Besides the names of the artists, the visitors of an exhibition also know the name of the curator. What most visitor’s don’t know, is that behind every exhibition stands a big team that prepares the exhibition. This includes exhibition managers, registrars, and collection managers. On the occasion of the ERC – European Registrars Conference – that takes place in Vienna for the first time from June 8th through June 10th, 2016, we have interviewed Werner Sommer – Head of Depository of the Belvedere. In an interview with Sabrina Möller, and Valentina Marterer, he speaks about his profession’s complexities.
You are the administrative director of the Belvedere collection, a position invisible to the visitors. Collection administration may sound quite bureaucratic and monotonous at first. However, the job profile is actually very complex. Could you give us an overview?
Collection administration is something that has to do with all areas of a museum. The still growing Belvedere Collection has the imperial collection as its base. Though it mainly belongs to the 19th century, some pieces are much older. The administrative task is therefore quite complex. Besides organizing shows at the Belvedere, we also regularly loan works to other institutions.
We also need to take care of damages that could not be anticipated. To give you an example, an hour ago I got a phone call from an institution that we loaned some of our works to. One painting accidentally fell off the wall. The work is now damaged and needs professional care. This is part of our job: together with the restorers, we coordinate the next steps and deal with the insurance.
You describe the worst-case scenario of art loans. How do you deal with such situations? What are the first steps that need to be taken after you receive the information?
Our first priority is to avoid any further damage. This means that the painting may not be moved. A restorer is going to document the incident and recover all remaining fragments. The next step is to report the incident to the insurance company and to request quotations on the necessary restoration. Once approved by the insurance company, the work is restored to the extent it’s possible. Right now I can’t say much about the current case. I haven’t had a chance to personally inspect the damage but it seems that it mostly concerns the frame. It might be necessary to re-gild it and we may have to replace stucco ornaments. This can easily become costly.
Insurance is essential. An accident can happen any time. How do you decide what value to insure? Do get constant updates regarding market values and auction results? What’s your response to price fluctuations? Does your insurance policy contemplate them?
The insured value is determined by the board or sometimes by the curators in charge. However, insured values are only necessary when works need to be shipped or loaned. Usually, the current market value of a comparable work is used as a reference.
Photo: © eSeL.at
For a professional administration of the collection, and in order to create the conditions necessary for adequate storage, you need to be very knowledgeable regarding the materials. You also need to be able to accurately assess reactions to climatic changes, aging processes, and potential vibrations that might occur during transportation…
Oil on canvas makes up the main part of our collection. There are also works out of wood, metal, and stone. Materials that we’ve had a lot of experience with over the centuries. A bigger challenge is contemporary art. From the twentieth century on, the range of materials used in art has greatly increased. Because of this, we sometimes need to discuss how to handle a certain object. We stand in close collaboration with restorers with a deep knowledge concerning contemporary materials. Quite often, we learn from the art itself. Polymers that eventually disintegrate represent a challenge.
Specifically when it comes to contemporary art: How close is your collaboration with the artists when you have to deal with questions regarding the materials?
It’s not uncommon to approach the artist when a restoration is necessary. After all, our works are owned by the state, and we want to preserve them for eternity. We’re very happy when we’re able to get help from the artist him or herself.
Can you give me an example?
In our collection, we have works by the artist group Gelatin. This group lives in Vienna and that’s quite practical: we can contact them any time. Should there be any problems, we can decide together what to do. That’s the ideal case. But at some point, we all disappear, and even then, we need to be able to preserve the works in our collection as best we can.
What are the criteria that come into play when you decide to acquire a work? Do factors such as longevity or certain storage conditions influence your decision?
There are no set criteria. Of course we need to take the durability of the materials into account. To give you an example, there are works by Dieter Roth that we know would go bad, for instance a work made out of plastic bags filled with fat. The plasticizers only work for a certain amount of time, and once that happens, the content of the bags is going to leak. This is obviously terrible! Whether it’s possible to preserve such works permanently? Probably not. But maybe this wasn’t the artists intention.
Do you check the current state of the works in the collection with a certain periodicity?
