BMA Voices: Why is the BMA stockpiling fluorescent lamps?

Dan Flavin. Untitled (To Barnett Newman for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"). 1993 1994. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Caplan Family Contemporary Art Fund, and Collectors Circle Fund, BMA 1993.210. © Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Dan Flavin. Untitled (To Barnett Newman for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”). 1993-1994. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Caplan Family Contemporary Art Fund, and Collectors Circle Fund, BMA 1993.210. © Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Angie Elliott, Associate Objects Conservator

The Museum has a stockpile of fluorescent lamps (bulbs) that are so important that we keep them stored away in a vault. While I used to think of cubicle-laden offices and big box stores when I thought of fluorescent lighting, now my mind goes to the challenges of preserving contemporary art.

Dan Flavin’s Untitled (To Barnett Newman for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”), 1993-1994, is the reason we have such an important collection of lighting supplies. His installation of red, yellow, and blue fluorescent lamps lights up a corner in the back of the Contemporary Wing. Using both long and short lamps, the work forms a column that stretches 24 feet from the second floor through the ceiling to the third floor. The light reaches beyond the physical lamps and ballasts and transforms the surrounding space and architecture. I love that I can walk by the museum at night and catch glimpses of this light bouncing from this rear corner through the large glass windows in the front of the Contemporary Wing.

Flavin uses an everyday and familiar technology in an unfamiliar way, but what happens when the everyday and familiar are no longer that? Lighting technology is rapidly changing to keep up with new environmental and energy regulations. If you’ve bought a light bulb in the past few years, you’ve noticed that how quickly those changes are happening. We’ve gone from incandescent to compact fluorescents in just a few years with LEDs quickly coming on the scene. The fluorescent lamp as we know it will likely disappear in the future… so how does that affect Dan Flavin’s art?

Museums and collectors have already faced challenges as lamp colors have varied over time. Colors have shifted as different manufacturers take on what a red, yellow, or blue should be. Dan Flavin’s Estate has taken an active role in dealing with the issues of aging lamps and technology. Ten years ago, we joined with other museums and collectors to have our lamps specially produced. Never fear – our Flavin should remain unchanged for years to come, but we do have challenges to face in the coming decades.

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BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

Reproduction, including downloading of ARS licensed works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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