What To Look For in an Art Conservator
By Senior Conservator Peggy Van Witt
© 2010 Peggy Van Witt. All Rights Reserved.
Choosing the right art conservator or restoration artist is a vital first step in conserving your piece of artwork. Many consider art conservation an art itself. Conservators are responsible for conserving the past for future generations a heavy but important burden to bear. Whether the artwork is one hundred or one thousand years old, it’s vital that the conservator be highly skilled and knowledgeable. There are three main areas of qualification to pay attention to: education, experience and specialization.
Art conservation is not merely a trade: it’s a science and an art form. There are very strict education requirements for conservators. To become an art conservator, you must obtain a four year degree in a related discipline such as fine arts, science, textile design, art history or anthropology from an accredited university. Properly trained art conservators will have training in scientific, historical, and artistic aspects and requirements of fine works of art. From there, most art conservators enlist in an apprenticeship or internship to learn the skills of the trade and build a reputable portfolio. Most art conservators are generally academically trained to at least the level of a master’s degree, a MAC, Master’s of Art Conservation.
There are several recognized master’s degree programs in North America and several others located internationally, the majority in Europe. The specializations of each institution vary – check with the institution the potential art conservator is educated with, to ensure he/she meets the educational requirements for his/her specialization. Some programs require no specialization while other programs are highly specialized and require specific skills for admission – for instance, a furniture-restoration program will require demonstrable skill in woodworking.
Some art conservators have been trained as artisans (apprenticed to artists), have learned by experience and have no professional training. Traditionally, conservation was learned as a trade via an apprenticeship, but in more recent years, formal educational training has become the norm. If your potential art conservator is without formal training, don’t automatically pass them by. Their work may be comparable to those who have been professionally trained – it’s merely their credibility and credentials which are lacking. Check their portfolio of work thoroughly, which includes looking at photos of their work and contacting former clients.
Before branching out on their own and starting a company, or accepting a position with a private firm or museum, a art conservator will undergo a great deal of training as an apprentice or intern. The depth and breadth of their experience must be assessed before you proceed with hiring their services to conserve your artwork.
Like other artists, art conservators accrue a portfolio of documentation as they complete projects. The thicker an art conservator’s portfolio, the more experience they have in their field. Usually, an art conservator will begin building a portfolio while in school via an apprenticeship or internship. Many intern with museums or public art institutions. Once graduated, art conservators begin and cultivate their careers with private and governmental bodies such as universities, historical societies and art galleries. The scope of modern day art conservators has widened greatly in recent years. It is no longer dominated by the ritualistic practice of hands-on conservation skills. Conservators are now expected to be highly involved in the art world, becoming more prominent figures than ever before. Modern art conservators take part in art exhibitions, conservation science, preventative conservation, project management and advocacy work.
While numbers of years of experience is important, art conservators with fewer years of experience can be just as knowledgeable. To properly assess this, look for progression and continuity in their career in addition to the number of years of experience.
The niches of art conservation specialization vary greatly. Professionals in art conservation specialize in areas such as textiles, wood, paper, photographs, library materials, paintings, and natural-science collections and anthropological, historical, decorative, and art objects of all materials. Professionals in this field fuse their aesthetic sensibilities with technical skill and a firm grasp of both content and context. When looking for an art conservator, ensure you hire one who specializes in preserving your specific type of artwork
With specialization comes an art conservator’s personal interest and zeal for their work. Becoming an art conservator takes a great deal of dedication and genuine interest – a trait not to be overlooked when hiring an art conservator. A passionate and dedicated art conservator will take special care in preserving, caring for, and evaluating your work of art. This can either be one of the most difficult attributes to assess, or the easiest. Either way, speak to your potential art conservator in depth about their passion, education and specialization before hiring their services. A botched conservation job is often irreversible. This decision is an important one.