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Archive: August, 2012

Conservation Notes: Get to know a hygrothermograph

August 27th, 2012

Most days this summer the air outside has been hot and humid, but inside the Gallery it’s been cool and relatively dry. In fact, it’s been cool and relatively dry to exact specifications, in order to protect the art within the AGO’s walls. How do we do it? And why, exactly?

Drawing on the expertise of the AGO’s deputy director of collections management and conservation, Margaret Haupt, let us introduce you to a helpful little device, invented in the late 18th century, that allows staff to keep a close eye on conditions in the Gallery’s art spaces.

A hygrothermograph in the David Milne Centre.

Hygro (from the Greek hugros, meaning “moisture/humidity”) + thermo (a Greek root meaning “heat”) + graph (from the Greek root grapho, meaning “write”)

A hygrothermograph is an instrument that measures and records both temperature and relative humidity, simultaneously, onto a single chart. We use them at the AGO to record environmental conditions in art spaces — whether display or storage environments.

How does it work?
The temperature is recorded by the upper pen, which is controlled by the movement of a bimetallic strip. The humidity-sensing element is comprised of small bundles of human hair. The hair lengthens or shortens depending on the humidity of the surrounding air. This motion is transferred to the lower pen by means of a lever mechanism. The chart is installed on a drum which is rotated by a battery-powered clockwork mechanism. The mechanism has three output speeds, so that one-day, seven-day, and 31-day charts can all be accommodated on the one instrument.

How do we use them?
At the AGO, the charts are changed monthly and the instruments are calibrated when the charts are changed. The trends in any given gallery usually follow a consistent pattern, making it very simple and quick to identify unusual changes. These changes are reported by the Protection Service Officers patrolling the galleries, which allows us to respond very quickly to new conditions.

Hygrothermographs are particularly valued for producing an immediately visible record that allows us to assess the pattern of temperature and humidity changes that occur in a space over a period of time. AGO staff sometimes pen horizontal lines onto the charts to mark the target range for relative humidity, making it easier to spot conditions that fall outside that range. Once removed from the machines, we review the charts in order to identify galleries that are not performing to our expectations, so we can devise strategies to improve them.

The hygrothermographs provide a backup system to the electronic Building Automation System and are used by Plant Operations staff to diagnose system problems. It’s not uncommon, for example, for the charts to help staff identify sensor failure in the automated system. We also use the charts to demonstrate to lenders that the AGO is able to provide appropriate conditions for works that we would like to borrow for exhibitions.

A hygrothermograph installed in one of our Canadian galleries.

Temperature and why we control it
For mixed fine-art collections, any temperature between 16 C and 25 C is considered acceptable. At the lower limit, acrylic paint films become brittle, but otherwise the cooler the ambient environment is kept, the slower the inevitable chemical reactions that are associated with the aging of materials.

At the AGO, as at most museums, the temperature is set at a normal room temperature so that our visitors (as well as staff and volunteers) will be comfortable (20 C or 21 C; seasonally adjusted). Most materials actually do decompose at room temperature, but the time frame for complete disintegration is measured in millennia.

Humidity and its effects on the artwork
The focus for creating a preservation environment at the AGO is relative humidity (RH) rather than temperature. The RH set-point for most AGO galleries is 45 per cent. Other collections, especially those from Europe, are sometimes conditioned to other humidity levels — usually 50 per cent. When these works are exhibited at the AGO, we adjust our system to provide the right environment. Any humidity at all will cause a gradual discolouration and disintegration of organic materials — especially of materials that are chemically unstable, such as poor-quality papers.

Research undertaken in the 1990s demonstrated that cycling of RH in the mid-range does not damage most objects — the key exceptions being new materials or recently conserved works, which are conditioned to our own very stable environment. New mats will warp when subjected to relatively small shifts in relative humidity of about 15 per cent. Outside of that acceptable mid-range, or in especially fragile works of art, fluctuation of humidity can cause significant damage.

Extremely high or low RH will lead to direct damage of objects and materials. Relative humidity above 75 per cent supports mould growth, which stains and weakens both organic and inorganic materials. In addition to bad hair days, high humidity also causes the corrosion of metals and the shrinkage of tightly woven textiles — as sometimes occurs in 19th-century canvases. Low humidity has caused wood and ivory to crack.

Now that you know what it does, join us in commending the humble hygrothermograph for playing its role in a larger system of checks and balances. There are a more than a few paintings, drawings, prints and other artworks that would likely say “thank you” too.

Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave it in the comments below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post!

Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program

Meet the photographers on The Grange Prize 2012 shortlist

August 22nd, 2012

Today, together with Aeroplan, we are proud to announce the four finalists for The Grange Prize 2012, the only major Canadian art prize whose winner is chosen by public vote. Two artists from Canada and two from the United Kingdom will compete for the $50,000 prize.

Online voting begins today at and will remain open until 11:59 p.m. on Oct. 30, 2012. The winner will be announced on Nov. 1, and we’re hosting a big public party to mark the occasion (stay tuned for details).

The artists on this year’s shortlist share a fascination with the world of images that surround us every day — from fashion editorial and sports photography to landscape images and crime-scene documentation.

Let’s meet them! Read the rest of this entry »

Catching up with Gauri Gill, winner of The Grange Prize 2011

August 15th, 2012

Last November, Delhi-based photographer Gauri Gill won The Grange Prize 2011, after her work earned more votes than three other shortlisted photographers from Canada and India, Elaine Stocki, Althea Thauberger and Nandini Valli. She received $50,000 and, along with the other shortlisted artists, a three-to-four-week international residency (Gill spent time in Toronto). Recently, we decided to check in with her to find out what she has been working on since then and to ask about her Grange Prize experience. Below is our Q&A, conducted via email in July/August 2012.

A peek inside Gauri Gill’s upcoming book, Ballika Mela.

Meg Campbell, AGO: Was there one thing about people in Toronto that caught your eye and inspired you to pull out your camera?

Gauri Gill: No, I weirdly never photographed people that much…I got interested in shops, malls, big-box stores, the sad decaying ones from the ’70s, the newer idiosyncratic ones, Chinese malls, suburban malls — various sites of consumption and the way objects are ordered or “curated” to be made somehow desirable to people. In the west, larger cities often seem to have shops everywhere, unlike in India – or at least the India that I grew up in. It’s all changing now. It’s a work in progress, and I’m still trying to process all of it at some level and how it fits into the larger narrative of my work around cities — it always takes me a while.

MC Besides the financial reward, what other benefits were there to winning The Grange Prize? What has it allowed you to do?

GG It gave me the benefit of a pause. And, yes, I could stop worrying about money for a little bit. I’ve always had full-time jobs to pay for the photography I wanted to do personally, and it’s really only since 2009 that I’ve been living off the sales of the work. That’s always precarious, and so at least for a week or two after winning the Grange I could fantasize about all the things I could do with it. Then life went back to normal, as it does — and I was also back in the world of debts and obligations!

As to how I spent the year, I spent the first four months of this year in Delhi and Rajasthan finishing my book Balika Mela, which is coming out in September. Then the summer in Bombay making new work.

MC What are your current and upcoming projects?

GG Well, really at the moment the book is at the top of my mind. I am making prints as well because there will be a show to accompany it in September in Delhi. After that I hope to return to working on newer projects, including my series Rememory…I keep returning to it. I’m also working on another book from the Rajasthan series. That archive of photographs is quite large — more than 40,000 negatives — with very distinct narratives running through it. I showed an excerpt from it in 2010 as Notes from the Desert, but ultimately I hope to do a series of books, each one a “note” from the desert. Balika Mela is the first one.

It’s always such a fine and messy balance between making new things and processing the older ones and finding the practical means to make and share. Not to mention trying to have a little bit of a life.

MC What are the challenges and rewards of turning your work into books?

