Storing and restoring at the new SFMOMA
Jill Sterrett, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s director of collections, stands in front of an untitled work by Robert Rauschenberg known as “glossy black painting.” Made of newspaper scraps coated in thick paint, it resembles bark cracking off a burnt tree. In her hands are two small canvases that she holds up on both sides of the Rauschenberg. They are mock-ups created for a research project, and I can’t tell them apart from the original.
Re-creations like these are products of the newly renovated museum’s Collections Workroom, which is devoted to preserving sculpture and painting. What makes the room unusual is that a glass wall allows the public to peer in. A portion can be sectioned off into a studio for visiting artists; the idea is for curators and conservationists to observe the artists as well as collaborate with them. A piece of art, Sterrett says, is not just under the museum’s physical care but also under its “intellectual care.” It’s essential, she says, to understand the artist’s intention to restore an artwork accurately. “We are not just acquiring the work,” she says, “but acquiring the artist’s practice.”
There’s another room that Sterrett wants to show me — this one far from public view. In the museum’s basement, she tugs open the door to a cold storage unit that can hold more than 4,000 color photographs and accommodate images as colossal as Andreas Gursky’s nearly 15-foot Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Diptychon. The unit consists of two rooms, one set at 55 degrees, where photographs acclimate for 24 hours, and the other set at 40 degrees, where they can be stored permanently. Before the expansion, color photographs were kept off-site, but now curators have easy access to the museum’s entire photography collection. “With the photos so close, the curators get to know the work better,” says Sterrett, shutting the vaulted door.