41st Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, Friday May 31, "Panel Discussion: Current Challenges and Opportunities in Paintings Conservation" by Levenson, Phenix, Hill Stoner, Proctor

I’m am extremely excited that I signed up to write a blog post for this Paintings Group Session at the  41st Annual Meeting for AIC: The Contemporary in Conservation this week in Indianapolis. As an emerging conservator specializing in the conservation of paintings, I found this discussion very important for our field and I was so pleased that Matthew Cushman gathered this renowned group of  conservators together for the discussion. The discussion (Current Challenges and Opportunities in Paintings Conservation) was well attended and the four presentations provoked important questions and topics for group discussion. This post isn’t intended for solely paintings conservators, but for all fine art conservators, restorers, and any people looking to find out more about the preservation and future of fine art.

Photo of discussion panel for Current Challenges and Opportunities in Paintings Conservation. (second from the left: Joyce, Hill Stoner, Rustin Levenson, Robert Proctor, and Alan Phenix).
Photo of discussion panel for Current Challenges and Opportunities in Paintings Conservation (from left: Tiarna Doherty, Joyce Hill Stoner, Rustin Levenson, Rob Proctor, and Alan Phenix).

Fair warning: this post is going to be a long one. I found so much relevant and notable topics were mentioned and I think they all deserve to brought up. This post is a little less personal opinion and a little more regurgitation of the facts – which is great for anyone who was not able to attend the discussion. The discussion panel consisted of mediator Tiarna Doherty from the Lunder Conservation Center at the Smithsonian Art Museum, and panelists: Rustin Levenson private conservator and owner of Rustin Levenson Art Conservation Associates; Alan Phenix conservation scientist from the Getty Conservation Institute; Joyce Hill Stoner educator in paintings conservation at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation; and Rob Proctor Co-Director and private conservator at Whitten & Proctor Fine Art Conservation.
Tiarna started the discussion with an introduction to each panelist, which was followed by a 10 minute slide-show presentation by each panelist discussing key points and topics each thought related to current trends and upcoming challenges in paintings conservation. This format acted as a starting point for the group discussion which followed. All the panelists came from different backgrounds which consisted of private, educational, institutional, and scientific positions,  so different perspectives for the field of paintings conservation could be properly represented.

