On November 30, 2012, the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) held its second webinar – “Considering your future career path: working in private practice.” 80 registered participants called in to learn valuable insight into the world of private practice from Paul Messier, President and Head Conservator of Paul Messier LLC, Conservation of Photographs & Works on Paper (http://paulmessier.com/); Rosa Lowinger, Principal and Chief Conservator of Rosa Lowinger & Associates (http:// www.rlaconservation.com/), which specializes in the conservation of objects, sculpture, and architecture; and Julia Brennan, Owner and Chief Conservator of Textile Conservation Services (http://www.caringfortextiles.com/).
The program began with a brief introduction from each speaker on their practice. Messier, who studied at the Buffalo State College Art Conservation Program, established his Boston-based practice 18 years ago and employs three full-time workers and two part-time interns. Lowinger, who is a graduate of New York University’s Conservation Program, has been in private practice since 1986. She employs three graduate-trained conservators and three full-time technicians in a practice with offices in Miami and Los Angeles. Brennan, who completed her training through apprenticeships, has been in private practice for 20 years and has a small, home-based practice, which employs one to three people depending on the project, as well as an apprentice and interns. Each speaker explained why they decided to establish their own practice – generally for personal reasons and a desire for greater independence – and how their businesses have grown and evolved over the years.
The speakers also discussed their work beyond treatment projects and how they balance various initiatives, emphasizing the importance of playing an active role in the field and not becoming isolated. Messier is focused on research, particularly on 20th-century photography, and has amassed an incomparable reference collection over the years, an aspect of his work which private practice has given him the freedom to take on. He is committed to educating the next generations of conservators through internships, and he is involved in a project at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, where a photograph conservation department is being set up. Messier is also dedicated to working with AIC as a volunteer and has served as chair on various committees. Lowinger’s greatest interest is in working with artists and contributing to the discussion on conservation of modern and contemporary art and architecture. She also is involved in outreach initiatives throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and is particularly devoted to outreach in her home country of Cuba. Finally, she is an active writer on conservation for various publications and blogs and feels strongly that there is a need for conservators to tell our own story, rather than have it told by reporters. Brennan is involved in several local groups, as well as groups of related fields, such as conservation care and preventive conservation. A major part of her work is her outreach to Thailand and Laos and other countries throughout Southeast Asia and Africa, where she leads training workshops on preventive conservation and textile conservation, and has established a regional forum for the care of textiles. She, too, dedicates time to writing articles, being available to others as a mentor, and to getting involved in the broader family of cultural heritage.
The final discussion question asked for one piece of advice from each speaker for those considering going into private practice. Messier spoke on self-confidence, patience, and the importance of networking and building long-term relationships. Lowinger emphasized the importance of collaborating with and learning from others in private practice, even if from afar. Brennan advised taking a course in project management and learning to balance large with small projects, being passionate about your work, and investing time in your clients.
The next part of the webinar consisted of an audience Q&A and again the speakers shared great practical information and advice. Responding to a question on whether they ever worry about having too much competition in the private practice world due to the scarcity of jobs in institutions, all three speakers agreed that, while competition is always a concern in life in general, what is important is trusting your own experience and knowledge, as well as acknowledging your limitations and being willing to work with others. Other questions centered on establishing a client base at the start of your practice, as well as justifying the price of your work to your clients when you are new to the field. Each speaker emphasized that communication with clients is critical to establishing a loyal client base. Never delay in answering messages and always be calm and professional. Brennan suggested doing pro bono and outreach work – more work will come back to you as a result, she explained.
All three speakers also stressed that even emerging conservators must be scrupulous about what they charge and should try not to undercut to gain work. Not only does this have a negative impact on your own practice, but it also undermines the value of our profession. Rather than charging less than their worth, emerging conservators should limit their scope and recognize their capabilities in the beginning of their practice, and must be willing to work with others.
Responses to unanswered questions will be available soon. ECPN will keep you informed on where this can be accessed once it has been posted.
ECPN would also like to emphasize that Conservators in Private Practice (CIPP) is a specialty group of AIC that exists to provide its members a forum to exchange information, suggestions, and tips on running private practice conservation businesses. CIPP has a discounted $5 student rate. You can find more information about CIPP and how to join it, along with useful resources and links, by following this link: www.conservation-us.org/privatepractice.
For more information on ECPN’s webinar series, please visit www.conservation-us.org/ecpnforum.