time these canvases had been under a restorer’s hand; Sea Change (1947) was varnished in 1970,[1] One (1950) underwent overpainting in the 1960s[2], and Echo (1951) has experienced yellowing over the decades.[3] The museums’ conservators set out to remove the poorly-executed treatments of decades past and bring the canvases back to their original state in Pollock’s studio.

While One and Echo have completed their treatments and are now on view, work at MoMA has recently begun on Number 1A, 1948. This work of Pollock’s comes with a “condition and treatment history” that is “arguably the most complex” of all three.[4] According to Museum records, the last major conservation in 1959 attempted to restore the canvas from “heat and smoke exposure” as a result of a fire in the galleries the year before. MoMA admits this treatment in ‘59 has now resulted in the painting’s discolored and disfigured appearance today.[5] However, current treatment on Number 1A, 1948 would not have been able to continue without generous funding from the Bank of America’s Global Art Conservation Project.

Coddington states in a video on the project posted on the Forbes website, that MoMA would likely not have undergone treatment for Number1A if Bank of America had not stepped in with funding. The endeavor originally began as an in-house conservation project (see Einav Zamir’s November 2012 post). And yet, the Bank’s Conservation Project website proudly lists all three Pollocks at MoMA among those fortunate enough to have received funding this year. All three.

2013-10-15 - MoMA conservator Jennifer Hick Pollock Number 1A 1948

Jennifer Hick, MoMA Conservator, at work on Number 1A, 1948. Courtesy: Forbes / Will Sanderson.

A recent Forbes article, aptly titled “How Bank of America Uses Fine Art to Make You Like Them,” takes an curious and criticizing eye to Bank of America’s involvement in the process: “Surveys have found that customers who say they care about the arts rate the bank higher in terms of satisfaction.”[6] As ArtWatch pointed out in a post last month, ulterior motives often behind restoration treatments are simple painted over with a thin layer of support for the arts. These corporate funding projects are not in existence for the benefit of the works of art themselves. As Zamir points out, it is not unthinkable that pieces are selected for their high profile status in order to gain more press coverage.  What need was there to suddenly begin restorations on Pollock’s oeuvre? To use the artist’s name as a branding tool to sell the charitable façade of public corporations.

[1] “Pollack Restoration at Seattle Museum of Art is Coming Along,” Nov. 28, 2012. AFA News. (last visited 15 October 2013).

[2] James Coddington and Jennifer Hickey, “MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Conservation Project: Wrapping Up Treatment of One: Number 31, 1950.” May 29, 2013. MoMA INSIDE/OUT. (last visited 15 October 2013).

[3] Hickey, “MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Conservation Project, Post 3: Documentation and Treatment.” 2 October 2011. MoMA INSIDE/OUT. (last visited 15 October 2013).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Hickey and Coddington, “MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Conservation Project: Number 1A, 1948,” 18 July 2013. MoMA INSIDE/OUT. (last visited 15 October 2013).

[6] Samantha Sharf, “Jackson Pollock Brand Ambassador? How Bank of America Uses Fine Art to Make You Like Them,” 8 October 2013. Forbes. (last visited 15 October 2013).

2012-12-21 - MoMA Conservation Lab

Restoring Pollock: Making Modern New at MoMA and SAM

Einav Zamir
2012-12-21 - Jackson Pollock One Number 31 1950 Echo MoMA Conservation Lab

“One: Number 31, 1950” and “Echo” in the MoMA conservation lab. Courtesy: MoMA.

In the wake of extensive media coverage concerning a restoration purposed by the Seattle Art Museum of Jackson Pollock’s Sea Change, the 1947 groundbreaking work exploring the drip technique that would later define his career, it was brought to our attention that the Museum of Modern Art in New York is currently restoring their One: Number 31, 1950, a seminal piece in the museum’s collection.

Unlike SAM’s project, the cleaning has not received much mention in media outlets beyond the steady posts James Coddington, Chief Conservator, and his team have produced for MoMA’s blog, Inside/Out. The disparity of coverage between these two parallel events may have more to do with funding than the overall importance of the objects in question. While the Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project – an international program that offers grants to collections in order to restore works that are deemed in “danger of degeneration,” – is funding the project in Seattle, the backing for MoMA’s One: Number 31 is strictly an in-house, MOMA enterprise. Whether or not Sea Change is truly in danger of degeneration might be considered questionable – with the piece perhaps having been chosen as much for its high profile as its overall state of preservation. Certainly, no clear evidence of imminent disintegration has been produced. Whichever, the result of the grant will likely be two-fold. On the one hand, any alterations made to Sea Change will be highly publicized, and therefore open to scrutiny. On the other hand, there may be a greater temptation during treatment to produce a dramatic headline-worthy, high funds-justifying result, in which case a more drastic cleaning may follow.

2012-12-21 - James Coddington MoMA Jackson Pollock Number One

James Coddington beginning conservation work on “One: Number 31, 1950”. Courtesy: NYTimes.

Conversely, MoMA’s project results from their 1998 Pollock retrospective, which was the first time One: Number 31 was displayed alongside an extensive body of material housed in various collections. The exercise showed that these paintings were in varying states of preservation. In particular, Pollock’s Echo: Number 25, 1951, according to Coddington, had yellowed considerably from its original state, and was in need of cleaning. However, what makes the restorations of Sea Change and One: Number 31 worth studying, beyond the various differences in approach that are bound to appear in the coming months, is the issue of re-touching. Concerning Sea Change, Art Daily reports that “the conservation treatment focuses on removing the later restoration in order to recover a surface that more closely reflects Pollock’s original technique and intent.” In doing so, the team from Seattle plans to strip the varnish applied by a conservator in 1970. Similarly, the MoMA conservation team determined that several areas of One: Number 31 contained traces of compositionally dissimilar paint, added at a later point to cover cracks that had appeared in the surface. One: Number 31 was evidently retouched sometime in the mid-60s, prior to its arrival at MoMA in 1968. Whether these areas should be removed at all is debatable. If we are to assume that the retouching had been carried out during a previous restoration, then their removal could be seen as a way by which Coddington can undo the mistakes of former practitioners. However, if these re-touchings were done by some other party, either connected to Pollock himself or one of the previous owners, then we must consider whether or not these additions have become part of the history of the piece itself, and that in removing them, we lose something of this history.

2012-12-21 - Jennifer Hickey conservator Jackson Pollack One MoMA Conservation Lab

Jennifer Hickey, Project Assistant Conservator, examining “One: Number 31, 1950”. Courtesy: MoMA.

In short, as these areas are removed and the restorations of One: Number 31 and Sea Change continue, we are forced to take another look at established classics. Perhaps this second look will bring us closer to Pollock’s original vision, though we may possibly find ourselves further away from what he and his work have come to be.

For more information regarding MoMA’s restoration process, please visit: