Recycling a Museum’s ‘Trash’ Back Into Art

BY Arts Desk  August 12, 2009 at 2:39 PM EDT

Accepted museum etiquette dictates that you never reach out to touch the brushstrokes of Van Gogh, or caress the finely sanded wood of an African mask. But what if a museum artifact was yours to do with however you pleased? Would you cut up a floral skirt and make it into a tent? Fashion a James Galanos dress into a seat cover? Artist Robert Fontenot is creating new treasures from discarded treasures on his blog Recycle LACMA.

Usually what you see on display at a museum is not what they actually have: most hold huge clandestine collections in storage. A basic lack of space, along with budgeting concerns (now widespread due to the economic turmoil) have led museums to deaccession their collections. Often, museums tend to gift works to other museums, or release them to public auction to raise funds for general operations.

“Items slated for deaccessioning are, as far as the museum is concerned, trash,” Fontenot has written on his blog in a post called ‘Recycle.’ “The only guarantee that a deaccessioned item might be cared for in the future is the large sum of money that might be paid for it.”

The Rose Art Museum became the centerpiece of a national debate on museum deaccessioning, when officials at Brandeis University made a surprise announcement in December that they planned to sell the whole collection and shut down the museum.

When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently deaccessioned a trove of costumes from its collection, Fontenot, a textile artist who also catalogs his ironically baroque needlepoint works on another blog, Dictionary of Earthly Delights, stumbled upon an auction catalog. The new project was born when he scooped up more than 50 deaccessioned costumes (each costing an average of $10) and decided to remake them into entirely new items.

This child-sized tent was once a skirt; photo courtesy of Recycle LACMA This skirt became a child-sized tent; photo courtesy of Recycle LACMA

[Watch a slide show of Robert Fortenot’s ‘Recycle LACMA’ transformations.]

A colorful knit skull cap was re-sewn into a hacky-sac (that even conforms to the rules and standards of the International Footbag Players’ Association). A brocade evening gown was disassembled and remade into an umbrella, the accession number carefully embroidered onto a side panel. Though he plans to show these pieces eventually, right now his Turkish embroidered textile-turned-trashcan is a functional receptacle that he uses every day.

In each post, Fontenot documents new projects with before and after photos, describes the construction of each piece in its original state, and then details the process of how he turns, for instance, a gauzy Korean coat into a kite. The delight in Fontenot’s blog is not just his tongue-in-cheek “seamstress-speak” way of describing his process of creation, but in the mere act of scrolling down the page to see what the artist dreamed up for the fate of an old fur coat.

While the blog has gotten positive attention from the art world, it has some detractors in the fashion world. Using some items that are designer brands, he has been criticized for “destroying a valuable piece of history” by people who “assume it’s mint condition,” according to Fontenot. Just because something belongs to a museum, doesn’t mean it’s museum quality, he says. While the artist does not describe the condition of the garments in his posts, he says that some items in the LACMA auction were in such bad condition that “that you couldn’t touch them without pieces falling off.”

“We are all being encouraged to recycle as much as possible today, and perhaps museums can look to this model too. What if an inferior Cranach could be turned into a superior someone else?” (A piece by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a German Renaissance painter, was put up for auction by LACMA at the end of January, but failed to attract a buyer.)

Fontenot wants the blog to highlight the debate over deaccessioning and offer creative, alternative ways for museum curators to deal with unused collection items. And although he notes that it’s easy to connect Recycle LACMA to the larger green movement, his project is not about politics or environmental policy. He’s happy to have it embraced by the environmentalists, but, says the artist, recycling is “really just another way of expressing myself.”