This past summer, I spent a week cleaning my bedroom in preparation for graduation (and therefore, moving out), and I was dismayed to find that many of my old graphite sketches had faded and smudged over the years. In retrospect, I should have used a fixative spray or stored them in a safer place. Luckily, there are art conservationists dedicated to protecting the world’s more well-known art, or we wouldn’t have treasures like the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel.

Contemporary art and its contemporary materials are posing challenges for today’s artists and art conservationists. While some modern artists embrace the idea of non-enduring art and create masterpieces out of ephemeral materials like chocolate or vegetables, others are using new synthetic materials, like acrylic paint and polyester resins, which have yet to be tested for long-term survival. Because these materials haven’t been in the art world for very long, it’s hard to tell if they will be able to last for centuries with proper conservation, like oil and tempera paintings of the past have been able to.

Even modern art pieces that seem like they should endure are posing conservation problems. Take, for instance, GRP sculptures. GRP, or glass-reinforced plastic, is a composite of alternating fiberglass and polyester resin layers. GRP artworks, especially those displayed outdoors, need careful conservation handling. Conservation techniques include regular cleanings (with the appropriate materials, of course), applying protective coatings, physical repairs and paint touch-ups.

The wave of modern art materials has also created new challenges for art collecting. Modern art enthusiasts may soon have to be as innovative as the artists when it comes to storing their prized purchases. Art collecting comes with the responsibility of protecting art from natural elements, such as humidity and human errors—like accidentally dropping a piece of art or spilling something on it. Add in the unique considerations that have to be taken for modern art materials, and it looks like collectors could have a real conundrum on their hands.

Some of modern art’s more avant-garde materials include straw and shards of broken dinner plates. How would someone go about fixing a broken dinner plate that has been broken already? That’s what modern art conservationists still need to figure out. It’ll be up to the most creative and resourceful art conservationists to see that modern materials survive for future generations.

 Did You Know?

For a thousand years, Great Britain has printed its legislative records on vellum, a writing surface made from the skin of a goat or a calf. Vellum can last for 5,000 years—talk about enduring materials! In early 2016, Britain announced that it would no longer be using vellum and would use archival paper (which lasts a measly 200 years) instead . . . the decision was reversed a week later.

Image credit: Алексей Белобородов