First to speak was Joyce who presented The History of  Paintings Conservation Training: 101 in 10 minutes. An interesting bit of history that I had not realized was the boom of conservation training programs in the 1970s was related to the Florence Flood in 1966.   Early treatments for paintings were briefly mentioned with a focus on the expansion of knowledge and techniques  that came with the following years. One of Joyce’s main points was that now so much information must be taught in education programs because it could all be relevant depending on the artwork you are treating. I think Joyce’s thoughts on fine art conservation training could be summed up with her quote, “An ever-expanding pool of knowledge”. Joyce’s end point was to revisit the issue of certification and core competencies since conservators today must know so much.
Rusty’s presentation discussed Advocacy for Conservation and our pitfalls within this and the numerous areas for improvement. Rusty began her presentation with the need to improve acknowledgement of our profession as conservators of fine art. Somehow we have not been able to become a profession which is remotely recognized and if we are to prevent unfortunate events from happening (you all know the demise of Ecce Homo, or as Joyce later termed it, Behold the Monkey) than we need to find a way to make ourselves known. Since entering the age of the internet, internet advice has been a lifesaver for most, but unfortunately a dangerous resource for the DIY art restorer. Important questions like “How to clean a painting” came up along with many misinformed solutions consisting of food-group inspired answers. For anyone curious on how to clean or restore paintings, anything advised as an easy DIY at home with commonly found kitchen items is not recommended. If you have an artwork which requires cleaning, please read AIC’s resource center with tips for caring for your art and how to find conservators in your area.  Secondly, the lack of funding for trained conservators to treat artworks was brought up. Rusty provided an answer in that we need to advocate and market our profession promoting our presence in the world. Many people still don’t know what the conservation/restoration of fine art is and we need to take it upon ourselves by lecturing, publishing, and talking up conservation in general either in person or on the internet. A good point which was made about how AIC is not prominent enough when a Google search is done on conservation, and that modifications to AIC’s website should be made through Search Engine Optimization. Political awareness was another form of advocacy mentioned such as letter writing, especially on topics which affect us most within the arts and heritage industry. Stressing the involvement with other professional organizations as a way to promote the conservation profession and the opportunity it brings to talk up conservation and build allies within the arts consisting of curators, museum board committees, registrars, and emergency planning societies. Rusty ended with what we can do in the future: such as making AIC and art conservation’s web presence more search engine friendly, more funding for lectures and conference attendance, a blog run by AIC called “The Dangers of Doing Cleaning on Your Own” (would love to see this happen!!), and finally more political advocacy.
Rob’s discussion focused on the future of conservation from the point of view of a private practitioner. An interesting example of funding resources Rob brought up was how they had applied and were granted fellowship funding from the Samuel H. Kress foundation to employ someone within their private practice – something which hasn’t happened before since Kress funding is usually aimed towards institutions. Rob also discussed the additional skills which are needed to be a private practitioner in conservation and the difficulty of transitioning from institutional work to private practice such as  business skills (finance and budgeting, project estimation, entrepreneurship, marketing and self-promotion to name a few). The benefits of having a studio technician was something Rob praised as a worthwhile investment for the private practitioner: a tech-savvy individual who could fix electronics, do digital photography, administration and registrar work, and other technical tasks which often takes up many hours has certainly made things easier for his business. Rob’s end point for discussion was to not get discouraged within the field.
Alan concluded the short presentations with his perspective on  the differences between the American and British practice of art conservation. He began by touching on how he believes the American approach to generalized conservation training followed by specializing more effective than the British and Canadian approaches. I’m not sure if I completely agree with this point, but I do agree with the extended programs approach and applaud the American schools’ powerful networking skills and well-maintained relationships with institutions and museums which are extremely helpful for emerging conservation professionals. Alan talked about how challenges today in our field should be viewed as opportunities, specifically with the decline of generalist conservators and the rise of specialists which can be related to the field of medicine such as the many divisions of specialties which people can focus. As a conservation scientist, Alan did make the point that research is becoming more technology driven and its affect on paintings conservation.
1)  Misinformation on paintings conservation: dealing with materials produced as “picture cleaners” for DIYers and untrained restorers fixing paintings.
The panelists discussed previous attempts at certification which failed but stressed the importance of advocacy for professional conservation of fine art. I completely agree with this, we need to get out there and connect with people who don’t know about us. Rusty definitely made an excellent point that we have the internet as the perfect tool to gain a professional presence with AIC as a portal. So fellow conservators, get out there and tweet, youtube, blog, reblog, facebook, wiki, and share all things art conservation – marketing ourselves is exactly what we need to be doing. Public lectures and radio interviews are alternative ways to generate positive press about our field. Joyce brought up that we used to have public lectures with each AIC annual meeting – can we please start this again?!
2) Current trends on digitization and open-source / sharing conservation treatment information online.
Although the topic of people seeing conservation treatment reports and articles online may inspire some DIYers to take action, the general consensus was that public access to this information will likely discourage people from untrained restoration attempts. The generalization of conservation materials in terms which are not completely familiar to the public  and adding technical notes were also mentioned as ways to discourage DIY attempts. It does seem that this is a way of promoting conservation within the institution, and I for one love watching the YouTube videos on conservation which the National Gallery of Canada utilizes as a public outreach tool through the YouTube media platform. More view through videos, interviews, and reading articles is the perfect way to promote our field and make the public take our profession more seriously.
3) Encouraging relationships with curators as future allies and advocates for conservation.
The benefits of working with curators, clients, collectors, and other colleagues within museums by getting them interested and excited about conservation, especially through technical art history, was discussed. Inviting curators to see and providing them with a better understanding of conservation will help them to become our advocates in the future.
4) Pre-program internship experience: lack of experience available to paintings specialty applicants.
First a big thanks was given to all the private conservators who support and employ pre-program applicants (which I must repeat because it is such a benefit to our profession and it certainly doesn’t get enough credit). Joining local guilds was also cited as a way for pre-program applicants to get more experience. The need for more people willing to take paintings applicants is definitely something we need to focus on in the future.
5) Continuing opportunities for professional development.
The need for boot camps or workshops which are financially reasonable for conservators as a means of professional development was discussed, not only for emerging conservators but also as refresher courses for mid-level professionals. Rob stressed how these workshops are worth the price which I also agree with, but also making them more well-distributed or accessible would help many more people attend these. Speaking as a Canadian, I do wish more workshops were accessible up here!
6) Lack of technical analysis and scientific research for paintings conservation.
America’s lack of an organized research center for conservation (such as Canada’s Canadian Conservation Institute) was brought up along with the decline for conservation research in paintings conservation. The need for more professionals capable of carrying out technical analysis in the USA was also discussed.
7) Unpaid internship and underpaid fellowships debate.
This was the only discussion point which I found was not properly addressed by the panel. Tiarna made excellent points, but Joyce redirected the inquiry of insufficient compensation for emerging professionals, stating that we are not at the same level as other professionals such as doctors and lawyers. I agree that we are not, but there is no way the public will take our profession seriously if we ourselves do not take our profession seriously. Many private practitioners spoke out that they always pay their interns no matter the job and I agree with this work ethic. A key factor that is missing from our profession is the ability to search for and secure funding resources. There are many untapped resources, such as collaborating with the scientific and technology communities, which could provide forms of funding. I think this is an area which we need to begin advocating within, so that we can properly pay our emerging professionals. As one person stated, “You get what you pay for.”.

