Decoding Artspeak: Conservator

The temperature and humidity levels within a display case, the layers of dust that settle in the cracks and crevices of a painting, the light that falls on a work, and the angles at which it is stored—these are the delicate concerns pored over by the art conservator, armed with the forensic tools of science, a crucial nuts-and-bolts component of any art collection or museum. 

From the Latin conservare (servare meaning “to watch over or guard,” akin to servus, which literally translates as “slave”)—the conservator is defined as “one that preserves from injury or violation,” “one that is responsible for the care, restoration, and repair of archival or museum articles,” or, perhaps most interestingly, “an official charged with the protection of something affecting public welfare and interests.” You could look at the role as a bit like that of the singer in cultures that practice an oral tradition, charged with passing down a community’s myths and narratives, intact, from generation to generation. 

The term is first thought to have been used in the 15th century, and one of the earliest known art restorations was that of the Sistine Chapel frescoes in 1565. The practice of art conservation—underpinned by the value societies place on cultural heritage—was buoyed by scientific developments in the 19th century and the establishment of organizations such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, founded by William Morris and Philip Webb in Britain in 1877. 

Other notables in the history of conservation include one Sheldon Keck, a pioneer in the field, a former employee of the Brooklyn Museum, and a bastion of the principle that no act of conservation—whether restoration (recovering a work from damage and returning it to its original state, or as close to as possible) or preservation (maintaining its current state and protecting against damage) should be undertaken unless it is reversible. This principle continues to guide conservators today. 

Each work of art comes with its own special challenges and conundrums, perhaps the most confounding being photographs that consist of nitrate film, reported to spontaneously combust. The meteoric rate of technological developments presents a particularly timely problem in the conservation of new media work—as detailed by Artsy’s Matthew Israel in his post, Why You Should Care About Conservation

One of the most famous restorations of recent times was that of Jay DeFeo’s Rose (1958-66)a monumental, legendary sculptural painting weighing over 2000 pounds, in some places measuring as much as eight inches thick, rescued from behind a wall at the San Francisco Art Institute by the Whitney Museum in the 1990s, where it languished for years. Its conservation entailed a labor-intensive process of removing a protective layer of wax, cleaning, and reframing it with a custom steel and fiberglass frame, and the work of both structural engineers and ultrasound probes. 

With the ability to whittle away the effects of environmental conditions on a work of art and restore it to its original condition, the processes of conservation can sometimes reveal secrets locked into the surface of a composition, photograph, or sculpture. In his New York Times obituary Sheldon Keck is noted as “particularly adept at detecting forgeries.” In 1947 and 1948, working with the art critic Alfred Frankenstein, he discovered some 20 still-life paintings by John F. Peto that bore the signature of W. M. Harnett. A forger had painted over Peto’s name and replaced it with Harnett’s signature to increase the sale price.

There are works, though, that defy the impulse to conserve, preferring to decay and wilt according to the effects of time and nature. Andy Goldsworthy’s sculptures hewn in ice and earth, which in turn melt and harden and crack, are unrestorable, manifesting instead ephemeral, mutable forms of art. So too is Kara Walker’s current installation in Brooklyn’s Sugar Domino Factory, a giant sphinx forged in perishable sugar. Ai Weiwei’s customized (or vandalized) Chinese urns are performances in iconoclasm, destroying traditional forms of Chinese art, rather than preserving them. 

With the threat that war—frequently leading to the looting of historic collections—and climate change pose to artworks, the preservation of cultural heritage becomes ever more complex and challenging. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and in anticipation of more freak weather taking its toll on America’s art collections, the American Institute for Conservation launched a Collections Emergency Response Team in December 2012. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Randy Silverman, preservation librarian at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library.