ART CONSERVATION AND RESTAURATION
What is the difference between a “CONSERVATOR” and a “RESTORER”?
Many people are confused about the difference between an art conservator and a restorer. To the layperson there is seemingly no difference and the terms are used interchangeably. However, this is very much not the case and the gulf between “restoration” and “conservation” is rapidly widening. Art conservators are generally academically trained to at least the level of a Master’s degree (M.A.C. – Master’s of Art Conservation – see FAQ on Where do I get conservation training?). They have training in the scientific, art historical and artistic aspects and requirements of works of art. Fine art conservation is relatively new (only the last 50-60 years, since WWII) whereas restoration has arguably existed since the beginning of the creation of art when artists restored their own or others’ works. Restorers tend to have been trained as artisans (often apprenticed to artists) or have learned by experience. This type of learning is a necessary but not sufficient condition to treat works of art in a manner that will reliably ensure their survival.
Conservators attempt to perform the minimum treatment necessary and use as many reversible materials as possible – this is considerably different than a restoration approach. Conservation addresses the work of art not only from the aesthetic but from a materials point of view. The structure of a work of art must be thoroughly understood and preserved in order to preserve the image.
There are national and international organizations of professional conservators that maintain “codes of ethics” and provide for communications, professional research, and referral services. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works (A.I.C.) is in Washington D.C. and should be consulted to verify a conservator’s basic qualifications. Also, contact a local museum for referrals.
What is PREVENTIVE CONSERVATION?
The most important aspect of art conservation is prevention. Preventive conservation is not glamorous since it does not require all of the skills that a conservator associates with conservation, and prevention does not always entail direct intervention with the objects.
Preventive conservation is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT and is the ideal in any situation, as potential damage is recognized and stopped before it occurs. This entails:
routine inspection and maintenance
working to control climate1 in display and storage areas
periodic education of staff (or oneself) about preventing handling damages, condition reporting and other issues
understanding the sensitivity of particular objects for travel or display
documentation (for insurance purposes, disaster plans, asset assessment)
More emphasis should be placed on maintenance in storage since that is where many climatic and handling disasters occur.
Two very damaging agents to works of art are changes in relative humidity (RH) and the presence of ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
The primary reason to attempt to control (RH) is to control the water content within objects and, by necessity, within their environment are:
to reduce dimensional changes that cause stresses…damages
to reduce corrosion of metals, glass and ceramics
to control the reproduction of biodeteriogens (bacteria, fungi, algae, etc.)
It is very difficult to control relative humidity in historic buildings (that is, without damaging the building in some manner) or in the average domestic or institutional situation. There are some simple passive measures that can be undertaken to buffer or minimize the changes in RH that an artwork will experience:
avoid proximity to ventilation system inlets and outlets
avoid situations where direct sunlight hits the work
place acid-free backing boards on canvas paintings (this not only buffers the humidity changes but protects the verso from mishandling)
store objects inside cases that can be climate controlled
The largest source of UV is from natural light. However, once the problem with UV from windows is dealt with, secondary sources (tungsten-halogen & fluorescent lights) should also be corrected. The damages caused by UV radiation are numerous but the two most important are:
dramatic acceleration of oxidative deterioration of organic materials
direct chemical conversion of molecules – fading of dyes and some pigments as well as chain breaking in polymers.
The best example to use is that of a person being left out indefinitely on a Caribbean beach with no sun screen — not a pretty sight! UV does not have direct effects on most inorganic materials (metal and stone).
The best solution to UV problems is reasonably cheap. Use UV absorbing Plexiglas (1/8″ thick is sufficient) as an interior glazing on offending windows. Although films with UV absorbers are available these are notideal2. Plastic sleeves for fluorescent tubes and filters for specific lights are very common in the marketplace and can be acquired for under $10. This is very cheap for the long-term benefits of preventing radiation damage to the work of art. However, like the films, they will have to be checked periodically and replaced as necessary.
