Make art great again: The conservator

By Erica James


Conservator Erica James carefully cleans a contemporary art piece for eventual display in a museum. Photo courtesy of Erica JamesAlmost every single artifact in a museum on exhibition (of any age) has had intervention. The department that stabilizes artwork so it can be exhibited without its condition being questioned is the museum conservation department. Art conservators are different than art restorers. The difference is best highlighted in the following example. If one has a sword blade with spot areas of corrosion, a conservator would treat those tiny areas and not re-galvanize it (an act of restoration). Theoretically, conservators don’t need things to look new. This is done for a variety of reasons. In terms of the sword blade, the existing metal is the original material; in preserving this material, the conservator maintains the value (monetary and otherwise) of the sword. More importantly, this less invasive approach preserves the material for future scholarship, etc.

Allow me to briefly give you a bit of background. I have been engaged in the art conservation field for 26 years, starting when I first became (passionately) interested at age 18. I completed undergraduate work in studio art, art history and chemistry, before going on to graduate school where I specialized in painting conservation with an interest in modern materials. Two more fellowships followed, and then private practice and a position in a museum. Typically, a painting conservator would keep a position like that for life. I was out in less than five years.

The question is why? It wasn’t the fact that in a field that is 95 percent female, males hold most of the positions as heads of museum conservation labs. As ingrained as sexism is in the museum world, that wasn’t the reason. The reason was that as time dragged by in my dream job, I gradually started to sense the workings, the light thrum and the endless combustion of a “Museum Value Machine.” Think of the nonsensical machine paintings by the early 20th-century artist Francis Picabia. A Picabia machine is incredibly detailed. Exacting, elegant and specific. And people stand back and admire its specificity. There is only one problem. The machine doesn’t work, and its dysfunctionality is systemic. One plug fires, creating movement in a wheel whose only output is noise and a requirement for more action. The situation with museum conservation is like that, but even more complicated. Think of one of those strange vehicles (only more heavily detailed) from an early Mad Max film. Hoses, wires and tubes in abundance. If one piece was removed, the mechanical puzzle would be incomplete. So it is with the Museum Value Machine.

Typically, art conservation in the museum environment isn’t about the art, although it plays a pivotal role in how art is valued. If art conservation isn’t about art, what, then is it about? How does the Museum Value Machine transform the manifestation of a creative act into a thing so specialized and rarified that its most significant valuation is monetary?

The more specialized and rarified a museum’s art product appears to be, the more luxurious it becomes. Who can afford such luxury? People who have money – in the case of art, a lot of money. And thus the inflation of art value by the Museum Value Machine dictates big museum (and small museum) policy.

As conservators, we are expected to be completely devoid of interest in this monetary valuation. Art conservators aren’t appraisers. My classic response to a private client who asks if something is worth conserving (i.e., will cost less to conserve than it is worth) is, “If it’s worth it to you, it’s worth it.” But often, museum conservation will increase the monetary value of an artifact. This added value is highly disruptive to the conservation psyche that prides itself in being neutral or simply absent when the valuation of art comes into play.

Read the rest of this story in the Summer 2016 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

Conserving contemporary artworks poses new and challenging problems for conservators, often because the pieces are made of unconventional or nontraditional materials. YouTube photo

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