42nd Annual Meeting – Engaging Communities in Collection Care Session: “Current Conservation Education and Practice: Are They Sustainable?”

The topic of sustainability was on everyone’s minds at the AIC 42nd Annual Meeting, and an evaluation of the sustainability of our own profession and its educational path was part of the program. Having recently crossed the threshold into an art conservation graduate program, I was particularly interested in hearing Paul Himmelstein, a private practice conservator and partner at Appelbaum & Himmelstein since 1972, assess the sustainability of such programs.
In order to better understand how the graduate programs have changed over time, Himmelstein opened his talk with summaries of answers to a questionnaire he had distributed to the nine members of the Association of North American Graduate Programs in the Conservation of Cultural Property (ANAGPIC). From the responses collected, he reported the following:
–       Most applicants today are female, compared to earlier ratios of applicants, who were closer to 50% female and 50% male.
–       The requirements for admission have increased, both in the number of required pre-program hours of conservation experience and in the number of pre-requisite courses.
–       All programs require two years of General Chemistry and Organic Chemistry.
–       All programs are cost-free regardless of need.
–       Most applicants apply twice before acceptance.
–       Approximately 80 students apply per year.
–       The number of accepted students in each program has remained the same.
Himmelstein attributed these changes to a list of reasons. He surmised that the decreased number of male applicants is a result of the increased number of academic requirements and pre-program hours of experience. Men, he said, are more deterred by the extra years needed to complete these requirements as they are still driven by the “provider” mentality. He also noted that AIC is currently 66% female, but the majority of conservation leadership positions at major fine-arts institutions are held by men. He also pointed out that the majority of our demographic is white and middle-class. In response to the full-ride fellowships, Himmelstein predicted that the expense of supporting all students every year is not sustainable, given the number of students accepted.
Himmelstein continued by offering a list of proposed solutions. He suggested considering changing the grants to a need-based system. He also suggested adopting an admissions approach that simply rejects or accepts with no option for reapplying, as in medical schools and law schools. He also added that more men are entering the field of nursing, another female-dominated profession, as a counterpoint to the fact that our profession is losing men.
After stating that 50% of AIC members are in private practice, he advocated for a business-management component at the graduate level, in which conservators in private practice could share their experiences and provide mentorship at the post-graduate level. He said that new graduates “just aren’t ready” to begin careers in private practice. He also advocated for Kress scholarships for textbooks.
His solutions list continued to broaden outside the graduate school realm and included general suggestions for advocacy and outreach. According to Himmelstein, “Met[ropolitan Museum of Art] conservation projects are boring” and “conservation is hidden.” He feels that conservators are not working as important colleagues with other museum professionals; they also need to play a larger role in the fields of art history and archeology. He suggested presenting conservation treatment projects online, as in plastic surgery “before” and “after” shots. Viewers could scroll over the artifacts to watch them change. Himmelstein suggested that the public “expects us to be wizards,”and concluded with the statement, “We are not on a sustainable track, but I think we can be.”
Assessing the sustainability of our profession, especially in our current economic climate, is imperative. I agree that we must reexamine the number of students graduating each year to reduce expenses and to help control the job market, but not by selectively limiting funding or reducing a person’s chances for acceptance. Limiting funding at the graduate level would create an impossible financial position for most students. The demands of graduate school are such that no one is able, or even allowed, to work while in school. Unless a student is independently wealthy, then everyone falls into the “needs funding” category. According to Himmelstein’s report, average conservation students are not independently wealthy. Many internships at the graduate level are also still unpaid or partially paid, and students rely on their stipends to compensate. The current post-graduate income can also not sustain significant student loans. The “one strike you’re out” formula is also flawed. Many talented individuals who have made great contributions to our profession would not have become conservators if they did not get another chance to apply. Those who reapply show tenacity and dedication and our profession is shaped by those who participate.
I believe the decrease in male applicants is related to other factors and not because of the program requirements. Nursing is likely attracting more men because it has lost some of the “stigma” of a woman’s profession along with providing a relatively secure and well-paying job market. Conservation wages have fallen over time and the number of men in the field are likely reflecting this trend. In another life I pursued a degree in nursing and can attest that the increase in the number of men is not because less time is needed to get in to school. On the contrary, regardless of whether a student works to earn a bachelor of science in nursing or an associates degree in nursing, many hours of volunteer experience are required and many programs now require that a student become a certified nursing assistant before admission. This certification takes two months of full-time work or six months of part-time work in order to qualify for the state board exams. This work, in addition to the pre-requisites needed to apply, takes most individuals at least one year before they can apply to a nursing program. Some of the struggles we fight in conservation are not unique, but we are feeling the growing pains of a smaller and much newer profession, one that needs continuous advocacy in order to earn a living wage.
I agree that continuous outreach, both to the public and to colleagues in the humanities and sciences, is essential. Himmelstein touched on disseminating information to appropriate departments within schools. This is a particularly important task for me as a current graduate student, and a great way to continue advocacy for our profession. I was made fully aware of how important it can be to connect with other graduate students in the two weeks that followed AIC. From June 2-13, three classmates and I participated in the Delaware Public Humanities Institute (DelPHI). Applications to the course were open to all University of Delaware graduate students who work with material culture. Those two weeks were packed full of learning important skills such as navigating social media and presenting your project with concise and interesting language, and investigating what inter-departmental collaboration could mean for each of our disciplines. Plans to attend one another’s lectures and to share our research in one another’s classrooms are already underway for the 2014-2015 school year. I would like to hear other examples of these types of collaborations, because I am sure other wonderful ideas are being implemented.
The sustainability of art conservation is indeed an important discussion and I hope it is one in which conservators at all stages of their careers will participate.

2 thoughts on “42nd Annual Meeting – Engaging Communities in Collection Care Session: “Current Conservation Education and Practice: Are They Sustainable?””

  1. Jacinta, I am so pleased that you shared your thoughts in response to Paul’s talk. There is indeed a lot to think about. Great work blogging. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for your comment! I am really glad I attended and would certainly enjoy hearing thoughts from others. Please feel free to keep the conversation going!

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