Saving Time: A Guide to Convervators
When works you've collected show signs of deterioration, you may need a conservator's help
A new year heralds a time for taking stock — but not just of ourselves. According to Janet Ruggles, “It’s good to have an annual schedule
of looking at your art holdings. “Every piece is different, and so are its needs,” notes the executive director and chief conservator of paper for the Balboa Art Conservation Center, one of 15 nation-wide members of the Regional Alliance for Preservation.
Janet, who’s been at BACC for 32 years, worked on the San Diego Museum of Art’s Toulouse-Lautrec poster collection. “They were printed on newsprint-type paper, considered to be ephemeral, which means a lot of vulnerabilities,” she says.
The cost of paper conservation starts at $150 and can go up to $6,000 for a complicated project, Janet says. Paintings run a bit more, from the hundreds to the thousands, based on the number of hours a project requires.
There’s often confusion between the terms “conservation” and “restoration.” Restoration is one type of conservation treatment that refers specifically to the attempt to bring art closer to its original appearance, often through the addition of nonoriginal material.
Alexis Miller, chief conservator of paintings at BACC, was educated at the University of Delaware and is a professional associate of the American Institute for Conservation.
“Any private person can call [the BACC] and make an appointment to discuss their concerns,” Alexis says. “But in 30 minutes, sometimes it’s hard to understand the piece, especially if it’s 100 years old and has been restored several times. Then we might need further examination, using a microscope or ultraviolet light, to come up with a way to secure the painting. Every step is documented with a written report and photographs, which is like a health history of the painting.
“What we hope to do,” she continues, “is remove what’s not original and re- create what’s been lost. All the materials we use are stable and easily removable in the future.”
Conservators caution against consulting people who are not qualified, though there is no certification for art conservators.
“You need to do your homework,” Alexis says. “The person must have a master’s degree in conservation and considerable experience.”
Paper conservator Frances Prichett, an AIC Professional Associate who received her training in England, was assistant paper conservator at BACC for four years. In 1992, she established her own practice, working primarily with private collectors on everything from Asian scrolls and screens to very early baseball cards.
“When you have your art framed,” she suggests, “take it to a frame shop with qualified framers, not to a large chain where you don’t know whether the person handling your artwork started last week. Still, I suggest keeping original paper in storage and displaying a facsimile.”
Sabrina Carli maintains a private practice in conserving three-dimensional objects. Born and bred in Carlsbad, she earned a master’s degree in Egyptology at the University of Oxford and a degree in archaeological conservation and materials science at University College in London.
She has worked for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, J. Paul Getty Museum and Library of Congress. The
scope of her work ranges from taxidermy
to modern media, including ceramics, glass, stone and outdoor sculptures, one of which was San Diego Museum of Art’s Reclining Figure by Henry Moore.
“Artwork is like people,” Sabrina says. “Every one has some little personal or physical defect that starts to expose itself.” Her primary question to clients, collectors and curators is always the same: What’s
the purpose of the conservation?
“If a porcelain piece is broken to bits, to what level do I restore it? Perhaps the purpose is just to make it look pretty. If it’s an ancient ceramic, I won’t reconstruct it to make it pretty; I want it understood as an antiquity.”
For extensive information about collection care and conservation, visit the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works website at conservation-us.org.
Choosing a Conservator
The professional activities of conservators include examination, documentation, treatment and
preventive care of works of art. Because of the increasingly technical nature of modern conservation,
most conservators specialize in one type of art (e.g., paintings, books, textiles). The American Institute
for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works recommends asking these questions:
What is your background?
What training have you completed?
How long have you been a practicing professional?
What is the scope of your practice? Is conservation your primary activity?
What is your experience in working with my kind of art?
What is your involvement in conservation organizations?
What is your availability?
What are your references and previous clients?