GG I think the best thing about a book is that you can put the whole series in it so that it can be seen in its entirety. I work on projects that go on for years, and there’s always too much to be contained in one odd exhibition. Images work in different ways — they can work well in isolation but be read quite differently when they are embedded within the context of the rest of the set. And then of course there is dissemination. A photo book can be accessed by a curious teenager, someone in a small town who may not be able to visit big-city exhibitions, a person who doesn’t speak English at all; it can arrive at a footpath or a coffee shop or in the dusty stacks of a dusty library waiting for someone to stumble upon it. My publisher just kindly offered to give one copy to each of the girls featured in it, so there will be all these books in homes in rural Rajasthan.

I can’t think of too many challenges apart from a lack of small, serious and experimental publishers with time to spare, because these things take a great deal of time, especially if you’re obsessive. I was lucky to find one such publisher. For the rest, it all seems contingent on pre-calculating a market and then catering to it, along pre-determined deadlines. There doesn’t seem to be much testing of the waters. Also, photography books are relatively expensive to produce. I suppose the catch for me is the wish to make something very well and sell it very cheap. But I guess expensive books are easier to steal than expensive art work — I had two friends in California who were very good at it.

MC Does photography get as much recognition as an art form in India as it does in Canada?

GG No, it’s only in the past few years that it’s starting to be recognized as an art form. You still cannot get a BFA in photography at any government-certified institution, and an MFA at only one design school. There is no real state support or grants apart from one. However, a few forward-thinking art galleries have started to program photography in — the market has stepped in, in a sense. And the one silver lining is that even with the current recession, photography is still much cheaper to collect than other art forms, so it might survive it. But what we need simultaneously is a critical culture and more conversations around photography. Camerawork Delhi was started as a way to address that, and there are now a few other publications too such as Pix and Punctum, which is great. And late last year Delhi hosted a big photo festival. Luckily, there are various independent and small initiatives that might appear like bubbles and then die out, but something else arrives to take their place. In the end, the scene needs to grow massively, which can only happen through affordable, accessible education; and to break down existing hierarchies and class barriers — that would then hopefully happen automatically.

MC As an artist, how does it feel to have your work judged by the public?

GG Initially I had some reservations, which I also voiced to the AGO. First, the competition aspect itself, which I found disturbing. Two of us thought we could do away with it if all four of us nominees agreed to share the award four ways if we won. But then two of the nominees didn’t agree. So we dropped that. Then, I was worried that people might not bother to look at the work closely and in depth, that they would vote based only on the edited version they saw in the gallery or on the website, and that the work might get dumbed down – or reduced to the greatest hits or the most striking images or something. Or even be focused more on our personalities than the actual work. But in the end the curator Michelle Jacques really tried to put a substantial amount of work out, and then the museum brought so many people in, to have that kind of footfall around photographs was unusual for me, and the kind of debate that was created around the work — perhaps even because of the voting or competition aspect — was fairly extensive. People started to write on blogs about why they liked this or that photographer’s work, argue for it, post links and so on. All kinds of people pitched in — for instance, a really articulate person working at the Toronto prison constructed a fine argument around my work. He really got it. It was good to hear those diverse voices. I realized I had to just throw the work out there and let it go.

Ballika Mela, published by Edition Patrick Frey will be released in Delhi in September 2012. With 72 black-and-white plates and 32 colour reproductions, essays by Gill herself and Manju Saran (in English and Hindi), the book is a document of Gill’s photo studio set up to take portraits of the predominantly female children and adolescents that attended the fair in remote and rural western Rajasthan. In 2003 and again in 2010, Gill collaborated with her subjects to produce these self-conscious portraits, on occasion also conducting workshops on photography and displaying some of the images taken in Lunkaransar previously.

Find out more about Gauri Gill and her work at her website.