Control over fluctuations in environment is critical to the long-term survival of objects of all types. The only debatable point is what constitutes a critical or optimal level for any particular pure material, object or composite object. That is why there are slightly varying standards within the museum community.
What about the HANDLING of art objects?
Perhaps the most damaging agents to works of art are handling and transport. There are many good books on the specific care of works of art and on museum environment. There are fewer books that deal well with the general handling and care of art works3.
What constitutes ROUTINE MAINTENANCE of art objects?
If common-sense environmental factors are under control then most art works will fare very well. A good rule for any periodic maintenance is to minimize it as much as possible. This minimizes the risk to the work of art.
Dusting is really the only operation an unskilled person should do. Although feather dusters are common, they should never be used because they are too abrasive. A soft Japanese paste brush or other soft, high-quality brush is all that is necessary for most objects. This operation should not be required more than twice a year or there is something seriously amiss with environmental controls in general.
It is very dangerous to use old recipes or suggestions for surface cleaning paintings. Although these are found in many historic books they are very dangerous in the hands of the uninitiated. It is best to consult a qualified conservator.
What is the relationship of ART CONSERVATION AND THE COLLECTOR?
Art has always been patronized and collected for motives of both love and money (investment). If art is truly worth anything in a material, cultural or aesthetic sense, the roles of the dealer, museum, owner/collector and art conservator all tend to become the same. We are all only temporary custodians of works of art. This attitude has begun to pervade modern art conservation and that is one of the reasons that minimal intervention is a primary goal. Along with this approach there has been almost universal acceptance that preventive conservation is extremely important.
Collectors require the services of an art conservator to:
assess condition and aid in authentication before works of art are collected. Major museums (with their own conservation staff) pass all potential acquisitions through conservation for an assessment. This process is even more important for private/corporate collections since a single curator or art consultant cannot know everything necessary to ensure a well-informed purchase or whether a work is maintainable.
periodically monitor condition and recommend changes in environmental conditions that will reduce risk to works or enhance longevity
perform routine maintenance on more sensitive pieces
perform conservation treatments that enhance the longevity and appearance of objects — only when absolutely necessary.
Although it is a controversial topic within contemporary art, the control of the artist’s materials can also be viewed as a type of preventiveconservation4.
Inventories of art should not only have periodic reviews of their condition but periodic reviews of value (appraisal) to ensure that they are protected for material, aesthetic, and insurance purposes.
Poorly done or misguided intervention is as damaging or more damaging than neglect. There is no substitute for professional conservation.
Should I get an appraisal? Where?
It is unethical5 for conservators to provide appraisals. An up-to-date knowledge of the art market and the specific art historical knowledge of the period and the artist are needed to do credible assessments of value. The actual condition of a work may figure into the equation but it is only one component.
There is a strong possibility of conflict of interest, whether it is conscious or unconscious, when a conservator is asked to value a piece that they are estimating for repair. Value of the work should have no relevance to the actual costs of conservation work. The identical damages on a Rembrandt or a velvet painting of Elvis may cost the same amount of time and expertise to repair.
As an aid and courtesy to our clients who require some appraisal of value before proceeding with conservation the following are some thoughts and sources for appraisals.
Appraisals can vary enormously and can be quite subjective. Reliability improves with the expertise of the appraiser, the comparability of the work to known sales (a known artist in a recognized style and period are easiest to appraise), and the independence of the appraisal from any imminent buy/sell transaction.
You get what you pay for! Free appraisals are usually verbal and may not be sufficient to establish value. They may also be very cursory since the time needed to thoroughly research a marginal, unknown or unusual work may be considerable and thus, costly.
Beware of insurance companies. It is their mandate to their stockholders to minimize their liabilities/claims. Therefore, it is in the best interests of insurers to select the lowest appraisals. The more astute carriers are acutely aware of the subjectivity and fluctuations in the art market.