By Clare Haggarty
This session took place during the Western Museums Association 2013 Annual Meeting
I care for a public art collection at the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and the challenges I face concerning collection management can be different from my colleagues who work within institutions that were built as museums. Site-specific art is my favorite kind of art. Context enhances the object’s meaning and provides the viewer a holistic and memorable experience. However, allowing the object to remain in context can be a preservation nightmare. Museums serve to protect art and artifacts by keeping them in a controlled environment. Site-specific collections, on the other hand, live on the wild side.
The impetus for my session at this year’s Western Museums Association (WMA) Annual Meeting, Extraordinary Spaces: Site Specific Collections and Their Challenges, came while working with the staff at Cabot’s Pueblo Museum in Desert Hot Springs, CA during the WMA 2012 Annual Meeting in Palm Springs, CA. The Registrars Committee Western Region (RC-WR) chose Cabot’s for our annual outreach initiative known as CSI: Registrars. Registrars attending the conference volunteer their skills for a day to help a local institution. At Cabot’s we helped the two-person staff, Ginger Ridgway, Director, and Peggy Pourtemour, Registrar, prepare antique Navajo rugs for storage.
Cabot Yerxa started building his Hopi-inspired pueblo in 1941 at the age of 57. The pueblo itself is a feat of artistry. Art and artifacts from Cabot’s extensive travels and adventures fill the 5,000 square foot space. Adobe, sun-dried brick and dirt floors are not typical of museum spaces, nor do many have tarantulas running in and out. However, this is the scene at Cabot’s and it is what makes the museum special and authentic. You can imagine this would make most collections managers’ and registrars’ hair curl, and this is just a small taste of what Ginger and Peggy have to contend with.
Presenting at the 2013 Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, Ginger was not shy about describing the Cabot’s collection management challenges. The site has inherent difficulties: no storage, no climate control, and a labyrinth of small exhibition spaces. The collection is a mixture of objects authentic to Cabot, as well as those contributed by well-meaning locals over the years. Accordingly, Ginger and Peggy will be completing the museum’s first inventory ever just to understand what is actually there. Additionally, the site has been largely volunteer-run for decades by people who are incredibly devoted, but not familiar with standard museum practices. If it weren’t for those dedicated volunteers, though, the museum would have been bulldozed by the city years ago.
Perhaps the most poignant feedback at the end of the session was from an audience member who approached Ginger and thanked her for her candidness. Many conference sessions are about the great things museums are doing, she remarked, and that it was refreshing to hear about challenges, as these scenarios are a reality (of varying degrees) for most collections.
Two very different local Utah collections were also represented on the panel. The quintessential earthwork, Spiral Jetty, was discussed first; thanks to the Host Committee, eager conference attendees were even driven out to see the day before the conference began. My panelist Hikmet Loe met us at the site and introduced everyone to the artwork she has been studying for over twenty years.
Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson is well known, at least in photos as most people familiar with it have not seen it in person. Smithson, by the time in his career when he conceived of the artwork, could have picked anywhere in the world to install it. His criteria were an inland body of saline water pink in color. He decided upon the Great Salt Lake and built the artwork in 1970 over the period of a week. Hikmet is an art historian who has been researching and writing about Spiral Jetty since graduate school. Lately, her writing has focused on the stewardship of Spiral Jetty, which was perfect for our discussion. The Dia Art Foundation is mainly charged with monitoring the artwork, but other institutions also have a stake in the artwork including the Utah Department of Natural Resources, the estate of Robert Smithson, James Cohen Gallery, Friends of Great Salt Lake, the Great Salt Lake Institute of Westminster College, and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
Hikmet shared a rare document written by Smithson that stated rocks could be added if the water rose. For 20 years the artwork was submerged under 16 feet of water. However, Smithson died before the artwork went underwater and he was able to add additional rocks. Hikmet explained, “We have been left to wonder at his intentions while time, the lake's rise and fall, and changes in stewardship have taken place.” I was surprised to learn there has never been any maintenance or restoration on the artwork. The soil at the site is mostly clay and provides a stable bed for the volcanic rocks that make up the artwork. For the time being, the Dia Foundation is documenting the Spiral Jetty on a regular basis to monitor its condition.
The other Utah collection presented in the session is central to Salt Lake City’s heritage. Emily Utt, a historic sites curator for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, introduced the session attendees to the Bee Hive House (the former residence of Brigham Young where he lived with at least 15 of his 55 wives and numerous children), the Lion House (a Brigham Young residence-turned-family restaurant), Temple Square, and Cove Fort.
Temple Square is a National Historic Landmark and has more visitors annually than all of the National Parks in Utah combined. Similar to Spiral Jetty, the historic sites have a number of stakeholders and while no one wants to take full responsibility, everyone wants a say in how things are run. As curator, Emily has to balance all expectations.
Emily’s collections challenges at the Lion House include how to blend authenticity and preservation with access to a busy restaurant in a historic home. The solution is to keep the authentic objects out of reach – hang a painting up high on a wall while using historically accurate objects, but not in the original inventory of the house, to curate the space. The furniture is true to the period of the house but did not belong to Brigham Young, and therefore people can use it without restriction. This seems like a practical solution for the way the home is now used. The Bee Hive House, a more traditional historic home, has roped off rooms and is just for viewing.
Cove Fort is a restored and interpreted fort in central Utah, directly off the highway. This, Emily mentioned, is a liability in and of itself as a truck once plowed into the structure. The fort, like all of the historic sites, has missionaries as tour guides. They come from all over the world and have about five hours of training when they land in Salt Lake City and are thrown into full on interpretation. Emily confessed she has not taken a tour of Temple Square and is a little afraid of what the missionaries tell visitors.
Alas, site-specific collections do not always have labels but context provides meaning and visitors are allowed to let their imagination run wild. Photographs of these extraordinary sites can be found in the accompanying slides. If you have any questions or wish to contact any of the presenters you can email me, Clare Haggarty at Mhaggarty [at] arts.lacounty.gov.
Clare Haggarty is the Civic Art Collections Manager for Los Angeles County and oversees a public art inventory situated throughout a diverse geographic area of 4,058 square miles. As an investigator of the world Clare enjoys the element of surprise and inspiration that comes with finding art in unexpected places. She has an MA in History of Art from the University of Glasgow in Scotland and an MA in Curatorial Practice from California College of the Arts in San Francisco.