Conserving works of art is a costly and time-consuming business. Large, well-funded museums like the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Gallery of Art employ full time conservators who specialize in various media, such as sculpture, works on paper, painting, or even antique frames. Such institutions have considerable funds and space for conservation studios and equipment. But for most museums, costly conservation projects can be completed only occasionally, rather than as a matter of routine practice.
One of the challenges I face as Curator of European and American Art is determining the best use of Krannert Art Museum’s limited conservation funds, which exist thanks to the generosity of donors. I must ask: how best to triage the objects that urgently require care? Which are most worthy of treatment? Which need to be conserved now and which can wait? And what level of intervention is acceptable? These are complex questions that require input from a variety of specialists and which have somewhat subjective answers.
However, thanks to the generosity of Illinois conservator Barry Bauman, the museum’s limited conservation funds can now stretch much further. Mr. Bauman worked for more than three decades as a painting conservator, first at the Art Institute of Chicago and then at the Chicago Conservation Center, which he founded. After retiring in 2004, he decided to do pro bono conservation work for smaller museums and non-profits. Each institution pays for materials and shipping, and in return Mr. Bauman donates his time and expertise.
In September, after the Associated Press published a story about Mr. Bauman’s remarkable generosity, Krannert Art Museum arranged to have him treat four paintings, which have now returned to KAM and are on view in the Bow and Trees Galleries. Visitors can easily find the newly conserved works by looking for a label with a blue star and the name of the donor(s) who funded the conservation of each work of art.
Two of these paintings are looking fresher and brighter now that layers of old, darkened varnish have been removed. Viewers can again appreciate the lustrous, almost enamel-like blues and greens of the night sky in Ralph Albert Blakelock’s Moonlight on the Brook. Likewise, a wider range of more vibrant colors can be seen in Sebastien Bourdon’s Jacob and Rachel at the Well.
The two other paintings received more extensive treatment. The conservator removed several thick, gunky layers of varnish from A Woman Feeding Her Child and Paying a Servant by Pieter de Hooch before addressing the cracking and unevenness of the paint surface. Now, it is as if the lights have been turned up in this cozy, fire-lit scene. Viewers can see details that had been obscured by the old varnish, such as the framed pictures on the chimney and back wall of the room.
Also now on view is The Coin Collector by Joos van Craesbeeck, which had been in storage since at least 2008 due to condition issues. We invite you to visit KAM when the museum reopens this month to see these fabulous paintings, which are looking lovelier than they have in decades thanks to our new partnership with Mr. Bauman.
- Maureen Warren, Curator of European and American Art, August 2016