There are regular inventories, but it’s impossible to constantly check on thousands of works. We have suspicious candidates that we keep an eye on. Wooden objects for instance, because we’ve had parasite incidents in the past. There are insects that like eating wood. Restorers are trained in this aspect and are able to assess whether a hole in a wooden surface is acute or old. A chocolate doll is also going to be checked more frequently than other works.
The Belvedere is also known for its digital archive which makes the collection accessible to the general public among other things. What are the advantages of this digital visibility?
Digitalization makes sense, not just for the public, but also for investigators. If a curator from abroad is looking for works for a show on Austrian art, he or she doesn’t need to organize hard-to-find catalogues. It’s easy to get an overview. We keep on getting inquiries that show very clearly that the inquirers have already seen our collection online. It’s also interesting for our visitors because only a very small percentage of our large collection can be seen in the museum itself. Most works are in storage.
How do you avoid the abuse of your photographic material?
The Belvedere has a separate department for image rights. The online reproductions are not of high resolution. The image quality is therefore not sufficient to reproduce the works or to include them in a catalogue. To do so, the image rights can be acquired. I think, this is a good compromise. We have agreed to make our data accessible to the public. A certain data size is definitely acceptable.
As administrative director of the collection, to what extent are you involved in the staging of the collection?
As part of the exhibition management, we have five people whose exclusive task is the organization of exhibitions. As administrative director, I mainly support the exhibition manager. It’s very complex to borrow works from abroad and to deal with the legal aspects. We coordinate the works’ transportation and need to make sure not just that everything gets safely to its destination, but also that the costs stay within the budget. Whenever we organize a show with works primarily from our own collection, I organize the transportation of the works from storage to the exhibition rooms.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Objects of previously unknown dimensions or materials always represent a challenge. Two years ago, we presented a huge work by Gelatin at the 21er Haus.
First, we had to transport a 10x10x10m polystyrene cube to the 21er Haus. Afterwards, the artist group spent an entire week working on the cube in the exhibition room: they dug holes into the cube and then filled them with plaster and stuck pieces of furniture into them. Sculptures ended up forming in the cavities… A work of such dimensions is comparable to an alpinist’s activity: you need to rappel to work on the cube. It was a true highlight to witness this process.
Every transport implies a potential deterioration of the works’ condition. How do you decide whether to loan a work?
Ideally, the works shouldn’t be moved at all. Every movement can deteriorate a work’s condition. Works that are unfit to be loaned and moved, aren’t loaned: Segantini’s „Bad Mothers“ for instance. Not just because it is a crucial part of the collection, but also because this work is especially fragile.
Whenever we decide to loan such fragile pieces anyways, the procedure includes a close supervision by a restorer, both previously and during transportation. We try to exclude all scenarios that could potentially damage the work from the start. On-site, the work is put in the care of the museum’s restorer.
How does one get into your profession? After all, there is no degree for it.
I first got a degree in business administration. Art was no more than a private concern. Later on I attended a course in cultural management at the college for music and performing arts and ended up working for a fine art logistics company. I got to collaborate with many museums and galleries. After ten years with them, I was asked whether I’d like to work at the Belvedere.
You’re one of the very first ARC – Austrian Registrars Committee – members. To what extent is it part of your job to work in the creation of specific professional training programs?
My ARC colleagues have put a lot of effort into creating a job outline. In the US, it has existed for quite some time, but in Europe, it’s still a novelty. To begin with, fifteen years ago, even the Belvedere didn’t have an exhibition management. Back then, the curators took care of those tasks. It worked because back then there were much less exhibitions than there are today.
Nowadays, every museum has a registrar, and sometimes even several registrars and exhibition managers. The organization varies from museum to museum.
I’m sure that colleges are going to start incorporating the corresponding degrees. A degree in collection management would also make a lot of sense.
Thank you very much!
// Valentina Marterer & Sabrina Möller
ERC – EUROPEAN REGISTRARS CONFERENCE
The Austrian Registrars Committee Arc – Austrian Registrars Committee has organized the ERC – European Registrars Conference, which was held at the Hofburg in Vienna from 8th-10th June 2016.