I thought Tiarna ended the discussion very well by encouraging everyone to take an action item with them to promote our profession and its advocacy. I really hope everyone felt as inspired as I did – mostly the reason for writing this painfully long post. I applaud you if you’ve actually read the entire thing!
What are everyone’s thoughts on this discussion. Did you attend? Are you also a paintings conservator? Any other conservation professionals which found key points which related to their specialty? Is there anything you disagreed with or think need elaboration? Any thoughts from the general public? Would love to hear thoughts and comments on these topics!

26 thoughts on “41st Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, Friday May 31, "Panel Discussion: Current Challenges and Opportunities in Paintings Conservation" by Levenson, Phenix, Hill Stoner, Proctor”

  1. Thank you for your well-written post. I read it all 🙂
    I was present at this meeting.
    I agreed with much of what I heard there.
    May I ask, what killed the certification movement? I am an apprentice-trained conservator and have been a member of AIC for about ten years. I’ve been making every effort to stay apprised of and get trained in the current accepted treatment methods, and I thought testing/licensing was a good idea for everyone.
    Thank you.

  2. Hi Kevin,
    So glad you survived this long read! Unfortunately, the exact reason the certification movement didn’t continue wasn’t clearly stated, but it seemed like the inability to agree on the topic and animosity towards certification stopped it from progressing. I agree that certification is something that we need to continue advocating, does anyone else know more on this topic or can elaborate on specifics regarding past attempts at certification?
    Much appreciated!

  3. This is a great summary and commentary! I wish we had something like this for all specialties (I’m book & paper). I think we could all benefit from a long, honest talk about un

  4. My browser cut me off! I was commenting, that I think we especially need to have, as a profession, a long and honest talk about unpaid internships and underpaid fellowships. Given the move in that direction at the debate (ostensibly about volunteers), it’s obvious that it’s a big topic for all of us.

  5. Thank you, Melina!
    I definitely agree that a discussion such as this should be hosted for the other specialty groups too. Many of the key points were relevant to other groups and I think the panelists did a good job at bringing up topics which affect us all.
    It’s rather unfortunate that the underpaid/unpaid topic came up at the end. I really think this is something that needs to be address since it affects us all (emerging and emerged). Maybe this could be a possibility for group discussion at the next AIC annual meeting 🙂

  6. Hey Tasia:
    Thank you so much for your detailed blog post. As I could not attend the meeting this year, it was great to be able to at least read about what was being discussed. Interesting bringing up the American vs. Commonwealth education systems. Something that all pre program students should be aware of when making their choice for conservation education.
    Very well written!

  7. Hey Megan!
    So glad I could give you an idea of what went on at the conference. I also thought it was an interesting topic, not something that I had given a lot of thought to before, but definitely something I will keep in mind. Thanks again! Talk soon 🙂

  8. Thanks for the great write-up, Tasia. For those who were unable to attend, there likely will be a transcript of the panel discussion included in the PSG Postprints.

  9. Amazing, well detailed write-up Tasia. Thank you so much for taking on this important and slightly daunting (it would be to me at least) talk! I’ve certainly had several of these conversations at a smaller scale with many fellow emerging conservators, as well as mentors. It’s a good sign towards improvement and change that we are beginning to discuss these challenging issues at a national level. An exciting time to become a painting conservator!

  10. Thank you, Blair! So glad you enjoyed it. I just checked out your summary, so glad you were able to create a shorter version 🙂 Too bad you couldn’t attend – but as Matt said above, they are going to work on getting an audio version or transcripts available. Definitely is an exciting time to be a paintings conservator!

  11. Working with the conservation community we undertook research in conservation issues of acrylic paints and paintings, desiring a formal understanding of something most acrylic painters might take for granted: That if an acrylic painting gets dirty, it can simply be washed off with a damp rag. Just to be clear, we are not currently recommending this practice. Just Paint 5 took a look at conservation cleaning methods currently recommended for acrylic paint surfaces. These remain quite conservative and appropriate for conservators. We have tried to examine more aggressive cleaning techniques that might be practiced by artists and to simply characterize the sort of changes that might occur. Our results showed that under certain conditions and with certain pigments, washing did not show any visible damage. Future research will investigate more precise conditions, the level of changes that may occur in certain colors or mediums and if, in fact, washing may improve the surface by removing surfactants from the paint surface.

