Home I. Acquiring new media works

Acquiring new media works

Museologists face a new reality in our fast-changing high-tech world. Works with technological components pose unfamiliar challenges and require acquisition procedures that differ from traditional practices. Primarily, this means giving careful consideration to the notions of copyright (intellectual property), conservation and artist collaboration prior to the purchase of media-based art.


The Survey of New Media Cataloguing Practices report, produced by the DOCAM Cataloguing Structure Committee, indicates that few museum institutions have established a specific policy for acquiring new media works. Yet a policy of this sort is an important tool: used to assess the characteristics and short-, medium- and long-term conservation and exhibition needs of such works, it can help museums make informed choices when envisaging additions to their collections.


Preacquisition Phase

The first step is to gather as much information about it as possible, for example:


• Background - artist’s biography, related publications, exhibition history, etc.;

• Properties - conformity with the institution’s mission; physical condition; quality, including visual impact, originality, content, and artistic and historical significance;

• Financial aspects - potential to generate loan fees from other institutions; transportation, installation, storage, exhibition and conservation costs; contractual rights and obligations of museum and artist (or artist’s agent);

• Presentation - display plan, installation space and construction requirements;

• Storage - specific space adapted to conservation (temperature, humidity, size);

• Conservation - possible restoration (risk of deterioration);

• Intellectual property (copyright and moral rights).


When acquiring new media works, museum professionals should modify traditional procedures and take an approach that, like the art itself, is dynamic, interactive and flexible. In turn, this approach will lead to a redefinition of the traditional roles of curator, artist, public and museum, and the relations between and among them.


The preacquisition process for new media works calls for expert guidance. Matters in Media Art, a research project led by the New Art Trust in partnership with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Tate Gallery, London, recommends forming a team with the diverse expertise (e.g., curatorial, collection archiving, restoration, audiovisual/technical, IT, legal/intellectual property) needed to assess proposed acquisitions from every angle.


While each new media work poses distinct and differing issues, three aspects warrant particular consideration.



Copyright, the first aspect, must be considered in all cases, but especially when a new media work involves the reproduction or appropriation of elements from other works. To avoid infringing intellectual property rights, potential purchasers should:


• Determine whether the work contains borrowed elements (film/video clips, images from popular culture, paintings, etc.) and ensure that all copyright has been cleared;

• Determine whether copyright to the work is shared by multiple creators (artist, technician, programmer, etc.);

• Ensure that the creators have secured a licence for any software or source codes used.


Ideally, all rights will have been cleared prior to purchase, but if the artist has not done so, the museum will have to obtain clearance before exhibiting the work. Even in cases where the copyright holder is not readily known (e.g., software developer, programmer), the museum is responsible for identifying and making arrangements with that person or entity.



The second aspect to be considered is the work’s conservation. Because new media art involves technical components, potential purchasers should:


• Be aware of any technological changes the work has undergone since its creation;

• Identify the equipment the museum will need to purchase in future to keep the work running;

• Determine the expertise (in-house or external) needed to install and operate the work at time of purchase and in future;

• Identify the risk of deterioration and obsolescence inherent to the work’s components and operating equipment (software, video player, computer, projector, etc.);

• Establish a conservation budget for the work - costs of installation, technical and computer specialists equipment purchase and replacement, possible emulation or migration.


Media art frequently involves ephemeral mediums, which makes it necessary to define the most appropriate techniques for a work’s future presentation and preservation. What should a museum do when a work’s software component becomes unreadable, inoperable or obsolete? How does a museum maintain a work’s integrity? Can it replace obsolete technologies – e.g., substitute flat screens for cathode ray tubes – without affecting the authenticity of the work?


In response to the high risk of deterioration and obsolescence with new media art, some museums are adopting new acquisition policies, such as acquiring new media works for a limited period only.


Artist Collaboration

The third important consideration is collaboration with the artist to ensure that the integrity and authenticity of the work is maintained. Preliminary contacts should serve to clarify the artist’s wishes and allow the museum to make an informed decision about acquiring the work. The museum should:


• Obtain the artist’s statement on the concept and intended viewer experience;

• Establish what the artist considers optimal conditions for presenting the work;

• Determine whether other editions of the work exist and whether other versions might be created in future;

• Verify the artist’s desire and availability to be involved in the installation and conservation of the work;

• Consider how the artist’s death could affect long-term decisions about the work.


If the purchase goes ahead, the contract between the artist and the institution should set out the artist’s intentions and the various options for exhibiting and maintaining the work. Some artists are receptive to museum conservation decisions, including technical updates, especially when the work is based on a concept rather than on a technology. But others are adverse to change, viewing the absolute duplication of their work as the only appropriate method of conservation. Consequently, museums must deal with new media works on a case-by-case basis. And while favouring a collaborative relationship with the artist, they must at the outset envisage all eventualities concerning the work.



Media arts have an impact on the cataloguing, presentation and conservation of works. New media art makes the museologist’s job more complex in terms of assessing technical, legal and ethical questions. The various aspects of the preacquisition phase constitute the beginning of a continuous process that benefits museum institutions. If this phase is properly carried out, it will help avoid problem situations and facilitate the management of collections in the short, medium and long term.


Elaine Tolmatch, Grants Co-ordinator for Government and Foundation Giving, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

and Claudia Parent, DOCAM Research Assistant