Museums are increasingly having to deal with works of art that require regular maintenance during periods of exhibition and throughout their ownership. Some artwork, like Maurizio Cattelan’s brilliant, cheeky, and provocative 2019 duct-taped banana (pictured above) titled “Comedian” will rot, and the banana needs to be replaced every few days.

Cattelan’s instantly iconic conceptual artwork is not the first to use perishable foods or materials that decay and degrade over time. Artists have used, blood, vegetables, fish, meat, feces, wax, balloons filled with air, pollen, and sugar, to name a handful of examples, as media.

Some artworks are ephemeral by their nature and the process of decay, maintenance and replacement is part of the art experience itself. Other works that require maintenance have relied on technologies and electronic media formats that have become obsolete or are no longer manufactured. These pose a different sort of maintenance problem plaguing museums, galleries and collectors. Many of artist Dan Flavin’s artworks, for example, employ fluorescent lights that are no longer manufactured and require museums to have the bulbs custom made at great expense.

In a recent brilliant twist, the artist Banksy created an artwork that used technology to intentionally self-destruct at the moment the artwork was purchased at auction. The artwork was beyond repair, but that was what the artwork was supposed to be — The damaged artwork WAS the artwork. The destruction was an ephemeral, performance inherent in Banky’s piece.

A recent NY Times article dives deep into the subject and explains how the art world’s players, from major institutions to individuals, are handling the situation.