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SFMOMA announces The Artist Initiative, supported by $1.75 million grant
[L-R] Ellsworth Kelly and Gary Garrels, SFMOMA’s Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture; photo: courtesy SFMOMA.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art announced today the launch of The Artist Initiative, a long-term project that will involve deep collaborations with living artists and put their voices at the center of a more integrated, evolving approach to conservation and collections research.

Funded by a $1.75 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the initiative will begin immediately with five investigations into distinct areas of SFMOMA’s collection—from the exceptionally deep holdings of work by Ellsworth Kelly to continually changing media installations by artists such as Julia Scher—and share new findings about these artworks with both scholars and the public.

The initiative will also activate state-of-the-art conservation studios in SFMOMA’s 235,000-square-foot expansion when it opens in early 2016. Until then, the project will make increased use of the museum’s new off-site collections research facility, already in operation.

“As we envision the museum’s future, we are designing spaces and programs for an expanded institution that will bring artists’ perspectives to bear on every aspect of who we are and how we serve our audiences,” said SFMOMA director Neal Benezra. “We are grateful for this critical support from the Mellon Foundation, which will provide the public with a new window on our collection and ensure broad and meaningful impact on the wider field.”

The Artist Initiative will be led by Jill Sterrett, director of collections and conservation at SFMOMA, and will build on SFMOMA’s long-standing commitment to working closely with living artists to shape its programming and collecting activities. Projects will be structured around intensive engagements with artists represented in the collection (see below), and will serve all curatorial departments—photography, painting and sculpture, media arts, and architecture and design.

“Traditionally thought of as a solitary pursuit in backrooms of museums, art conservation is rapidly emerging as a collaborative and relationship-based practice in the museum of the 21st century,” said Sterrett. “As art making has grown from an individual endeavor to comprise more collaborative or shared experiences, so too has conservation, engaging many disciplines within the museum. An ever-growing array of unorthodox artist materials—ranging from food to the internet—adds to the demand for a corollary shift in thinking from museums.”

As a direct response to the dynamic and changing nature of contemporary art, The Artist Initiative will:

• Increase collaboration between conservators and curators through joint work with artists

• Advance SFMOMA’s field-leading expertise in documenting artists’ methods and add to its resource bank of knowledge about contemporary art practice

• Share research broadly with the museum community through peer colloquiums with leading art historians and field professionals, and surface findings for the public through SFMOMA’s web publishing platforms and ultimately through enriched in-gallery experiences.

“Artists have historically had foundational relationships with art museums, but that mutually beneficial involvement waned in the course of the 20th century,” said Mariët Westermann, Vice President of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “The Artist Initiative recognizes that artists have vital stakes in the display and conservation of their works, and we hope that it will restore the flow of ideas from the studio into the museum and back again.”

Research and artist interviews will initially unfold at SFMOMA’s off-site Collections Center, a new 75,000-square-foot storage and research facility that houses most of the collection in one place for the first time in the museum’s 75-year history, making artworks more accessible to SFMOMA staff, artists, and scholars. To enhance this opportunity for study, the Collections Center also includes a 1,300-square-foot mock-up gallery that functions as a working model of the future museum’s galleries and a venue for viewing works, prototyping presentation formats, and hosting classes and seminars in the presence of installed works of art. When the new museum opens in 2016, The Artist Initiative will also utilize the expanded Elise S. Haas Conservation Studio on the museum’s new seventh and eighth floors, which, nearly double in size, will offer enhanced features to welcome and support artist collaboration.

Program Overview
The Artist Initiative will begin by delving deeply into five areas of SFMOMA’s collection that were selected based on specific strengths and depth of holdings, as well as a confluence of needs around preservation and preparation for future projects.

Photography in the 1970s
Drawing on SFMOMA’s exceptionally deep holdings of American photographs dating from the 1970s (some 4,500 works among the museum’s wider collection of more than 16,000 photographs), this research project will explore the process and material of photographers working at a time not only of great political and social upheaval, but when photography changed altogether with the advent of commercially available color film. In addition to the proliferation of color, the introduction of resin-coated papers and other experimental techniques from this era present complicated questions of longevity for museums collecting photography. The Artist Initiative will engage a range of artists, photography scientists, and leading scholars to explore and record their viewpoints in order to help museums tell the story of 1970s American photography in its full depth and diversity.

