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History of Smithsonian TBMA Working Group

On the Launch of the Smithsonian’s Time-based Media Art Working Group

by Anne Collins Goodyear, Current Co-Director, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, and Former Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings, National Portrait Gallery

In the fall of 2009, the Smithsonian’s fledgling Consortium for the Preservation of Time-based & Digital Art (which became the Smithsonian Time-based Media & Digital Art Working Group in 2010 and, finally, the Smithsonian Time-based Media Group in the summer of 2012), formed as part of a grass roots initiative to address the fascinating technical and intellectual questions caught up in the acquisition, installation, and long-term care of time-based art. Although the media in which such works are generally executed, film, video, digital video were not exactly “new” anymore, they did—and continue to—present unprecedented questions about preservation, as each new technology faces rapid obsolescence. In grappling with these questions and coming together to consult and compare stories, we realized that each of us from across the Smithsonian invested in these issues had a great deal to learn from colleagues with a broad range of specialties.

The group’s initial conversations were facilitated in large part by the establishment of the Lunder Conservation Center at the Smithsonian’s Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, the engagement of Jeff Martin as a conservation fellow at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where he was focused on new media art, and the growing commitment on the Smithsonian art museums to actively collect new media art. Our initiative took seriously the Smithsonian’s role as a national museum complex with the capacity to conduct ground-breaking interdisciplinary research and the idea that we could work together across the institution to develop new resources and capacities. A broad network of interested Smithsonian colleagues—curators, conservators, and professionals charged with installing audio-visual works—quickly became involved. It was clear that the new consortium could help support and connect all of us with an interest and a stake in the collecting, exhibiting, and preservation of born-digital and time-based media art.

With support from the Lunder Conservation Center, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, members of the Smithsonian Time-based Media & Digital Art Working Group co-organized “Collaborations in Conserving Time-based Art,” an international two-day symposium March 17-18, 2010. The symposium included presentations by an international group of experts and was attended in person by approximately 200 people, and during its webcast on Thursday, March 18, 4800 people viewed the proceedings online. A report on the event by the Smithsonian’s Office of Planning and Analysis (OP&A) described the recommendation on the part of the Time-based Media & Digital Art Working Group growing out of the convening that “a pan-Institutional Standing Committee on Time-based Art, comprised of curators, conservators, and technical professionals and with representation from each art-collecting unit [be created] to address resources needs and protocols for the long-term preservation of time-based art.”

OP&A’s report on “Collaborations in Conserving Time-based Art” appeared on the same day as Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough released a new 5-Year Digital Strategic Plan for the Institution, June 4, 2010, signaling a commitment on the part of the Smithsonian to embrace a leadership role in documenting, disseminating, and building collections digitally. The Smithsonian’s new Digital Strategic Plan reflected the development of the Institution’s first strategic plan, which helped to encourage, particularly through the development of Grand Challenges grants—funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—interdisciplinary pan-institutional research on the part of curators and other experts. Generous financial support from the “Grand Challenges” program and other sources would play a key role in enabling the Smithsonian’s Time-based Media Group to rapidly launch a slate of programming and research projects that would bring together an international array of experts. These programs would help enable the TBMA group to undertake new research, including developing and documenting interviews with artists and curators about their experiences with time-based media. The desire to capture and disseminate the new information and knowledge being generated through TBMA initiatives would, in turn, prompt the group to design and launch a website to share its work.

Between 2010 and June 2013, TBMA programs included:

  • Collaborations in Conserving Time-based Art: A Symposium, March 2010
  • Collecting, Exhibiting, & Preserving Time-Based Media Art at the Smithsonian: A Roundtable Discussion, September 2011
  • Roundtable on the Preservation of Slide and Video Art, April 2012
  • Roundtable on the Preservation of Video Games, August 2012
  • Roundtable on the Protocols for Time-based and Digital Art Preservation, September 2012
  • Roundtable on Development of Trustworthy Digital Repositories, April 2012
  • Conserving and Exhibiting the Works of Nam June Paik June 14, 2013
  • Travel to Key Conferences for Team Members
  • Development of a new Web Resource (launched Summer 2013)

Support included:

  • Level One Grand Challenge Grant to study SI staff responsibilities and practices in the care of time-based art  (2010)
  • Collections Care and Preservation Fund for a collection survey of time-based works across the SI (2011)
  • Independent Research Grant: TBMA Thought Leaders (2012- 2013)
  • Level Two Grand Challenge Grant for The Preservation of Time-based and Digital Art at the Smithsonian Institution (2013-14)

The opportunity to work with an exceptional team of colleagues from across the Smithsonian and beyond to launch a new pan-institutional network dedicated to developing new strategies for collecting, exhibiting, and preserving technologically innovative artwork continues to shape my work as a fine arts curator and museum director. Its ongoing lessons about the importance of collaboration and informed management of resources have implications not only for the care of time-based media art but the advocacy of creative practice more broadly.  Now co-directing a smaller, but no less ambitious, campus museum, I recall an important observation made by Crystal Sanchez during a talk in the fall of 2012. She noted that the one of the most important outcomes and measures of success of the TBMA initiative would be the ways in which the research of this interdisciplinary group could support, through its research on the collections and exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution, the work of other institutions. I couldn’t agree more.

(Contributed March 31, 2020)

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