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Pre-order our book YOU ARE AN ARTIST (which includes new assignments!) here: Ever wonder why Sarah's computer sticker reads "PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH"? Art and Architecture Conservator Richard McCoy joins us to discuss when it's appropriate to touch art, when it's not, and why. AND! He gives us an extra credit assignment to go out and find something you can't touch but desperately want to, post it with #theartassignment and tell us why.

Follow Richard McCoy:, @RichardMcCoy

To learn more about the conservation of contemporary art:
Sarah: Hey everybody. So a lot of you have asked me about my "Please do not touch" sticker on my computer, and so today we're going to talk about just that.   I have with me Richard McCoy, who's trained as an art conservator, but now he works on sort of general architectural conservation, preservation, is that about right?   Richard: Uhhh, I like to say cultural heritage.    Sarah: Okay, okay.   Richard: And that's kind of a funny word, but it captures most everything.   Sarah: So Richard, I said you were trained as an art conservator, but what is an art conservator?   Richard: Art conservators are kind of the art doctors in a museum. They're the folks that work to restore paintings, to fix sculptures, to take care of costumes and textiles. They're the folks that get to touch the artworks in the museum and to try and make them look better.   Sarah: So you're the person who has to deal with it when other people do touch things they shouldn't.   Richard: That's right.    Sarah: I used to be a curator in a museum, and I had a stack of stickers that said "Please do not touch" in my drawer, and every time somebody would touch something they weren't supposed to in the museum, I'd get a call, and then I'd sort of scamper up to the galleries and put it down as, like, a first line of defense, just, you know, before we put up a barrier, let's ask them nicely: "Please don't touch."   I put the sticker on my computer because I thought it was funny, and because I didn't want people to touch my computer, but it's also indicative of a wider trend of mixed messages out in the art world where they tell you you can't touch it, but sometimes you can. It's confusing.    So Richard, let's go through a bunch of artworks and say whether we can touch them and we can't touch them. How 'bout it?   Richard: Great, this is going to be fun. Let's figure out what we can touch.   Sarah: Okay, here is a large outdoor sculpture by Henry Moore outside the National Gallery in Washington. Can touch or can't touch?   Richard: Well, it's made of bronze, and, if you were to go up and touch it, you know, maybe your little fingers wouldn't do a lot to it, but then imagine a thousand people doing that every single day. Next thing you know there'd be this big, gigantic sort of swipe mark on it from everybody touching it, so, to help it last longer, don't touch.   Sarah: Okay, next up: Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel. Can touch or can't touch?   Richard: You mean, can you go up and just sort of spin the wheel?   Sarah: You want to.   Richard: No.   Sarah: No.   Richard: I mean, I think that's part of the fun of this piece is that it's a bicycle wheel, and you know it moves, and so you're just dying to go up and spin it, but you can't, I mean...   Sarah: Well, and it's an everyday object, so it sort of feels like you should be able to touch it.   Richard: Again, it's not so bad if just you touch it, but imagine a thousand people spinning that wheel every day.   Sarah: It'd be bad.   Richard: It'd be bad. It wouldn't last very long, and then you'd destroy the artwork.   Sarah: Don't touch.   How about this earthwork by Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels?   Richard: Yeah, you gotta get in there. You have to touch it. You have to interact with it and see how the light works. It's called Sun Tunnels, and so you want to be in there. That's one that was designed for people to touch. Hardly anything's going to happen. It's going to last a long time out there in the environment, and there's not a lot that you can do to it to damage it.   Sarah: Next let's look at this Jasper Johns piece. Seems like you might be able to touch it. Can I touch it?   Richard: Oh man, like you want to go up and just, like, turn that light switch on...   Sarah: Yeah, that flashlight.   Richard: ...and make that flashlight go and make it work.   Sarah: But... I'm guessing no.   Richard: Yeah, no, I mean, I don't even know how that flashlight's attached to the painting. If you go up and touch it, you know, it might pop off there. I mean, I think part of the mystery of this piece is allowing you to sort of imagine what it would be like with the light working, and so it's asking you to do some work when you go see it, but, in the end, you can't touch it.   Sarah: Next up is Valie Export's Tap and Touch Cinema. It's a piece from 1968, and you have to touch.   Richard: Right.   Sarah: She's inviting you to touch. She's made a cardboard box theater around herself, and you're invited to stick your hands in through the curtain and touch her naked torso. Must touch.   Richard: Okay, so here's one that I think a lot of people ask about is Donald Judd. He's sort of famous for these really high-end finishes, but in the end, no way. Sorry.   Sarah: Why not?   Richard: Well, this is a really sensitive surface, that are usually an unfinished metal, and so if you touch them once with even just kind of a greasy fingerprint, it's going to leave that fingerprint there, and if it's not immediately wiped off, it'll eventually etch into the metal.   Sarah: Ugh.    An artwork that I would really like to discuss is Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern that was in Turbine Hall, and if I remember correctly, you were supposed to be able to walk on it, but then they had to sort of change their tack. Do you remember what happened?   