Keeping Tabs on an Art Collection, Part I

September 21, 2009

Last month I fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. When I was there, I noticed a number of large notations applied directly on the backs of some of the sculptures on view.


Marks like those pictured above are used for recordkeeping purposes at museums, but these seemed particularly bold to me. When I returned to Los Angeles, I asked Tiffany Shea in our registrar’s office about what I saw, and her responses were so interesting that we thought we’d do a short series about keeping tabs on a museum’s permanent collection.

To kick things off, a little background on museum recordkeeping. The system itself of writing collection numbers on artworks stems from a time well before photography. (Imagine—no websites to determine what was in a storeroom or even hard copies of images to reference in files.) Not surprisingly, each and every artwork in a museum’s collection must be marked with its own number so that it can easily be identified, tracked, and located in perpetuity. These marks are often used to signify good provenance (ownership history) of the artwork and can thus increase the value of the work itself. Some numbers refer to important, old European private collections while others refer to exhibitions at prestigious exhibitions to which the artworks were lent. Still others refer to the year an object was brought into a museum’s collection, or “accessioned,” as we like to call it.

So, back to those sculptures I noticed at the Hermitage. Tiffany told me that what I saw is common practice, and that the style of marking is bolder at some museums than at others. I was fascinated to learn that at other museums, older markings were sometimes even made using red nail polish that was painted directly on the objects. With advances in modern conservation work, museums now use a removable and protective barrier coat between the artwork and the number, which is applied in very small numbers in a discreet location. Thus art is identified but not damaged in the process.

Now we know about the markings on the back of those sculptures. But what about other objects, like furniture or textiles? And prints and paintings? How do we bestow those with IDs? We’ll tell you tomorrow.

Allison Agsten

Double Feature: Your Bright Future and Hong Sang-soo

September 18, 2009

Here’s a suggestion for a good double-feature on Saturday: come to LACMA in the afternoon to take in Your Bright Future for the first or last time—it closes on Sunday—and then stick around in the evening for the Los Angeles premiere of Night and Day, the new film from Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo. This will be the conclusion of an eight-film retrospective of Hong’s films (tonight: Turning Gate and Tale of Cinema). Best of all, Hong will be in attendance for a Q&A after the film.

To whet your appetite, here are a couple peeks at the film. First, the trailer:

Second, a short news report that ran when the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, giving you a bit more of an idea what the film is about:

Following Oiticica’s Directions

September 17, 2009

Hélio Oiticica is one of the most important Brazilian artists of his generation. In the 1950s, he was part of the Grupo Frente, a circle of abstract artists whose work was based on European constructivist movements. He later joined the short-lived neo-concrete movement in Rio de Janeiro, which emphasized the value of experiencing a work of art over artistic theory—a subject that Oiticica continued to explore throughout his career. Profoundly interested in color and space, in the 1960s he invented his series of penetrables, chromatic and dynamic environments meant to be experienced by the viewer who penetrates them. After moving to a favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro in 1964, where he became a lead samba dancer, Oiticica made ephemeral three-dimensional installations based on the housing of those communities. These architecturally scaled structures are intended to be traversed bodily and experienced by all the senses.


Hélio Oiticica, "Nas quebradas," 1979, purchased with funds provided by the Modern and Contemporary Art Council, JoAnn Busuttil, the American Art Deaccession Fund, and anonymous donors

Hélio Oiticica, "Nas quebradas," 1979, purchased with funds provided by the Modern and Contemporary Art Council, JoAnn Busuttil, the American Art Deaccession Fund, and anonymous donors



In 2004 I traveled with former contemporary art curator Lynn Zelevansky to Brazil. One of our main priorities during the trip was to acquire a group of works by Oiticica for the collection. We spent several days with the Oiticica estate looking at a selection of works—an exhilarating experience. During the trip we acquired Nas quebradas, which at the time consisted only of a set of instructions outlined by Oiticica on how to build the work, all neatly packed in an envelope that we brought back with us to the museum. Nas quebradas was first installed by Oiticica in 1979—it is one of a few large-scale projects that he was able to construct before his untimely death in 1980. This past week, with the help of the estate, we rebuilt Oiticica’s penetrable. The work is made of the same cheap materials of the hundreds of shanty town houses scattered throughout Rio: bricks, gravel, corrugated roofing, chicken wire, yellow vinyl, and burlap. Viewers are invited to walk into the piece and experience it. The work is mysterious as it twists and turns, intimidating in its use of unstable materials… and so undeniably beautiful.

Ilona Katzew, curator, Latin American art

Got Tea?

September 16, 2009

Yesterday I strolled into the not-yet-installed Art of the Pacific galleries to check out a neat project in progress. In collaboration with Franz West, Viennese artist Andreas Reiter Raabe and two assistants are painting the walls with a tea wash. The idea is that tea played an important role in the featured cultures and, additionally, that the faint green color would be an interesting enhancement to the show. (I’ll add that the smell of the tea seems to match the look of it on the walls—lilting, understated, and just generally lovely.) After trying different recipes, Andreas settled on a concoction that involves fifty Mate tea bags—green tea wasn’t green enough—to half an Arrowhead water jug of boiling water. Only problem: Andreas was almost out of tea when I met him late Monday afternoon. One assistant had already wiped out the Mate selection at the ten closest Ralphs and Whole Foods. I sent out a tweet asking for recommendations of places where we could purchase more Mate teabags and guess what, you guys really came through for us. Within seconds, I had many suggestions, including a great one from @YelpLA to check out Erewhon, a natural foods market in the neighborhood. I called the store, a Mate treasure trove as it turns out, and Andreas’s assistant headed out once more on a quest for tea. This time, he found enough to finish up the project. In addition, the LACMA staff quickly responded too, both with shopping efforts and donations of Mate tea by 10 staff members. You’ll be able to see, and hopefully still smell, the tea-stained walls when the installation opens later this fall. In the meantime, some photos of the work in progress.






