Every day I learn something new at Krannert Art Museum.
When working my mid-day shift, I was asked to take pictures of newly acquired Peruvian textiles for a long-term project.
While doing so, I was lucky enough to learn more about the conservation of art by speaking with Conservator Stephanie Hornbeck of Chicago-based Caryatid Conservation and KAM Collection Manager Kim Sissons.
Both Stephanie and Kim made it clear that the conservation of art is different from art restoration. While both focus on improving the look of artwork, they do so in different manners.
Conservation of art is the preservation of artwork with the focus in slowing further deterioration.
Restoration of art is the repair of artwork with the focus in returning it to its original state.
Stephanie and Kim explained that, a conservator often focuses their training in one of three broad categories: paper, paintings, and objects. Within these categories, object conservators typically have their own specialized concentrations such as textiles or ceramics.
I was also shocked to hear that there are only about 40 conservators certified each year in the U.S. due to the rigorous training and limited places to study art conservation. After finding this out, I was curious to know where Stephanie studied. She told me she studied at The Conservation Center at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.
Kim explained that both conservators and KAM staff consider all sorts of factors that may affect the art and how they can proceed with the preservation process as they consider preventative measures. Art can be affected by the weather, direct or indirect sunlight, humid or dry climates, and even the materials used by the artist. Whether they are homemade, store-bought, or just texturally different, the materials used to create art may react differently to its environment, and thus its aging process differs.
In Art Since 1948 for example, Kim pointed out an artwork where the artist experiments show: Thomas Sills’ Black Signal. Apparently, something in the paint had reacted differently than expected causing it to look like there were grains of salt within the paint strokes.
Kim explained that some artists like to experiment and use materials in their artwork that do not react the way that they originally anticipate and instead get clumpy or peel or even turn grainy. That’s why conservators are around to help preserve artwork after the effects of the experimental resources may begin to age or go awry.
While discussing the role of a conservator and the science behind the artwork and the preservation process, I got to try on a pair of head-mounted magnifiers and take a closer look at some of the Peruvian textiles that Stephanie was evaluating for a future reinstallation of the Ancient Andean art collection at KAM.
Stephanie explained to me that one piece in particular really showcased how the creator was an excellent weaver. The threads were so finely spun and the image outlines were woven not embroidered, making their skills even more riveting.
While I was observing the textiles, Stephanie also pointed out where parts of the textiles were cut and folded over to only exhibit the pretty and undamaged parts in frames. Doing so does not allow the full beauty of the artwork to be properly displayed and admired and can hinder future restoration and conservation attempts.
Knowing that art is often treated poorly to be put on display, I came away from this experience with a new way to appreciate art. By understanding how art can be affected by the environment and the artist’s materials, I can better understand what art conservation is all about.