The Art of Ellsworth Kelly
The deep representation of paintings, sculpture, and works on paper by Ellsworth Kelly in SFMOMA’s collection spans more than five decades of the artist’s career, allowing the museum to present the breadth and richness of his work on a scale unparalleled worldwide. As SFMOMA prepares to display Kelly’s work with the museum’s 2016 reopening, The Artist Initiative will further an already well-established relationship with Kelly and his studio through sustained study of his technique and his use of color, his perspective on the aging of his works’ surfaces, and his highly individual approach to gallery installation. A key goal is to develop a long-term strategy for treatment of this signature collection at SFMOMA that both addresses Kelly’s point of view and yields untold stories that will help audiences connect with his art in the museum’s galleries and online.

Up Close with Vija Celmins
Known for a remarkably subtle body of work that includes depictions of natural phenomena such as sand patterns, ocean waves, and starry skies, Vija Celmins painstakingly translates photorealistic detail into her work, often laboring over a piece for months. This project will allow a cross-disciplinary team at the museum to study Celmins’s methodology in all her mediums—painting, drawing, print-making, sculpture—and also to explore her practice as representative of that of artists for whom the meticulous process of making and dedication to material are essential to an understanding of their art. Through The Artist Initiative, SFMOMA will document Celmins’s studio practice in order to craft an interpretation of her work that begins at the artist’s hand. The project also aims to advance critical discourse around her work and forge new and better ways to illuminate an artist’s process for viewers.

Julia Scher’s Predictive Engineering
A surveillance-based installation, Julia Scher’s Predictive Engineering (1993–98) responds to the museum’s architecture and depends on visitor movement in real time. It was conceived for SFMOMA’s original Van Ness building in 1993, then adapted by the artist for the museum’s Mario Botta‒designed building in 1998 to include new web components and a “time-capsule” element of the previous version. In many ways, the work exemplifies the challenges specific to time-based artworks that either materially change over time due to advancing technology or otherwise ask museums to interpret a given set of instructions with each installation. Through The Artist Initiative, Scher will restage Predictive Engineering for both the expanded building and the technology landscape of 2016. Along the way, SFMOMA will map an instructive history of changes in the work since the 1990s and develop new web-based documentation models for complex, evolving artworks that will benefit the entire media arts collection.

Bay Area High-Tech Design
SFMOMA’s Department of Architecture and Design has been tracking the evolution of consumer electronic design since 1988, with a third of its holdings in this area originating from the region’s innovative tech sector. As design practice shifts focus away from the object and toward the experience—e.g., live maps and other “quantified self/life” products—a number of new concerns have emerged for museums collecting high-tech design, including the hardware/software divide, rapid evolution of media, and limitations of traditional exhibition formats. This engagement will investigate how best to collect and present 20th- and 21st-century consumer electronics through dialogue with design luminaries in the Bay Area community. Given SFMOMA’s proximity to Silicon Valley and historic commitment to collecting Bay Area design, the museum is uniquely positioned to lead the field in developing thoughtful modes of collecting that are as innovative as the designers themselves.

Legacy of Progressive Conservation Practices
Walter and Elise Haas provided founding support to establish SFMOMA’s Elise S. Haas Conservation Studio in the 1970s, and the museum has been at the forefront of addressing the growing shift in contemporary conservation strategies since then, most notably in four areas:

• Collaborative artist research resulting in award-winning print and online scholarly publications (e.g., Eva Hesse, 2002; Richard Tuttle, 2005; and, made possible through a Getty Foundation grant, the Rauschenberg Research Project, 2013, which continues SFMOMA’s pioneering use of technology as its first online collections catalogue)

• An internationally acclaimed postgraduate fellowship curriculum in the conservation of contemporary art, a training program that has been in operation for over ten years and is one of the only advanced-level fellowships in contemporary art conservation in the world

• An award-winning artist interview program with audio and video documentation that provides primary source material

• And the creation of an Artist Materials Archive, a comprehensive, searchable library of some 300 pieces of artist material related to works in the collection, such as Katharina Fritsch’s meticulously prepared pigments, Jay DeFeo’s painting trowel, reconstructed mock-ups of Eva Hesse’s rubber and resin sculptures, re-created installations by Richard Tuttle, and test samples of native Norwegian moss for a living wall by Olafur Eliasson.

The Artist Initiative builds on this foundational history, while formally uniting these and other new museum strategies under one cross-departmental umbrella.

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