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Museums wrestle with preserving art that's not made to last

Organic materials and outmoded technology throw curveballs at curators.

And when one blows?: Video-art pioneer Nam June Paik showed a sculpture at New York’s Whitney Museum in 1989. Recently, television sets from another of the late artist’s exhibits, in Los Angeles, have failed. With exact replacements unavailable, curators have had to modify newer sets to preserve the intended look.

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As part of the inaugural installation in the newly opened Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), an embalmed lamb stands submerged in a vat of formaldehyde. For every installation of this Damien Hirst work, called "Away From the Flock," workers in hazmat suits must refresh the toxic fluid. Occasionally, the lamb itself must be replaced.

Half a globe away, at London's Tate Modern Museum, Colombian artist Doris Salcedo recently cracked open the concrete floor of the World War II-era building as part of her work "Shibboleth," an installation piece that required workers to partially destabilize the building's foundation during the run of the show.

These exhibits underline an important concern shared by modern artists who say they are exploring the impermanence and vulnerability of contemporary life. Even as they engage audiences on that topic, works that contain everything from chocolate syrup to exotic Amazon fruits to television tubes and radio transistors often present daunting challenges for museums, collectors, and artists themselves when it comes to preserving their art for future generations.

"There is a wonderful irony in all these things," says Lynn Zelevansky, LACMA's curator of contemporary art, "because on the one hand, many of these artists are commenting in their artwork about the transitory nature of all things, and yet they don't want their comments to be transitory or fleeting."

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