I’m am extremely excited that I signed up to write a blog post for this Paintings Group Session at the 41st Annual Meeting for AIC: The Contemporary in Conservation this week in Indianapolis. As an emerging conservator specializing in the conservation of paintings, I found this discussion very important for our field and I was so pleased that Matthew Cushman gathered this renowned group of conservators together for the discussion. The discussion (Current Challenges and Opportunities in Paintings Conservation) was well attended and the four presentations provoked important questions and topics for group discussion. This post isn’t intended for solely paintings conservators, but for all fine art conservators, restorers, and any people looking to find out more about the preservation and future of fine art.
Fair warning: this post is going to be a long one. I found so much relevant and notable topics were mentioned and I think they all deserve to brought up. This post is a little less personal opinion and a little more regurgitation of the facts – which is great for anyone who was not able to attend the discussion. The discussion panel consisted of mediator Tiarna Doherty from the Lunder Conservation Center at the Smithsonian Art Museum, and panelists: Rustin Levenson private conservator and owner of Rustin Levenson Art Conservation Associates; Alan Phenix conservation scientist from the Getty Conservation Institute; Joyce Hill Stoner educator in paintings conservation at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation; and Rob Proctor Co-Director and private conservator at Whitten & Proctor Fine Art Conservation.
Tiarna started the discussion with an introduction to each panelist, which was followed by a 10 minute slide-show presentation by each panelist discussing key points and topics each thought related to current trends and upcoming challenges in paintings conservation. This format acted as a starting point for the group discussion which followed. All the panelists came from different backgrounds which consisted of private, educational, institutional, and scientific positions, so different perspectives for the field of paintings conservation could be properly represented.
DISCUSSION BY PANELISTS
First to speak was Joyce who presented The History of Paintings Conservation Training: 101 in 10 minutes. An interesting bit of history that I had not realized was the boom of conservation training programs in the 1970s was related to the Florence Flood in 1966. Early treatments for paintings were briefly mentioned with a focus on the expansion of knowledge and techniques that came with the following years. One of Joyce’s main points was that now so much information must be taught in education programs because it could all be relevant depending on the artwork you are treating. I think Joyce’s thoughts on fine art conservation training could be summed up with her quote, “An ever-expanding pool of knowledge”. Joyce’s end point was to revisit the issue of certification and core competencies since conservators today must know so much.
Rusty’s presentation discussed Advocacy for Conservation and our pitfalls within this and the numerous areas for improvement. Rusty began her presentation with the need to improve acknowledgement of our profession as conservators of fine art. Somehow we have not been able to become a profession which is remotely recognized and if we are to prevent unfortunate events from happening (you all know the demise of Ecce Homo, or as Joyce later termed it, Behold the Monkey) than we need to find a way to make ourselves known. Since entering the age of the internet, internet advice has been a lifesaver for most, but unfortunately a dangerous resource for the DIY art restorer. Important questions like “How to clean a painting” came up along with many misinformed solutions consisting of food-group inspired answers. For anyone curious on how to clean or restore paintings, anything advised as an easy DIY at home with commonly found kitchen items is not recommended. If you have an artwork which requires cleaning, please read AIC’s resource center with tips for caring for your art and how to find conservators in your area. Secondly, the lack of funding for trained conservators to treat artworks was brought up. Rusty provided an answer in that we need to advocate and market our profession promoting our presence in the world. Many people still don’t know what the conservation/restoration of fine art is and we need to take it upon ourselves by lecturing, publishing, and talking up conservation in general either in person or on the internet. A good point which was made about how AIC is not prominent enough when a Google search is done on conservation, and that modifications to AIC’s website should be made through Search Engine Optimization. Political awareness was another form of advocacy mentioned such as letter writing, especially on topics which affect us most within the arts and heritage industry. Stressing the involvement with other professional organizations as a way to promote the conservation profession and the opportunity it brings to talk up conservation and build allies within the arts consisting of curators, museum board committees, registrars, and emergency planning societies. Rusty ended with what we can do in the future: such as making AIC and art conservation’s web presence more search engine friendly, more funding for lectures and conference attendance, a blog run by AIC called “The Dangers of Doing Cleaning on Your Own” (would love to see this happen!!), and finally more political advocacy.
Rob’s discussion focused on the future of conservation from the point of view of a private practitioner. An interesting example of funding resources Rob brought up was how they had applied and were granted fellowship funding from the Samuel H. Kress foundation to employ someone within their private practice – something which hasn’t happened before since Kress funding is usually aimed towards institutions. Rob also discussed the additional skills which are needed to be a private practitioner in conservation and the difficulty of transitioning from institutional work to private practice such as business skills (finance and budgeting, project estimation, entrepreneurship, marketing and self-promotion to name a few). The benefits of having a studio technician was something Rob praised as a worthwhile investment for the private practitioner: a tech-savvy individual who could fix electronics, do digital photography, administration and registrar work, and other technical tasks which often takes up many hours has certainly made things easier for his business. Rob’s end point for discussion was to not get discouraged within the field.
