The Future of Saving the Past: Boosting the Field of Art Conservation

Intermuseum Conservation Association (ICA) executes approximately 350 conservation projects each year for clients ranging from major art museums to small historical societies in the Midwest and nationally. Photo courtesy of ICA.

As the head of paper conservation at Cleveland’s Intermuseum Conservation Association (ICA), the country’s oldest non-profit, regional art conservation center, Cher Schneider has to be ready for the unexpected.  When she and her colleagues took on a project with Malabar Farm, a historic 1930s farmhouse in Ohio’s Pleasant Valley, they discovered fragile paintings and drawings, hand-colored lithographs, and the manuscript of an E.B. White poem.  Another local client held an extensive collection of Harry Houdini memorabilia, including books and ledgers, textiles, a straitjacket, and even the celebrated magician’s “secret code” in an imperfectly sealed envelope.

“You never know going in what you’ll be called on to use,” Schneider says.  “It means staying both responsive to the objects and creative in your thought processes of how to care for them.  The excitement comes when you find your way inside whatever’s in front of you, and into the mind and mindset of the creator.”

It’s a job that requires great care—and receives little fanfare. Talented conservators analyze and preserve a wide variety of artistic works and cultural artifacts that help us answer questions about our collective past. Trained in science and history, they apply their meticulous attention to detail to keep irreplaceable objects alive for public appreciation and future study.

They’re doing the work of protecting and restoring history.

Thanks to a group of grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered by the Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF), expert practitioners like Schneider at six regional art conservation centers around the country are pursuing their essential work with renewed vigor. The Foundation’s Comprehensive Organizational Health Initiative (COHI) is a multi-phased funding program designed to improve the structural and financial health of under-resourced arts and culture organizations. The conservation centers are among several cohorts that are receiving financial literacy clinics and individualized technical assistance from NFF, aimed at strengthening their financial health, organizational structure, training and educational operations, and community outreach.  COHI culminates in direct grants from the Foundation to the centers, of up to $1 million each, for “change capital” to implement new ideas.

[conservator working on a photograph]Laura Hortz Stanton, executive director of Philadelphia’s Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA), called the Mellon grant “wonderfully freeing.” Photo courtesy of CCAHA.

Laura Hortz Stanton, executive director of Philadelphia’s Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA), called the Mellon grant “wonderfully freeing.”  “We started thinking big and strategically and about how to better serve other organizations,” she said.  “Before COHI, we were perpetually catching up and only looking two weeks ahead instead of six months or more.”

Mellon’s support for conservation institutions aims to address the systematic underfunding of small arts organizations, which is a growing challenge, according to Alison Gilchrest, a program officer for Arts and Cultural Heritage at the Foundation.  

“The regional centers represent a whole world of conservation outside the museum sector,” Gilchrest said. “This network of organizations used to be known as the ‘national safety net.’ In order for these highly skilled practitioners and their services to stay available, the centers need modern, adaptive business practices.”

In addition to ICA and CCAHA, the recipients of Mellon’s COHI conservation grants are the Midwest Art Conservation Center in Minneapolis (MACC), the Balboa Art Conservation Center in San Diego (BACC), the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia (CCAHA), the Williamstown Art Conservation Center (WACC), and the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Massachusetts (NEDCC).

Each of these regional centers was founded in the 1970s or earlier, and are now dealing with significant institutional transitions and structural changes in the field.  The growing importance of creating and maintaining digital archives, which presents new costs and technical demands, is one issue.  The uncertainty of federal funding is another.

[paper conservator working on a map]Photo courtesy of Midwest Art Conservation Center.

“For us, the initiative was extremely well-timed,” said Janet Ruggles, who is nearing retirement as chief executive of BACC.  “The changes will support better business practices, and allow us to be more flexible and responsive going forward.”

In one important move, Ruggles’ successor will occupy the executive director position full-time, and new part-time jobs in marketing and development will be added to the staff.  The grant also helped establish a reserve fund, and allowed the organization to undertake a much-needed redesign of an eight-year-old website. 

After years of “begging, borrowing and scrounging,” the BACC can now afford portable X-ray fluorescence and multispectral imaging tools to identify colorants more precisely when examining objects such as paintings on canvas and panels, polychrome sculpture, and gilded ornamental frames. 

“The Mellon grant afforded us the ability to fully step back and view the future,” Ruggles said.

After a “deep dive” into CCAHA’s business practices with NFF, Stanton and her colleagues reconfigured some staff positions and added others. Most importantly, the Mellon grant freed CCAHA from concerns over cash flow, enabling it to participate in a long-term project with archival groups throughout the state of New York. And the organization’s work with the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, got a boost when Stanton—again with the help of Mellon funds—was able to authorize the purchase of equipment including a copy stand, book cradle, and camera to help digitize crucial documents dating back to the 18th century.

“It gave the institution a better end product,” Stanton said.        

Schneider, who started at ICA in January 2018, has been helping to expand and unify the organization’s paper and textile laboratories with COHI funding.  In addition, ICA has upgraded equipment, including new lighting and a mister, all of which will help conservators to better preserve and safeguard their objects.

“It will impact greatly on everything we do on a daily basis,” said Schneider.

Then she mused on the conservation process for those lithographs at Malabar Farm, a set of four images of flowers and fruit.

“There are layers and layers of varnish,” she said.  “The acidic board is darkened and brittle and stained.  There are certain tricks we can use,” added Schneider, as if the Houdini archives might be coloring her thoughts for a moment.  “The new equipment will help tremendously.  In ways like this, big and small, Mellon has helped us all re-think the future of ICA and what we are capable of doing.”

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