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.
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39th Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, Library Collections Conservation Discussion Group, Education. Education! Education? Education. Models for Educating Library and Archives Conservators, Thursday, June 2


A big conference hall for a big topic: the education of book conservators.

The education of book conservators is a perennially debated topic, and has regained urgency with the demise of the Texas Program, previously the only program to grant an certificate of advanced studies in book and paper conservation. The current economic climate is tough for a generally perceived ‘luxury’ like conservation: many labs have suffered other budget cuts, hiring freezes, conservators with jobs are reluctant to leave them, conservators without jobs are having difficulty finding one. The funding for the training of Library and Archives conservators is one bright spot, having recently received a major boost from the Mellon Foundation by funding the establishment of pilot programs for the training of library and archives conservators in the three art conservation programs.

I was both excited and curious to see how much of this big topic could be covered in a short 1.5  hour panel discussion.

The panel discussion was lead by Marieka Kaye, Exhibits Conservator, Huntington Library, moderated by Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa, University of Delaware-Winterthur and the panel included representatives from the three art conservation programs:  Margaret Holben Ellis, New York University Institute of Fine Arts and the Morgan Library and Museum, Lois Price, the University of Delaware-Winterthur and Judy Walsh, Buffalo State.   Michelle V. Cloonan, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College included some background information.  I was taking notes during the session as fast as I could, and these pilot programs are in flux, so I apologize in advance for any errors I have likely made.

Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa introduced the participants and gave an overview of the Mellon foundation funding that allowed these new pilot programs to be established. The NYU-IFA announcement is here. The numbers are not precise, but it appears there will be 1-2 students specializing in Library and Archives conservation at each of the three institutions. Each of the three program representatives then explained what they were intending to accomplish. All of the institutional representatives emphasized their desire for input from members from the book conservation community. Since there were only 15 minutes left for discussion (out the the 90 for the session) perhaps the comments section after this post will allow a bit more extended discussion, as well as involving those unable to attend in person. Then again, maybe the somewhat permanent nature of a publicly posted comment may tend to dampen the spirits of the more argumentatively inclined AIC members!

Lois Price began her session with a nod to the Columbia and Texas programs, and acknowledged the huge responsibility in establishing a conservation program.  She outlined five strengths of the Winterthur program: a strong, established materials science component including technical analysis, an integrated/ interdiciplinary approach, support for international study, the collections of the Winterthur library with existing staff expertise, and a preventitive conservation component.  She also indicated that there will be partnerships with Simmonds and North Bennett Street School (NBSS), a bench oriented craft school with a bookbinding program.  She ended with a charge to the audience to address some problems she perceived in the mentoring of pre-program students and critical thinking skills.

Buffalo State’s three year program was represented by Judy Walsh.  Their current curriculum will not change, books and library conservation will be part of paper conservation.  There will be additional opportunities for the study of books, visiting lecturers in books and digital technologies, intercession seminars, study opportunities at Simmonds and NBSS, stipends for independent study and a new book conservation lab.  She also emphasized the interdisciplinary advantages of being able to take advantage of the knowledge of leather, or metal conservation, for example. Their goal is to graduate skilled and competent entry level Library and Archives conservators. Her charge to the field was to create more jobs and paid internship opportunities.

Peggy Ellis recounted the earlier history of the Columbia Program, mentioning how at that time the paper conservation and conservation science aspects were taught at the IFA. There will be partnerships with Palmer Library School, to learn the basics of librarianship, Columbia University Libraries Conservation Lab, for single item and special collections conservation, and the Thaw Center of the Morgan Library and Museum, which employs two book and three paper conservators.

Michelle Cloonan delved a bit into the history of library schools, then noted a number of essential competencies for a conservator, including the history of the book, the organization of the collections, preservation management, archiving and digital media, digital duration and stewardship, Audio Visual materials, and more.

Beth Doyle’s excellent post covering this same session in the  Preservation & Conservation Administration News blog (PCAN) is well work reading. All of the presenters repeatedly emphasized that this was a pilot program, and that they welcome input and discussion on how to give students the best opportunities and training. And all three commented on the close working relationship that the Mellon funding and provided. After these presentations, there was a remarkably uncontroversial, far too short Q&A session. Some of the questions and comments ranged from perceived deficiencies in the study of conservation science, frank acknowledgments of the monetary pressures libraries are facing, if a MILS is a necessary credential for a library and archives conservator, problems with not enough entry level jobs in the field, and more.  Judy Walsh had the most tweetable quip, noting the “training programs are a learners permit” for future conservators, not an end in themselves.

Unfortunately, there were no practicing book conservators on the panel, which perhaps prevented some of the questions from becoming too specific.  I outlined some of my thoughts and opinions in the 2010 Mim Watson lecture at the University of Texas, School of Information as the final guest speaker at the Texas program in a speech, titled  “A Future for Book Conservation at the End of the Mechanical Age”. From the perspective of a member of the first class from the Columbia Program in 1981, John Townsend has written a must read personal history of book conservation education. I also recommend Chela Metzger’s lecture, “Rare Skills for Rare Books: Book Conservation Education“. For a little international perspective, I recorded some more of my observations on US and UK approaches to book conservation — the comments are perhaps more illuminating than my post.

The path to becoming a book conservator has never be straightforward: we all have to be very proactive in seeking out educational pathways and professional development opportunities. Elsewhere on this AIC site there is more information about how to become a conservator, although there are, I feel, more ways that people enter into the field than is indicated. Also note there are also two major programs in the UK which attract a number of students from the US: Camberwell (London) and  West Dean College (West Sussex). The session ended quietly and I was left feeling that these programs were well conceived, competently directed, and sincere in the desire to provide the best possible education for future book conservators. I would be interested in hearing more specifics about the differences between the intended programs, which would help prospective students choose the best fit.

I was also left wondering a bit about the role of the student. Most conservators I highly respect have come from a variety of training schemes — their commonalities may have more to do with their own autodidactic study and commitment to professional development, not to mention inherent ability and generally wide ranging interests– than from what corse of training they initially embarked upon. Will future students — perhaps ones who have grown up without books — be attracted to such a narrow field, if given a choice of dealing with wide ranging objects, for example?

If conservation is based on the tripartite skill set of  SCIENCE-CRAFT-HISTORY, I worry that we are relying too heavily on science, and there is not enough emphisis on the others. Let us not underestimate the importance of this divorcing of the book conservation and craft, from its long term home in the library. Book conservation has been a bit late to be invited to the table with other conservation disciplines for a variety of reasons, some to do with the functional nature (until recently!) of books, their ubiquitousness, and their closeness to bookbinding as a craft. And I would argue that this last aspect, the close relation of bookbinding to its craft origins, may be at risk.  The structure of the codex, because it is one of the most perfect technological inventions, has been remarkably stable for the past 2,000 years.  The history and techniques are reflected and embodied in the books, and also through the traditional methods of disseminating craft knowledge, generally by close personal contact with skilled practitioners.  I maintain that this living tradition of craft knowledge needs to be preserved just as the books themselves are preserved.