Why You Should Care About Conservation

Matthew Israel
Oct 21, 2013 6:01PM

Regardless of your engagement with the art world, conservation is more relevant than you think. Following is a list of reasons why, informed primarily by a conversation I recently had with Michele Marincola, Sherman Fairchild Chairman and Professor of Conservation at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts (IFA). The IFA’s conservation program is the oldest—and arguably the most prestigious—degree-granting program in the United States. (Marincola is also a part-time conservator at The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and a Conservation Consultant, Villa La Pietra.)

The pictures at right are of Marincola (at top), and then following, of students and faculty working on a range of conservation projects as part of their IFA studies.

#1: The most significant physical changes—i.e. damage or deterioration—in an artwork may take place during its first 75 years. Conservators are the primary people to help stop this from happening.

Conservators don't just fix old paintings. In fact, one of the most important jobs of a conservator is to help owners of artworks think about preventive conservation, i.e. come up with strategies to help arrest the degradation of art so works don’t have to be restored.

Conservators help owners think through such things as establishing the right light exposure and placement of a work of art, however there are many other things which can be done regarding the cleaning, handling and framing of works of art. For those interested in more information about preventive conservation, Marincola recommends the American Institute of Conservation, which offers very good initial guidelines for caring for your collection.

Galleries and museums can also offer recommendations like those from the AIC as well as suggestions of specific conservators who specialize in particular mediums. Marincola suggests that collectors inquire about conservators' experience before consigning artworks for treatment. Since there is no accreditation or certification for conservators in the U.S., and "anyone can hang up a shingle," she counsels owners to pay close attention to training and experience, especially with the types of artworks you have. Marincola also recommends getting more than one opinion and asking for an estimate, since conservation can be very expensive.

#2: Conservators are also experts in the conservation problems of new media, one of the fasting growing sectors of collecting in contemporary art.

On the one hand, all art materials change over time (as discussed above), yet what happens when, with new media works, technology becomes obsolete, or the art materials are no longer made, cannot be fixed, or cannot be operated in our environment (i.e. think of how analog television broadcasting was replaced in 2009 by digital TV).

Marincola describes this as “facing the death of the artwork” and explains that this is something contemporary art conservators have been grappling with since new media works—what new media conservator Christine Frohnert refers to as “art with a plug”—started to be made in the 1950s and 1960s.

Marincola explains that there are two basic solutions to dealing with this type of work. The first is migration, meaning that you re-format the work of art to the current technological equivalent. This could be chosen for artists who believe their work is timeless and can be successfully migrated to any new medium and still retain its original meaning. A basic example would be the migration of a video work originally shown on an analog TV set (CRT) to a contemporary digital flatscreen monitor. Bear in mind, though, that all original aspects can never truly be retained. For example, Marincola asks, if an artist created a slideshow, what happens to the hum of the slideshow fan and the whirl and click of slides falling into the carousel when a digital version becomes the medium of the work?

On the other hand, there are many involved in the art world who believe in the primacy of the original materials used for the object, or that the meaning of the work is actually, in Marincola’s words, “embedded in the materials originally used to create the work.” A strategy here would be to stockpile the original materials, and to find and nurture relationships with people who can fix and maintain the obsolete technology. The risk of this is obviously that it cannot be done in some cases (or in perpetuity), and the original effect of the work might be, in time, lost as the technology becomes increasingly remote.

Marincola insists that as much as possible the decision to migrate or retain the original object (or follow any course of action in between) needs to be made in consultation with the artist. Artists are now regularly asked early in their careers—particularly by museums who purchase their works—to start thinking about how they want their art to exist after they are no longer around to make decisions about it, so such decisions can be consistent for their works in the future.

#3 Conservators repair damaged artworks—often very badly damaged ones!

What are the worst cases conservators have had to deal with? Marincola cites that of one of the Metropolitan Museum’s most important High Renaissance sculptures, the 15th-century life-size marble statue by the Venetian sculptor Tullio Lombardo. In 2002, its wooden base broke, sending the entire sculpture crashing to the floor, where it shattered into hundreds of pieces. While conservators could have put the sculpture back together relatively quickly and back on view in a couple of years using more traditional conservation methods, in fact the Met has spent the last eleven years (covered by a significant insurance settlement) studying the best possible way to repair the sculpture and implementing what was learned. Extensive scientific studies (of adhesives) and new approaches to pinning together marble (as one might do to heal a broken bone) have been discovered—and published by the researchers—over the past few years. These are significant advances in the field of marble conservation. And the restoration will be the subject of a new exhibition and a gallery devoted to the Venetian Renaissance.

Obviously most works will not endure such damage as the Met’s. However, if any damage happens, conservators are the primary means for the assessment of an artwork’s condition, an evaluation of what has happened to the work in the past as well as a prediction of what will happen in the future, in addition to the eventual repair of the work.

#4 If you rely only on images, “objects will make a fool of you.”

The above quote is from Institute of Fine Arts Director Patricia Rubin, and Marincola cites it to explain that the techniques of conservation and its close attention to works of art are constant reminders to ground any ideas and interpretations associated with art in observation of actual artworks. According to Marincola, “You can theorize however much you want, but if it’s not based on the reality of the object, it’s not truly theory—which is based, after all, on knowledge that can be confirmed again and again through observation and experimentation.”

Matthew Israel