  12. Tasia,
    In my opinion, the reasons that efforts by AIC to establish a certification program for conservators have not resulted in a functioning, formal certification program is an extremely complex subject, but the short answer to your question is that a proposed model for a certification program was created by a dedicated, select committee of AIC members, put to the AIC membership for a vote, and voted down not to long ago. Just coming up with a certification program model to propose and vote on was a long, arduous, and sometimes contentious process, so a provision of the membership’s vote on that proposed certification model was that a “no” vote would also indicate AIC should redirect its primary efforts elsewhere, rather than continue along the same lines of focusing on establishment of a formal certification program.
    I personally think that the issues related to the lack of formal certification in our field were in no way put to rest by a “no” vote on a particular certification model at a specific point in time, and the subject is destined to circle around and percolate up the profession’s agenda once again, probably when the collective memory of all the difficult sticking points in this decades-long debate start blurring into the past just a little more.

  13. Thank you so much for the insight, Mark. I appreciate you taking the time to talk about it a bit since I’m unable to. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if the topic of certification arises again. Thanks again!

  14. “The Dangers of Doing Cleaning on Your Own”
    I would love to see that too! With real examples or even staged ones to provide a cautionary tale.

  15. Haha! Me too! I imagine it as a tumblr blog with some great meme and .gif images 🙂
    I think it could a great blog to start up. Creating a web presence in an easy-to-understand platform (like a simple blog) would be very helpful to the general public.

  16. Nicely done Tasia. Thanks. If this is the type of discussion that may be of benefit to the field in the future, again, perhaps an on-running list of topics that people would like to hear discussed would be good to gather? I think that tapping into the recall of the ol’ timers for their perspective before they loose it is smart.

  17. I wanted to add my thanks, as well, for writing about this session. I was not able to attend the AIC conference and greatly appreciate that you and others have been posting to the blog. The comment from Alan Phenix, that he feels the conservation training in America is more effective than that offered in Canada and Great Britain, is interesting and I would be curious to hear the points he brought up during the session. I have to say, like you, that I do not entirely agree with his opinion either (I am about to complete a MS in Conservation, with a specialty in objects, from Cardiff University in Great Britain). Thanks again for writing the post and sharing your thoughts.

  18. Hi Francis,
    Thank you! I was very pleased to write about this session, so many interesting and provoking topics were addressed that I knew it had to be shared. Matt Cushman mentioned that they are working on having the session transcribed so keep your eyes peeled for it to hear more details about Alan’s comments. Hope that helps!

  19. Thank you, Scott! I think that is an excellent idea. I’m afraid I am not involved with any AIC committees, but if anyone reading this (or perhaps yourself, Scott) can get in contact with the people who are in charge of AIC conference planning could suggest this, I think it would be a great feature for next year’s conference. Glad you brought this up!

  20. Thanks for sharing this clairification on acrylic paint surfaces, Terri! Hopefully any artists or DIYers that read this will take your advise and contact a professional conservator. Good luck with your future research!

  21. I have been in the field for nearly 25 years and am a PA. I was apprenticeship trained for 8 years by a fellow of the organization. If I recall correctly there were discussions about certification nearly 20 years ago and I believe much of the consternation at the time was that some felt it was a way to differentiate between program trained and apprenticeship trained conservators. The feeling was then that many PA’s and Fellows were grandfathered in, more recent graduates of programs felt they didn’t want to share status with conservators they didn’t feel were qualified. I think that some of the same sentiment was present in the last attempt at certification. Unless certification is licensing that is legally enforceable the certification system will carry no more weight then the membership levels do today. In the private sector There will always be individuals over cleaning and repainting paintings regardless of how the flagship organization decides to categorize its members. The best approach that I see is to have AIC out in front with educating the public. One example would be educating insurance companies about the dangers of having home restoration companies restore clients artwork. There are many topics that should be made more clear to the general public, maybe we should be able to add to a list of suggestions that would then be presented to the board? Maybe there is one that I am not aware of?

  22. I completely agree, Craig. I think a conservation website that educations the public could be a great benefit to our profession and educate the public on conservation vs. restoration. Certification does seem to be an ongoing and touchy topic. During the lecture, the fact that AIC and other conservation associations don’t rank high enough when conservation is searched on Google seemed like a big problem. That is exactly why our first world-wide viral fame was the Ecce Homo restoration. Pushing for educating the public is something that should be brought up again at the next annual meeting 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  23. Interesting ideas been discussed here. I have a question regarding the cleaning of acrylic painted surfaces. I submitted my application and I was not selected. I am wondering if anyone knows why is so hard to be able to attend to courses. I have a private practice and it is an effort to come up with the time and money for continuing education courses. I think that access to continuing education should be more accessible.

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