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October 1, 2008

LOS ANGELES—Georgia O’Keeffe was a ground-breaking artist during her lifetime, and now the museum dedicated to her life and art is following that inspiration.

The Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) in Los Angeles, the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., today announced they will partner in a pioneering new effort to reinvent the way museums light their most sensitive artworks. 

Beginning in the spring of 2009, The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum will be utilizing lighting research undertaken by GCI Senior Scientist Jim Druzik and UTEP’s Professor Carl Dirk to significantly mitigate light damage without compromising the museum visitor’s viewing pleasure. 

“The GCI’s research into light and preservation challenges is revolutionary.  As a conservator, the goal is to provide visitors the best possible experience for viewing Ms. O’Keeffe’s watercolors and pastels, while slowing the tendency for light-sensitive materials to fade and discolor.  By working with the GCI and UTEP, we are creating a special set of light filters that fit the unique needs of our collection,” said Dale Kronkright, head of conservation at The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.  “It’s an incredible opportunity to look at new solutions to an age-old balancing act.”

Currently, most museums display light-sensitive artifacts under low levels of incandescent lighting, which means older visitors may perceive less color and fewer details.  It’s a trade-off that is not ideal:  the dim lighting helps to slow the rate of damage, but it also interferes with the viewer’s perception of the original work of art.  Until now, the only other option for museums has been to take a light sensitive item off of display – which means the public has no opportunity to view the object.
Druzik has, for the past six years, been exploring the nature of light, visibility, and why illumination permanently alters the objects it touches or degrades our appreciation of it; for example, changing the perception of light blue swirls on an expressive O’Keeffe watercolor into a murky gray. 

“I’m looking to reduce the inevitable light damage caused during display by altering the lighting source in subtle yet powerful ways that have not been technically feasible until recently,” explained Druzik.  “If you reduce the amount of energy you project on an object, the overall aging rates will be reduced.”

Simply reducing the quantity of radiation at the higher and lower ends of the visible spectrum has pronounced photochemical effects on some pigments and dyes.  
“The lower energy per photon of light in the red region, for example, is often under-estimated for its potential to do chemical damage,” said Druzik. “If we reduce this part of the spectrum by filtering it out, the human eye still has adequate perception of redness.  The viewer won’t notice what is gone – but the long-term benefits for conserving the artwork are immense.”

The ultimate goal is to find the elusive balance between conservation, aesthetics, and visual satisfaction for the museum visitor. 

“It is a special privilege for academic scientists to work on projects like this. Developing a practical solution for this lighting problem has been a high point for my career,” shared Dirk.

Current tests show special filtered lights developed at UTEP by Dirk can slow down fade rates by as much as 25 to 35 percent, depending upon the medium used in the artwork.

The GCI and O’Keeffe Museum also will be doing a scientific analysis of O’Keeffe’s watercolors and pastels – some of which she made herself, now housed along with the rest of her studio materials at the O’Keeffe Museum Research Center – to understand what elements they are comprised of and how light may affect them.  The results will help inform how the new light filters for the O’Keeffe Museum ultimately will be designed for those items.

Led by Druzik, in collaboration with Dirk, this innovative light research was the basis of an interactive public exhibition created at The California Science Center entitled FADE: The Dark Side of Light earlier this year.

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Melissa Abraham  
Getty Communications

About the Getty:

The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that features the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

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The Getty Conservation Institute works internationally to advance conservation in the visual arts. The Institute serves the conservation community through scientific research, education and training, model field projects, and the dissemination of information.

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