Darla Migan on Restoration

What term do you think best reflects the present moment in contemporary art?

Restoration in the context of the art industry usually refers to the rehabilitation of the damaged objet d’art and historically it often refers to the fantastical romanticisation of pre-modern ways of life. In the context of Liste 2021, however, I call on the term “restoration” to begin to address the broader cultural implications for the care of the people and places beyond traditional artworld centres. In the pandemic-era shift happening now – which must be contextualised through the conditions of settler-colonialism and neo-colonialism, as well as post-1989 economic globalisation and the 2008 financial crisis – it is time to face the fact that we exist in an interdependent ecology.

Here, restoration in the context of the contemporary artworld can be thought of not only as reparative economic action, but also as an attitude – an attitude open to coming to terms with ongoing structural harms to our shared planet and our interconnected humanity. While reversing that harm seems like a daunting task, thinking towards an ideal of restoration-as-repair may help to aid in the urgent attention needed to care for one another and for our home.

As the conversation grows over the environmental impact of the art industry (think about, for example, the damage in Venice due to the increased tourism generated by the Biennale), we would do well to remember that our colonial modernity has long been a global phenomenon – a phenomenon overwhelmingly described by the rationalisation of greed and by incentivising the exploitation of peoples and places for profit.

Restoration-as-repair is a call towards a comprehensive attitudinal shift that locates an original interconnectedness between people, places and art. While restitution refers to economic calculations intended to redistribute returns on investment from extracted capital, restoration-as-repair calls on the acknowledgement that any and all concentrations of capital are directly and historically situated by the ongoing impact of systematic activity disproportionately protecting the lives of some human beings by way of harming others. As a result, this grievous imbalance cannot be simply repaid according to today’s market valuations, which continue to reward previous and current colonising nations.

Furthermore, the current discourse on reparations in the context of the theft of objects comprising the impressive collections of traditional artworld institutions relies solely on the presumption that the looters (as well as their incalculable beneficiaries through private sales or public transfer) now hold progressive values. This is to assume that – all other conditions being equal (they are not) – international parity can be achieved through the return of art objects, without also addressing the interconnectedness of attitudes and the current organisation of state and private institutions alike. The discourse as it stands maintains a value system structured according to the logic of the looters.

We must attend to the restorative processes that may stimulate the cultivation of conscious shifts in attitude. Immediately, the most direct impact will be felt in the decisions of museum boards, patrons and collectors seeking to work in collaboration with other state actors, collectors and institutions in non-traditional art centres also aspiring towards restoration-as-repair. Beyond the circulation of capital, we would do well to prioritise the inclusive recognition of the humanity of all peoples as well as what we owe to stewarding the preciousness of our planet.

Darla Migan, Ph.D., is an art critic and researcher based in New York City. Her essays can be read in Art in America, artnet News, The Brooklyn Rail, Cultured, Spike Art Magazine and Texte zur Kunst. In the fall of 2021, Darla will continue her research on the intersections of ethics and aesthetics at the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Artists working on Restoration