This session was one of the major reasons I chose to attend AIC 2015 annual meeting. Speaking to a conservator who started a private practice within five years of graduating from a conservation program planted a strong seed for me. Megan Salazar-Walsh, session moderator, launched the event tapping into panelists’ hindsight “What you wish you knew starting out that you know now as a conservator in private practice?
During the panel session, four conservators in private practice across the spectrum from the fledgling to established practices of five and ten years shared insights on a variety of topics from workspaces to work/life balance and the challenges of being a business owner. The panelists were: Anna Alba, a paintings conservator in the Pittsburgh area, and proprietress of http://www.albaconservation.com/ established in 2014. Stephanie Hornbeck, a senior objects conservator who established Caryatid Conservation in Miami in 2010. Lara Kaplan, founder of Lara Kaplan Conservation LLC, an objects conservation-focused firm in Baltimore in 2005. Cynthia Kuneij-Berry, senior paintings conservator in Chicago, who was in private practice for off and on for years and established her business in its current form, Kuneij-Berry Associates in 2005, and Emily MacDonald-Korth,a painting and architecture conservator with studios in Miami and Los Angeles for Longevity Art Preservation LLC and a second venture, Art Preservation Index.
The major benefits of private practice are the flexibility, whether in geography or time for raising children, and the independence combined with the satisfaction intrinsic to art conservation. The challenges of course are inherent to running any business such as marketing and educating clients and unpredictability in workload. After finishing her fellowship, unsolicited contract work started Laura Kaplan on the private practice path; after two years she wholeheartedly embraced private practice conservation. Laura acknowledged and diffused some myths saying that going into private practice straight after training is completely doable. A conservator can have an equally rich and rewarding career in private practice as in a traditional museum position.
The panel overwhelmingly recommended interning in private practice during the pre-program and/or graduate school years to make a more informed decision. Anna Alba had worked with two private conservators before graduating and hence she had insight into the both the good and bad aspects of private practice life. One of the biggest challenges of private practice is that one never really gets to leave work at work. Also, as a business owner, a conservator is doing whatever needs to be done from being the cleaning lady to the accountant as well as scientists and art conservator. Other challenges cited by the panel included education clients, learning not to over-commit, and contact negotiations can drag on with institutions and approvals. Best summary quote about private practice from the panel was “No one thing is hard, but everything can be overwhelming.” The AIC online course for establishing a practice came highly recommended as a starting point for anyone considering private practice.
Collaboration Remains Key
Collegiality and cooperation among conservators were mentioned repeatedly as essential to the successful private practice. When objects conservator Stephanie Hornbeck chose Miami to set up her conservation practice after leaving the Smithsonian, paintings conservator Rustin Levinson whohad practiced in Florida for decades was extremely helpful in identifying people and organizations that could use object conservation services. Later, the two collaborated on the conservation of Louise Nevelson sculptures for the Perez Art Museum that was covered in a documentary. https://caryatidconservation.wordpress.com/ Laura Kaplan noted that the Baltimore area is a supportive and cooperative community despite hosting many objects conservators; often subcontracting for each other as needed on large contracts. Similarly, Emily MacDonald-Korth mentioned consulting with classmates and former supervisors when dealing with a technically challenging project.
Getting Started in Private Practice
The first step is speak to conservators in private practice and at institutions who are taking private work; it is an essential part of due diligence to understand how pricing is working in the regional market. The panelists also emphasized that being a good colleague also means charging fair market prices. The conservation field has problems with adequate compensation, so undercharging as a new conservator in private practice will exacerbate the issue, noted Laura Kaplan. The rigorous experience and education associated with conservation graduate school means that a conservator fresh out of fellowship possesses the skills and professionalism to be a qualified, ethical conservator in private practice as well as at an institution, and to charge accordingly.
All the panelists had rented work spaces for their labs. Loft or converted industrial spaces that attract artists also work for conservators. Laura Kaplan noted it’s important to have a space that feels professional so clients can come and feel good about leaving their artworks. Two of the conservators had live/work spaces. Features like loading dock or 10 ft bay door become important given the potential size of art works. Anna Alba has opportunity within her building to rent extra space as needed. Recommendations for set-up include having everything on wheels for adaptability, using Ikea for cabinets and storage, creating work surfaces with trestle legs and hollow frame wood doors. The rented studio provides some psychological benefits, creating a clearer mental boundary and giving some structure to the business. A favorite tidbit regarding equipment investment comes from Emily MacDonald-Korth, always get a deposit for a treatment and use the deposit to buy needed equipment and supplies for that project. Hence one avoids the trap of spending on unnecessary expensive equipment just for the sake of buying it. Cynthia Kuneij-Berry as a painting conservator always had a solvent cabinet in her studio space. She invested in a ventilation system in her current studio feeling a higher standard now that she has employees since regretfully she’s had conservation friends who died from cancers related to workplace hazards. She found consulting with engineers, insurance agents, and lawyers valuable in addressing safety needs. AIC has some upcoming online courses on lab safety and risk mitigation.
An exciting trend for private practice is there are some large underserved art markets in North America. Stephanie Hornbeck acknowledged market need was a major factor for establishing her practice in Miami, Florida. She wanted to stay on the East Coast overall, but a noncompete clause made it impractical to stay in Washington DC. She recognized that Florida was underserved with numerous museums, a major art fair, and only three institutions had conservators. With her background at the Smithsonian, she saw a need and niche for a museum conservator for 3-D art and now works with fourteen museums in the state. With half of AIC membership being conservators in private practice and the movement toward outsourcing across the United States economy, private practice conservation will likely remain major professional trend for art conservators. A future trend mentioned by CIPP leadership is interest for senior conservators in private practice transitioning their businesses to the next generation of conservators.
It was clear for all panelists the rewards outweighed the challenges for private practice. The types of projects in private practice offer variety and broaden horizons and the opportunity to shape your practice and move professionally in directions of interest, such Stephanie Hornbeck’s work with art conservation in disaster areas. The happiness on clients’ faces when they see their artwork post-treatment is really memorable. Another reward is spending most of your time in studio and on treatments instead of mundane meetings. Last but not least, the people in your professional life can be a major reward with the opportunity to pick your coworkers, and hosting pre-program and graduate interns who bring updates in technology and education to the studio, and continually meeting new people as clients.