Richard: Yeah, that was a really interesting project. I really loved that piece, and you were originally supposed to walk out on it, but in the end, um, as people were walking onto those individual sunflower seeds, they were crushing them, and the paint and dust was coming up, and it became a health hazard; it actually became dangerous to people's lungs, so even sometimes, artists and museums have to change their approach.   Sarah: They're just looking out for you. A lot of times museums aren't trying to be a buzzkill, but they're trying to keep the artwork safe, and they're trying to keep you safe, and they have to be responsive to the way things change and the way you interact with it.   Richard: Can we talk about one of my favorite pieces?   Sarah: Of course, of course. What is it?   Richard: Great. I love Felix Gonzalez-Torres.   Sarah: Me too.   Richard: And one of the pieces that I like a lot is the candy spill...   Sarah: Right.   Richard: ...which is a pile of candy that's usually in a corner, and it's the weight of his partner. And you are supposed to go and take a piece of it. So this is one you can touch.    There's another one, um, that Gonzalez-Torres does, this paper piece that's usually installed in the middle of a gallery.   Sarah: It's a stack of paper, and you can go, and you can roll one up and take one. I usually take one, and I'll tack it up in my apartment or whatever.   Richard: As a conservator and the guy that has to go and clean stuff, um, I see those pieces, and I go take them, and I wad them up into a big gi--   Sarah: What?!   Richard: Yeah.   Sarah: Seriously?   Richard: I love to do it. It's fun for me in a gallery to go trash a piece of work -- that you're allowed to trash. And so I have this crinkled piece of paper that then I tack on my wall.   Sarah: How about Dubuffet? 'Cause here's an example of an artist -- sometimes you can touch it and sometimes you can't. Here's an example of some gallery-based artwork, some sculptures, where there's plinths surrounding the sculptures, except for that one over there, but the plinth is telling me, "Do not touch." Why?   Richard: They put the plinths up there for extra protection to keep the structures more stable. In the event you did touch them, you might knock them over and hurt somebody...   Sarah: Oh.   Richard: ...or even the artwork. And so sometimes it's not just about the surface; it's about stability and making sure the artwork is safe.   Sarah: I can respect that.   Richard: And also that people are safe, more importantly.   Sarah: But here's an example of a Dubuffet where you can touch it -- in fact, you're encouraged to, you have to. What are we looking at?   Richard: This is fiberglass that's been painted white and black, and it's a piece that was designed to be walked on, even though when you walk on it you're sort of damaging it, they know that, and they're ready to repaint it every so often, uh, when it needs it. So this is one that's sort of built with a maintenance plan around it.   Sarah: Alright, now what about Jeff Koons? These looks sort of like they're in the Donald Judd category, like I probably shouldn't touch them.   Richard: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, as you can see they're on pedestals, so they're really trying to keep you away from them, and that's not really for a structural stability, that's because they know people love to try to touch these, and it's the kind of thing, if you touch 'em, you're going to leave behind grease and fingerprints, and eventually over time that's going to trash the surface.   Sarah: Do you have a rule of thumb of when people want to touch something and when they don't?   Richard: It's not only the kind of material it is, but it's how close it is to touch. So if you can imagine, things that are sort of at arm height get touched all the time, but it's also shiny metal things, and it's things that people want to know what they're made of. So that Koons is a really good example because, you know, is it a balloon, is it metal, is it plastic, what is it? Can I go up and knock on it? You know it's in a sense kind of dispelling the myth of what the sculpture is, that's what they're trying to play with, and I think in the end to go up and touch it is kind of cheating.   Sarah: Well, and I also feel like when there's kind of these perfect, pristine surfaces, you kind of want to break the law. You kind of do want to mess it up, but you really shouldn't.   Richard: Well you know, Sarah, I don't think everybody wants to break the law. There's rule-followers out there...   Sarah: Really?   Richard: ... and so I think part of the problem is folks understanding when they can and can't touch something.   Sarah: Okay. I won't touch it.   So I'm still kind of confused. There's a lot of mixed messages. How can we, as an art-going public, figure it out?   Richard: I think being a good citizen in a cultural institution is the same as being a good citizen when you're out in your own town or your own city. So think of the cultural institutions or the religious institutions, monuments, memorials -- this is our cultural heritage.   Sarah: And if we don't take care of it, it won't be there for future generations.   Richard: That's the point.    Sarah: Richard, thanks so much for coming. This was really great, and I hope everybody got a lot out of it.   Richard: Well, thanks for having me, but, you know, since I'm here, can I do a mini Art Assignment?   Sarah: Sure!   Richard: Okay, so here's your extra credit Art Assignment. What I want you to do is to go out and find something that you really want to touch that you're not allowed to. Don't touch it, but take a picture of it, and then tell us why you want to touch it.   Oh, right, I've been thinking about this. Uh, keep it clean, you all.