What Is a Conservator?
The staff at the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art receives many calls about various aspects of art. Some callers are interested in finding an appraiser for their artwork, some want to know the best care for their great-grandmother’s photograph, and some are looking for a conservator to repair a damaged or aging piece of artwork. While we do not perform most of those tasks, we can point the caller in the right direction.
Recently I’ve had several questions concerning the care of oil paintings. Museum staff members are trained in the preventive care of works of art, but once damage or age of artwork has become a problem, we call in the “doctors of art.” We don’t know the tricks of their trade because their tricks may be different for every object, especially when dealing with late 20th and 21st century creations.
Conservators usually receive training and hold masters degrees in the visual arts, heritage preservation and/or chemistry. In the early years, conservators were artists who trained as apprentices. In the most recent decades, conservators receive their training collaboratively from museums, conservation labs and universities. There are a few conservation degree granting programs that exist, but most are located in the Northeastern part of the U.S. A conservator spends two to four years of study in a conservation graduate program.
Conservators specialize in their field of interest and those areas may include architecture, books and paper, electronic media, objects, paintings, photographic materials, textiles and wooden artifacts. Conservators are trained to be meticulous and good repair work is usually not spotted in a casual glance. Viewing a painting under a black light can be used to see where in-painting and repairs have been made. A conservator’s knowledge of materials, chemical makeup and potential chemical reactions are paramount in preserving the object.
A conservator’s philosophy is based on the idea of performing the least amount of change with the least amount of chemicals. This idea means the work is to be reversible so if additional work is needed fifty years down the road, another conservator can “undo” the work and treat the artwork in a more chemically-safe way. Combining chemicals is always a learning experience and science plays a huge role in the long-term care of objects.
Some of you may wonder the difference between a conservator and a restorer. Keep in mind that a conservator is an artistically and scientifically trained person who focuses on the longevity of the artwork, the work’s historical context as well as its visual appearance.
A restorer is someone concerned only with the visual aspects. A restorer generally has no training in the field other than as a hobby. An artist is also not a conservator and has no more knowledge of the materials than you and I.
Professional conservators should be members of organizations such as the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, in which there are strict ethical standards they must agree to uphold. A qualified conservator will be glad to provide you with a list of clients they have worked for as well their educational experience.
There are very few qualified conservators in our region, let alone in the state of Mississippi. I know of one qualified painting conservator who has recently moved from New Orleans, LA to Columbia, MS. We have worked with object conservators and paper conservators but must travel to their locations in Nashville, TN and New Orleans, LA.
So if you are looking for the right person, you can browse locations and specialties of conservators on the website of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (www.conservation-us.org). Conservators work by appointment and charge a consulting fee for large projects.
The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art is located at 565 North Fifth Avenue and is open Tuesdays - Saturdays, 10 a.m. - 4:45 p.m. and on Sundays from 1-4 p.m. The Museum is closed on Mondays. For additional information, call 601-649-6374 or view the museum’s website at www.LRMA.org.
Tommie Rodgers is the registrar at the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art.