Alan concluded the short presentations with his perspective on the differences between the American and British practice of art conservation. He began by touching on how he believes the American approach to generalized conservation training followed by specializing more effective than the British and Canadian approaches. I’m not sure if I completely agree with this point, but I do agree with the extended programs approach and applaud the American schools’ powerful networking skills and well-maintained relationships with institutions and museums which are extremely helpful for emerging conservation professionals. Alan talked about how challenges today in our field should be viewed as opportunities, specifically with the decline of generalist conservators and the rise of specialists which can be related to the field of medicine such as the many divisions of specialties which people can focus. As a conservation scientist, Alan did make the point that research is becoming more technology driven and its affect on paintings conservation.
1) Misinformation on paintings conservation: dealing with materials produced as “picture cleaners” for DIYers and untrained restorers fixing paintings.
The panelists discussed previous attempts at certification which failed but stressed the importance of advocacy for professional conservation of fine art. I completely agree with this, we need to get out there and connect with people who don’t know about us. Rusty definitely made an excellent point that we have the internet as the perfect tool to gain a professional presence with AIC as a portal. So fellow conservators, get out there and tweet, youtube, blog, reblog, facebook, wiki, and share all things art conservation – marketing ourselves is exactly what we need to be doing. Public lectures and radio interviews are alternative ways to generate positive press about our field. Joyce brought up that we used to have public lectures with each AIC annual meeting – can we please start this again?!
2) Current trends on digitization and open-source / sharing conservation treatment information online.
Although the topic of people seeing conservation treatment reports and articles online may inspire some DIYers to take action, the general consensus was that public access to this information will likely discourage people from untrained restoration attempts. The generalization of conservation materials in terms which are not completely familiar to the public and adding technical notes were also mentioned as ways to discourage DIY attempts. It does seem that this is a way of promoting conservation within the institution, and I for one love watching the YouTube videos on conservation which the National Gallery of Canada utilizes as a public outreach tool through the YouTube media platform. More view through videos, interviews, and reading articles is the perfect way to promote our field and make the public take our profession more seriously.
3) Encouraging relationships with curators as future allies and advocates for conservation.
The benefits of working with curators, clients, collectors, and other colleagues within museums by getting them interested and excited about conservation, especially through technical art history, was discussed. Inviting curators to see and providing them with a better understanding of conservation will help them to become our advocates in the future.
4) Pre-program internship experience: lack of experience available to paintings specialty applicants.
First a big thanks was given to all the private conservators who support and employ pre-program applicants (which I must repeat because it is such a benefit to our profession and it certainly doesn’t get enough credit). Joining local guilds was also cited as a way for pre-program applicants to get more experience. The need for more people willing to take paintings applicants is definitely something we need to focus on in the future.
5) Continuing opportunities for professional development.
The need for boot camps or workshops which are financially reasonable for conservators as a means of professional development was discussed, not only for emerging conservators but also as refresher courses for mid-level professionals. Rob stressed how these workshops are worth the price which I also agree with, but also making them more well-distributed or accessible would help many more people attend these. Speaking as a Canadian, I do wish more workshops were accessible up here!
6) Lack of technical analysis and scientific research for paintings conservation.
America’s lack of an organized research center for conservation (such as Canada’s Canadian Conservation Institute) was brought up along with the decline for conservation research in paintings conservation. The need for more professionals capable of carrying out technical analysis in the USA was also discussed.
7) Unpaid internship and underpaid fellowships debate.
This was the only discussion point which I found was not properly addressed by the panel. Tiarna made excellent points, but Joyce redirected the inquiry of insufficient compensation for emerging professionals, stating that we are not at the same level as other professionals such as doctors and lawyers. I agree that we are not, but there is no way the public will take our profession seriously if we ourselves do not take our profession seriously. Many private practitioners spoke out that they always pay their interns no matter the job and I agree with this work ethic. A key factor that is missing from our profession is the ability to search for and secure funding resources. There are many untapped resources, such as collaborating with the scientific and technology communities, which could provide forms of funding. I think this is an area which we need to begin advocating within, so that we can properly pay our emerging professionals. As one person stated, “You get what you pay for.”.
OUTRO AND OVERALL THOUGHTS
I thought Tiarna ended the discussion very well by encouraging everyone to take an action item with them to promote our profession and its advocacy. I really hope everyone felt as inspired as I did – mostly the reason for writing this painfully long post. I applaud you if you’ve actually read the entire thing!
What are everyone’s thoughts on this discussion. Did you attend? Are you also a paintings conservator? Any other conservation professionals which found key points which related to their specialty? Is there anything you disagreed with or think need elaboration? Any thoughts from the general public? Would love to hear thoughts and comments on these topics!