Contemporary artists use a variety of unconventional materials in unusual ways.

Some use food and other materials that readily decay or change. Some artists may not realise their work faces conservation issues because, for example, the chemical interaction between acrylic paints and surfaces, other artists deliberately defy longevity within their artworks. Contemporary art conservators may work with audiovisual material and technological equipment, such as film, digital media, and image and sound produced using both established and developing technologies.

Video: Made to last: the conservation of art brings together five living contemporary artists who use a range of complex materials in their work: Brook Andrew, Penny Byrne, Juan Ford, Ghostpatrol and Claire Anna Watson, via NETS Victoria.

Causes of deterioration

Degradable materials can cause issues as deterioration rates are unpredictable and careful observation is required.
Storage of these works present challenges as collection facilities traditionally avoid storing materials that may attract pests and threaten other objects in collection.

Technologies used by contemporary artists experimenting with multimedia may already be obsolete, such as VHS cassettes, or be facing rapid decline. Installation works are difficult to preserve as they involve multiple components requiring detailed specifications. Installations involving objects, moving images, sound and environmental detail must be documented meticulously by the conservator, and if possible the artist, in order to be recreated in other contexts.

Modern plastics present potential problems for conservators as they often degrade quickly and unexpectedly. Synthetic polymers vary greatly in stability and require chemical identification before treatment can be provided.


In works that use multiple media, conservation treatments address the components of the work facing damage or deterioration at a faster rate than others. Focus is placed on stabilisation and reducing risks to other parts of the piece.

Due to the variety of materials that contemporary artists work with, the decision-making process and consequent treatment often involve the artist.

Artist interviews allow the conservator to document the artist’s intention, preferred materials and creative process. This documentation becomes an integral part of the conservator’s toolkit for the future.

AICCM has a Special Interest Group for those interested in digital and audiovisual conservation. Join this group, contribute to its activities, or speak to a specialist conservator.

Need a conservator? Find one here.