Meet Dan Finn, SAAM's Media Conservator

As SAAM continues to add time-based media to its collection, conservation of these artforms is becoming an important aspect in our museum. In August 2015 Dan Finn was hired to retrofit an office space and acquire equipment for SAAM's Media Conservation Lab. Dan has a Master's Degree from the New York University's Moving Image and Archiving Program. And we got a chance to talk with him about his work here.

Eye Level: Can you tell me what you do here at the Museum?

Dan Finn: I'm the Media Conservator in the Lunder Conservation Center of SAAM. I get to worry about all of the museum's time-based media art, which is a category for works of art where duration, or time, is a defining characteristic of the work. We have over 120 such works in our permanent collection, and many hundreds more in our archival collections. Our collection spans a diverse array of media including film, analog video, digital video, installation art, video games, and software-based art. I have to ensure that these kinds of works can still be exhibited in the future, despite the frequent obsolescence and continual disruption of the works' technological dependencies. Since I'm the first full time media conservator at the museum, my first major piece of business has been setting up our Media Conservation Lab.

EL: Wow. That doesn't sounds like a typical museum job. How is your role similar and different from more typical art conservation?

DF: It's similar in that you need to be very detail-oriented and have a need to document everything. Also, all conservators pair a deep technical expertise with more subjective, artistic sensibilities in order to make prudent judgments regarding the treatment of specific art works. Where media conservation differs significantly is largely philosophical, and has to do with comfort levels regarding change. Traditionally, conservation identifies an ideal state for a work of art, and views all change and difference from that state as loss or damage. With all time-based media art, though, change is unavoidable, and can even be a critical component of the piece itself. I'm less about eliminating change and more about managing it productively.

EL: Are there any overarching concerns you have with new media/variable media, not just in terms of actual treatment, but collections care in general?

DF: Media conservators in many ways take a more active role in how an art work evolves over time. It's necessary to keep that high level of influence grounded in something, and we anchor ourselves with documentation, loads of it. Schematics, diagrams, installation instructions, highly specialized condition and iteration reports, artist interviews, and curatorial research help guide one's hand through the various decisions treatment may require. I'm lucky to work with some outstanding people in our Registrar's Office, such as Lynn Putney and Emily Schlemmer, who really get it and did a ton of work for us to step up our documentation game for media collections.

EL: What was the most challenging or exciting part of building a media conservation lab from scratch?

DF: Finding and doing the necessary paperwork for all the equipment we needed from the last 50+ years of media technology. But we have the best conservation technician in the biz in Susan Edwards, and she did most of that hard stuff. All I have to do is the fun part.

EL: Do you have a favorite piece of media art in the SAAM collection?

DF: My favorite is either Leo Villareal's Volume ( Renwick) on display at the tremendous WONDER exhibit at the Renwick Gallery, or Nam June Paik's Megatron/Matrix at SAAM. Volume because it was the first piece to be installed after I arrived, and so I got to help with it, plus it's got some really cool custom software driving the lighting effects. Megatron/Matrix because it's such a massive and complicated piece, with a fascinating technical history, and will give me a lot to sink my teeth into. Choosing just one is super tough! Luckily we've got a lot to choose from, and the collection is only going to get larger from here on out.