Allison Agsten

The Secret Gallery

September 15, 2009

The Art Rental and Sales Gallery may be one of the best-kept secrets at LACMA thanks to its low-key location just around the corner from our Brown Auditorium. The “gallery space” is made up of the surrounding hallways and features regular exhibitions of artists mostly based in Southern California. Unlike the other galleries in the museum, here the artwork is actually for sale (or for rent, if you’re a member).


Aaron Morse, "Deerslayer," 2006

Founded by the Art Museum Council (then the Junior Art Council) in 1954, the ARSG was born out of an interest in artists being shown in the galleries that lined La Cienega Boulevard, which at the time was a burgeoning center for the L.A. art scene. The ARSG’s goals were to encourage support for California artists and to raise money for the museum. Many artists whose works were considered experimental or controversial when first shown in the galley went on to establish international reputations.


Alexis Smith, "Lust Rust Dust (Red and Blue-scale)," 2004

On view in the ARSG through the end of October are a special selection of prints, many of which are available for purchase, that have been commissioned by LACMA’s Prints and Drawings Council over the years. Since 1965 the PDC has commissioned prints by a who’s who of artists, from Alberto Giacometti to Ed Ruscha to Shepherd Fairey. This small show is a chance to look back on artworks we’ve commissioned in the past—and is also an opportunity to look forward.


Salomon Huerta, "Untitled (Back of Head on Orange Field)," 2002

In an effort to continue with the councils’ original philosophy of supporting artists as well as supporting the museum, our curators are working with the AMC to introduce an editions program that will promote both emerging and established artists primarily working in Los Angeles. Be sure to drop in on the gallery next time you’re in the museum, and stay tuned to future posts as this program develops.

Erin Wright, Director of Special Projects

A Prayer for Art

September 14, 2009

In preparation for the opening of our Korean permanent collection galleries, five Buddhist monks visited LACMA on Wednesday morning to bless the art, and in particular, The Pensive Bodhisattva, a national treasure on loan from Korea. I was privileged to be among a small group invited to partake in the ceremony, which introduced me to an art experience profoundly different from any other I’ve had. For a half an hour, two dozen of us kneeled, rose, and bowed barefoot before the sculpture, listened to the rhythmic chant of the monks, and prayed for peace, happiness, and the well-being of the museum. Our AV department shot video of this remarkable experience to share with you all; for those interested in creating a spiritual experience of their own in the galleries, pads for meditation have been left in The Pensive Bodhisattva’s space.

Allison Agsten

A Korean National Treasure Goes on View

September 11, 2009

Since being appointed a curator for Korean art at an institution outside of Korea, I have developed the habit of asking non-Koreans about the image they have of Korea—either of the country at the present time, or of its past. The majority, whether they have a connection to art or not, cite the tense political situation between the two Koreas. ¶

The responses of Koreans, by contrast, are interestingly different. Foods (such as kimchi and bibimbap), or taekwondo, or the fine arts are almost invariably listed above current political issues. When questioned about what artwork could stand as the nation’s icon or image, no Korean would hesitate to single out the gilt-bronze Pensive Bodhisattva, made in the late sixth century. The Pensive Bodhisattva, National Treasure no. 78 (the numbering of national treasures, incidentally, does not correspond to how they are ranked), exhibits a supreme harmony between idealism and realism as well as international aesthetics versus Korean identity.


Installation view featuring The Pensive Bodhisattva, late sixth century

Koreans’ strong attachment to The Pensive Bodhisattva and their high recognition of its place in Korean art explain the complicated, lengthy procedure involved in being granted a loan of this priceless cultural artifact in time to grace the reopening of LACMA’s new Korean galleries. The first step in this complex negotiation—which took almost a year—was to obtain the approval of the National Museum of Korea, which houses this national treasure. The exporting, or overseas loan, of any Korean cultural artifact must be reviewed and approved by the members of the National Cultural Heritage committee. Among the many subdivisions of this organization, committee members specializing in the relevant particular area of traditional fine art gathered to examine the appropriateness of LACMA to temporarily exhibit this important work of art. With the committee’s approval and endorsement, the request of the three institutions—the National Museum of Korea, the National Cultural Heritage Committee, and LACMA itself—was submitted to the Korean cabinet council, before its ultimately successful application for the personal endorsement of the nation’s president.

The Maitreya Pensive Bodhisattva is in the deep meditation at this moment, but, in the distant future—in about 5.6 billion years—he will come to the human world as a Buddha to save us. If we consider this different measurement, or judgment, of time, the long—sometimes painful—preparation and coordination between several institutions for this significant loan seems merely a short, insignificant moment. The Pensive Bodhisattva will remain in LACMA for three months, making this a rare opportunity to appreciate this uniquely beautiful work of art in the short time we have in this world.

Hyonjeong Kim Han, Associate Curator, Korean Art

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