44th Annual AIC Meeting – Track A: Confronting the Unexpected, May 16, "Preservation of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) Collection: Protecting Art at Risk" by Barbara Heller

Here was a distinctly man-made disaster of epic proportions. Director and Conservator, Special Projects, Barbara Heller’s past experience had included work on 1966 Florence flood-damaged books and paintings and she was a responder for the DIA’s emergency team, yet no amount of disaster mitigation had prepared her for the stress and uncertainty of bankruptcy. At the risk of oversimplification, the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts’ collection was put at risk of being sold when the city of Detroit declared Chapter 9 in July, 2013.
The DIA collection, one of the largest in the country, includes iconic works by Bellini, Breugel, Frans Hals and Diego Rivera to name a few. Incorporated as a private nonprofit “Founders Society” in 1885, the DIA had moved from the private sector to a city-owned entity in 1919, with a new building dedicated to the people of Detroit. Now the City’s creditors believed the artwork should be sold against municipal debts. The DIA maintained that it held the collection in trust for the public and that it was not for sale.
Christie’s was contracted to appraise the entire collection over a period of four months. Museum staff had to oversee the evaluators while they examined the collection in three phases. Collections management set up a designated examination room in an effort to limit access to museum storage.
Barbara was asked to conduct research, both for the evaluators and the DIA’s lawyers. Her talk emphasized the importance of maintaining access to original collection files, including registration, donor/dealer, curatorial and conservation reports. Barbara’s search revealed critical discrepancies between the museum’s digital database and the original files. For example, several early acquisitions including a Van Gogh and Matisse were listed as city donations in the digital database. Original minutes from early meetings revealed the works had been purchased by private donors and transferred to the City.
A “Grand Bargain” was eventually struck which became the City’s plan to exit bankruptcy, fund pensions and prevent the sale of DIA’s artwork. The Court found that selling the DIA’s collection would be to “forfeit Detroit’s identity.” Not quite out of the woods yet, the DIA had to raise 100 million dollars as part of the deal. Happily, a key piece of the fundraising was a 26 million dollar gift from the Ford Foundation. As of 2015, the DIA once again became a nonprofit corporation aka Founders Society Detroit Institute of Arts. As etched on the marble facade in the late 1920’s, the collection remains “Dedicated by the People of Detroit to the Knowledge and Enjoyment of Art.”

39th Annual Meeting, Painting Session, June 2, “Choices Post-Mortem in Joan Mitchell’s Work” by Mary Gridley, Cranmer Art Group, LLC

Regardless of your approach, the cropping of a previously unstretched Joan Mitchell painting is not for the fainthearted. Decisions are best made by consensus. In this case, decisions about where to crop were made by a team of two owners, their dealer, and three conservators.

This anecdotal and informative talk was based partly on interviews with two art dealers, John Cheim who represents the Foundation that bears Mitchell’s name, and Jill Weinberg who represents her heirs. Both dealers knew the artist personally and have adhered to somewhat different approaches in the cropping of her pictures over the years. Add to this the myriad number of well-meaning people, from assistants to friends, framers, conservators and other dealers, who have been making this important aesthetic decision, and it becomes apparent that some clarification is needed.

Mitchell’s early works from the 1950’s and early 60’s were painted on pre-primed unstretched canvas cut from rolls and stapled directly to the artist’s studio walls. The paintings were attached to stretchers prior to exhibition, however numerous unsold paintings from this period were discovered in the artist’s basement studio after her death. The paintings had been tightly rolled face in, in bunches of 3-8, and then shoved into cardboard boxes. Cranmer Art Group was called on to mount several previously unstretched paintings in preparation for a recent exhibition.

Mary identified three factors needed for making decisions about cropping:

“Look,” essentially connoisseurship, takes the artist’s technique and signature imagery into account. Mitchell’s early affinity with DeKooning and Gorky was noted. Her early landscape-based abstractions were painted right up to the edge, but by 1956, Mitchell was experimenting with figure/ground relationship, and began “whiting out” brushstrokes and utilizing bare canvas around the edges of her work. There is less white out and more exposed ground in the early 1960’s. This trend was not consistent, however there was an ongoing tension at the edges of the paintings. One or more arcing brush strokes at the top of the paintings are a signature element corresponding to the reach of the artist’s arm, and drips are visible along the bottom edges of the works.

“Evidence” can be found in empirical information such as catalogs and photographs, however edges of the paintings sometimes get cropped in the process of publishing. Mitchell often left decisions about cropping to others, but we know that she signed her work at the request of friends or dealers, and so her signature indicates that cropping was done with the artist’s approval.

“Judgement” appears to include two fully sustainable approaches toward cropping. The approach favored by Mitchell’s Gallery, Cheim and Read, maximizes dimensions of previously unstretched paintings, including fingermarks and incidents around the edges. Mitchell’s heirs and Jill Weinberg tend toward a cropping that is closer to brush strokes with less white border. This lends the work a more charged feeling, but could add constraints in the future.

Mary’s talk was peppered with some great photos of the artist, along with plenty of before and afters.

Daisy Craddock

Craddock Painting Conservation


39th Annual Meeting – Painting Session, June 2, “When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It: Two Directions for the Conservation of an Anselm Kiefer” by Per Knutas, Chief Conservator, Cincinnati Art Museum

This fascinating talk explored some of the challenges presented by contemporary artworks that embrace physical change over time.

ICA Art Conservation was contacted after a large scale mixed media Anselm Kiefer painting was severely damaged in transport. Director Al Albano had interviewed the artist previously and was familiar with his materials, which included acrylic paint, lead, straw and two large steel objects mounted with cleats. The artist’s working methods were described as follows: paint applied to the support, then covered with hot lead and more paint, then intentional tearing and scraping, with areas of lead pulled up to reveal the paint below.

On site examination of the work revealed a 25 x 15 inch lead fragment at the bottom of the travel crate. The relatively straightforward problem of how to reattach this fragment was complicated when photo details from two previous exhibition catalogs revealed discrepancies in the area of damage. Apparently, the artist’s assistants had made emergency repairs at each venue of a traveling exhibition. Four campaigns of staples and three different colored silicone adhesives attested to the alterations. To further complicate matters, the painting’s original state was undocumented, and the owner didn’t want the artist to be contacted.

Initial repositioning of the fragment no longer corresponded to its previous placement due to a ball-like lead distortion and to previously applied red silicone adhesive. After “endless discussion about how to move forward,” three different approaches for reattachment of the lead fragment were suggested:

1.  Attempt to return the lead fragment to its original appearance by rejoining it to form an unsupported fold as seen in the earliest photo documentation. This option was considered too invasive and thought to lack structural integrity.

2. Re-attach fragment as per photo detail in the 1987 catalog. Unfortunately, the ball-like lead distortion didn’t correspond to photo documentation, and a “tube” shape that was visible in the photo detail had gone missing.

3. Flatten the lead fragment and re-attach over existing ball-like shape. This option was ruled out as too free an interpretation.

Option 2 was considered to be the most viable course of action. In subsequent treatment, the ball-shaped lead component had to be removed from the work and repositioned to allow for a more precise fit of the lead fragment. Silicone adhesive was then custom formulated for color match, tensile strength and working time by a local Ohio manufacturer.  Happily, when the ball-shaped lead was unraveled, it turned out to be the missing tube shape as seen in photo details. The lead fragment was flattened and reattached with final results far exceeding expectations. The treatment was considered to be a great success.

Daisy Craddock

Craddock Painting Conservation