ArtWatch International

by Elizabeth C. Welsh
November 12, 1993

ArtWatch International, Inc., is a nonprofit organization that aims to protect works of art and cultural monuments from damaging conservation and restoration treatments. Its director is James Beck, a professor of art history at Columbia University, and its deputy director is Gordon Bloom. The director in the UK is Michael Daley, a journalist, sculptor, and illustrator.

The address is: ArtWatch International, 931 Schermerhorn, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027. Phone 212/854-4569, Fax 212/854-7329.

Membership in ArtWatch International is free; membership is currently (as of October about 400, worldwide.

Beck and ArtWatch International have been outspoken in criticism of many aspects of contemporary museum-based conservation practices. For example: Beck was interviewed on PBS's _Nova_ television program speaking about his objections to the cleaning of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel; Beck's criticism of the cleaning of a marble monument in Lucca, Italy, by Jacopo della Quercia resulted in Italian lawsuits and considerable publicity; and ArtWatch released a statement opposing the "hasty restoration" and travel schedule for paintings in the Barnes Collection. Noteworthy publications include:

"The Damaging Silence on Art Restoration," by James Beck, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 4, 1992.

Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal (this title is also sometimes cited in ArtWatch literature as: Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business, the Scandal or Art Restoration: The Business, the Culture, the Scandal by James Beck and Michael Daley, 224 pages, 12 pages of photographs, ISBN 0 7195 5169 2, available by writing to 50 Albermarle Street, London, WIX 4BD.

Promotional material says, "The authors enquire into the social, cultural, and, increasingly, commercial factors that underlie the recent spate of restorations and have produced what amounts to a restoration establishment, with its own networks, priorities and interests. Last, they offer hope not only that change is possible but that the need for change is beginning to be recognized, and they put forward ideas for hastening the process."

"A Light Dusting or a Good Scrub?" by Elisabeth Dunn, in Telegraph (London), April 4, 1993, TV & Radio Section, p.18f.

"Every Picture Tells a Story," from BBC-2, Debra Hauer (producer), Chris Rawlence (director), a 40-minute documentary. For further information contact BBC Television Publicity, Tel: 081 576 7737. (This documentary was originally aired April 4, 1993 or March 28, 1993.)

ArtWatch's Mission Statement

To act as a watchdog organization in the arena of cultural policy, protecting works of art and the public interest from vested private and institutional interests.

To serve as an international advocate for the conservation and stewardship of historically significant works of art and cultural monuments.

To promote an open exchange of ideas and information on the full range of practices and policies in the field of conservation, restoration and international stewardship of important cultural artifacts.

To write and publish scholarly and lay commentary bearing on these and related issues, and to develop a study collection of publications and reference materials.

To contribute to the development and codification of national and international cultural policies and practices as they bear upon historic and contemporary works of art, especially but not exclusively in the area of painting, sculpture, and architecture, and including significant elements of the natural as well as the build environment.

To discuss, review, critique and amend those policies and practices, and to promote educational programs which will facilitate this goal.

To develop manifestos such a a "Bill of Rights for a Work of Art" which will facilitate the enlightened stewardship and protection of the global cultural patrimony. [see following text]

To collaborate in the creation of position papers and policy documents with other nationally and internationally chartered organizations.

A Bill of Rights for Works of Art

(REVISED 12/8/1992)
  1. All works of art have the inalienable right to live an honorable and dignified existence.
  2. All works of art have the inalienable right to remain in their original abode, whenever possible. They should be permitted to rest in their acquired homes without being moved to distant places: in galleries and museums, in private collections, in houses of worship, in public spaces, under protected and controlled situations as removed as much as possible from pollution, excessive variations of climate, and all forms of degradation.
  3. Works of art recognized as of the highest order should be regarded as belonging to the entire society of the world, the 'global cultural patrimony', not to a single entity, either local, institutional, or national, although the 'owners' would continue to have full custodial responsibility.
  4. The "owners" of the paintings and sculptures as well as other art objects, hold them under an enforceable constructive trust, for the benefit of the public.
  5. In the process of conserving works of art, ample room must also be provided for the new as well as for the conservation of the old, for otherwise we would risk fossilizing ourselves to the past. Decisions affecting art held in trust should be reviewable.
  6. The most distinguished art objects shall be specially designated 'world-class masterpieces', representing, perhaps, one object in a hundred among the finest cultural treasures (somewhat in the way that buildings are selected for "landmark" status). Prior to the restoration of any in this group of masterpieces, all proposed procedures would be subject to review by a court of competent jurisdiction after hearing testimony from specialists and representatives of the culture. Second opinions and sometimes third opinions would be sought.
  7. Under no circumstances should preservation and conservation techniques be employed that are essentially experimental in nature, except where the artwork is in imminent danger. In all other cases carefully controlled, fully documented testing is a prerequisite; findings, including photographs, must be made publicly available in a timely manner and at a reasonable expense. No restoration should be undertaken for the sake of curiosity or profit. If scholarly or scientific "discoveries" result from conservation techniques, they should be regarded as fortuitous byproducts, not as the raison d'etre of the intervention, as the artwork must not be considered an 'experimental laboratory'. Since every treatment, cleaning, or restoration has the potential of negative side effects, interventions should be taken sparingly, and with reversible techniques if possible, recognizing implicitly that in the future more effective and less damaging procedures may be devised. Restoration techniques should be subject to review before any restoration is undertaken.
  8. Masterpieces of the past should not be reproduced without clearly distinguishing original from copy, so that the integrity of the original is preserved. Efforts should be made to protect artists and their estates from violations of the intentions.
  9. Unified art works should not be divided or dissected, altered or mutilated, e.g., predella panels should not be separated from their altarpiece nor should individual pages be removed from a book of drawings. In principle, subsequent transformations, adjustments, reformulations added to the original statement should be left in tact as a mark of history.
  10. The stewardship of works of art, especially masterpieces of noted historical significance, should be subjected to free and open debate, and appropriate judicial review.
  11. The examination and maintenance of works of art must be provided on a regular basis and carried out by dedicated, trained professionals, certified by national and international standards, when feasible, after any objector has been given the right to be heard.
(signed) James Beck, Director, ArtWatch International

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