Art on film and films on art (and the tweeters who love them)

August 13th, 2012

For this month’s #ArtHour, we teamed up with TIFF to co-host a chat on Twitter about art and cinema. On Aug. 9, 2012, from 11 a.m. to noon, primed by our six discussion questions, an enthusiastic group of tweeters joined us and TIFF to explore the intersections of art and cinema and share their favourite crossover projects and artists. Below, some highlights of the conversation. Read the rest of this entry »

August #ArtHour: Explore the intersections of film and art, with co-hosts AGO and TIFF

August 7th, 2012

On Thursday, August 9, from 11 a.m. to noon the AGO is teaming up with TIFF and co-hosting an hour-long online discussion about film and art. We hope you’ll join us!

Julian Schnabel, Untitled (Christopher Walken), 2006, Polaroid photograph, 20” x 24” Polaroid Camera. Courtesy of the artist.

Despite their separate venues and divergent mandates, the visual arts and film worlds share a lot of similarities, not just in technique and presentation but also in their ability to engage and inspire viewers. The AGO has invited visitors to experience and explore the convergence of art and film in both its programming — with film screenings in Jackman Hall and courses and workshops that utilize filmmaking techniques — and exhibitions, such as the recent showing of Yael Bartana’s film trilogy …And Europe Will Be Stunned and Julian Schnabel: Art and Film in 2010-2011 (listen to the artist discuss his work with former AGO curator of modern and contemporary art David Moos here). This fall and winter in Evan Penny: Re Figured, we are excited to show works by a Canadian hyperrealist sculptor who worked for a thirteen-year period in the film industry, creating amazing special effects and makeup for films by David Cronenburg, Oliver Stone, John Woo and others.

Our co-hosts for this month’s #ArtHour, TIFF, run a programme called Future Projections, in which “cinema meets the visual arts with moving-image projects” during each year’s festival. Last year as part of that programme, actor James Franco collaborated with director Gus Van Sant to create Memories of Idaho, a multi-part installation that centred on the critically acclaimed film My Own Private Idaho and its lead actor, River Phoenix. You can watch Franco and Van Sant discuss that project here (check back at soon for info on this year’s Future Projections programme). TIFF has also shown many films about art and artists. Currently running at TIFF Bell Lightbox is Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a documentary about the prominent Chinese artist and dissident.

Nice To Tweet You

With their multidisciplinary experience and expertise, we’re glad to have TIFF as our co-hosts on August 9 for a Twitter chat that explores the following questions:

Q1 What are your favourite films that blur the line between the visual art and cinema worlds?
Q2 What people have been able to master working in both the fields of visual art and cinema?
Q3 Which films do you think have excelled in the artistic use of special effects?
Q4 What is your favourite movie about art or artists?
Q5 Is there more freedom for creative individuals working in the art world than working in film?
Q6 How do we give art and artists recognition in film festivals and awards? Do they get enough?

The person who contributes the most to the conversation will win a copy of Julian Schnabel: Art and Film, the 368-page catalogue produced for the AGO exhibition of the same name, as well as two pairs of tickets to a screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Evan Penny and Shelley #2, Variation of 4, 2008, silicone, pigment, hair, aluminum, 64 x 61 x 18 cm, Richard R. Singleton of Priddis, Alberta, Canada, © Evan Penny 2012.


What #ArtHour is a Twitter chat with a new art topic each month. We invite you to spend one hour each month thinking about and sharing what art really means to you.
When Thursday, August 9, 11:00 a.m. – noon EDT (takes place the second Thursday of every month).
Where On Twitter. Follow @agotoronto and @TIFF_NET for more information, or search for the hashtag #ArtHour. You can follow along using Tweetchat by using the #ArtHour hashtag.
Who #ArtHour is for everyone: galleries and museums, arts professionals, artists and anyone interested in learning more and meeting other passionate art fans.
How Starting at 11 a.m. @agotoronto and @TIFF_NET will be tweeting a question every 10 minutes using the hashtag #ArtHour. Anyone can respond, also using #ArtHour. For example, we would tweet Q1 What is your favourite painting? #ArtHour, and you could tweet back A1 The West Wind by Tom Thomson! #ArtHour.

We hope that you’ll help spread the word and join us for #ArtHour. For more information, please email