Behind the scenes: Conservation staff is key team at Art Museum
Even folks who spend a lot of time at Milwaukee Art Museum might have only the vaguest idea of what it takes to run such an institution and the amount of sweat, energy and attention to detail that goes into staging exhibitions.
That's why OnMilwaukee.com went behind the scenes recently at Milwaukee Art Museum and met the people who toil long and hard -- getting every last detail right -- so that Brew City can have a world-class art museum.
Last week, chief curator Brady Roberts gave us an overview tour of what happens outside the public spaces at the Art Museum. This week, we spent some time with chief conservator Jim DeYoung to find out how the museum cares for its precious inventory.
DeYoung has been at the museum for more than three decades and in addition to his conservation skills he possesses a considerable portion of the museum's institutional memory.
OnMilwaukee.com: Do your projects tend to be timely things; I mean for upcoming exhibitions?
Jim DeYoung: Yes, we do have things that we call back log and permanent collections that we just try to get to between all the exhibitions.
OMC: So the priority is obviously the exhibition stuff?
OMC: How many people work in your department?
JD: There is a total of five of us. I have four staff. I run the lab and am also the senior paper conservator. Terri White is the objects conservator and she works on everything from Chinese vases to folk art cows.
OMC: That's a pretty broad job description, huh? You have to know ceramics, you have to know wood and you have to know all sorts of things.
MAM2: Yeah, you have to know a bit about a lot of different materials.
JD: I have Tim Ladwig. He is the conservation assistant who works primarily with all our rotations, whether it is the German Expressionist art (or) folk art. He is also our point man in the archives. We have the George Mann Niedecken archives, and he has a degree in library sciences, and has quite a bit of experience as an archivist, so he is a preservation archivist.
Then we have Chris Niver, who is here currently only two days a week. He's been with me about the same time as Terri; about 20 years, he does some of the more advanced paper conservation assignments with me. Some of the washing of prints, taking stains out of Rembrandts and Picasso etchings, stuff like that.
OMC: Yeah, all in a day's work, as people say?
JD: Here they do. I tend to have a very, very low turnover. We also have another staff person who is in my department but does not work in the lab. He primarily works in framework which is in my department and he just needs to be near the woodcutting equipment.
OMC: Does the effect of having this kind of veteran staff make it hard when you have turnover?
JD: Yeah, the institutional memory is very important, remembering all the works. We also maintain a very different database from that of the curators, and we are in the process with our new database system, which I think they just upgraded last Friday. We still are in the process of integrating our files, the medical records, as it were, into the main database. All of my staff, in addition to their duties here in the lab, has to (work on that) when there is time. They are assigned sections of the galleries, and we have to go out, ideally, every six weeks, and the entire gallery is covered in terms of dusting of surfaces but also doing inspections and entering into a log that it was closely inspected and that there were no changes noted for the baseline inspection, and if there are, to make notes on it.
OMC: Is that done behind the scenes, as well, with the works that are in the vault?
JD: It is mostly done with the ones that are on display, but we do get to the works in the vault, as well. It's challenging because there are a lot of works to cover. While we have a database, a new person could theoretically just pick it up and go through the work but it is much easier when you have that continuity. People know what to look for.
OMC: Do you find that there is a lot of the effect of the public on the works that are on view? Are people touching more than they should?
JD: Not that I know of. It's something that, even when I meet with my colleagues people are a little tight-lipped about, but I get the general sense from our professional blogs and so forth -- the do-not-touch task force -- there is obviously a reason why people are asking "what do you use that is effective" (in terms of preventing touching). When I go to the Met and I see stanchions where there weren't any the last time I was there, I think it's a common problem. I don't think that we have it to a greater degree than anybody else.
That is part of the reason why we do those inspections, to look for evidence through observations. The security guards are very helpful. They say, "well you know that painting with that child playing with the cat is constantly getting touched," so we have put glass on it.
OMC: So they are helpful in sort of being on the front line and telling you what is being touched, what is drawing the most crowds?
JD: Very much so. We are on a first-name basis with all of the security guards. We get to know them very well, especially the new ones.
Sometimes we get e-mails (from visitors, saying), "I noticed this while I was there." It seems like people get very much involved.
OMC: There might not always be a security guard present.
JD: No, there isn't, and especially the way things are laid out you cannot really cover.
OMC: Especially up here in the older building there are those galleries where unless you have a security guard in each room there is no way they can watch it all.
JD: They are always dealing with what we call the agents of deterioration. I kind of lapsed religiously so I never really could remember the 10 commandments but ... we have 10 areas that we try to address -- light, temperature, humidity, particulates, security issues with people touching, or even if there is theft or vandalism is another issue. Addressing them is the program that we call preventive maintenance, the conservation, the unsung part of it, the submerged 90 percent of the iceberg.
In reality, that's probably over half of what we do, prevention, conservation measures, resetting things into frames so they don't slide around and get abraded. Making sure that the flat file drawers are not overcrowded and then pulling things out and damaging things. So we are dealing with that a lot and then the 10 or 15 percent that you see in the papers ... (like) cleaning the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
OMC: The glamorous stuff?
JD: Yes, the glamorous stuff is really just a small part of the actual job. If you have, say, 20,000 works in the collection, plus works in the archives -- and this is a medium-sized museum -- trying to do the kinds of treatments with one-hair brushes is just an impossible task. What we try to do is head all that off before it happens. So we try to prolong the conditions of the artwork; the good conditions.
OMC: What kind of leeway do you have with working on pieces that don't belong to the museum? What happens if something comes in for the China exhibition and there is an issue? Are you supposed to not do anything, are you supposed to call the other museum?
JD: That is all very formal protocol and contracted. That's why the shows are planned years out and the registrar works with the curator and the contract that is written say for the "Forbidden City," which is coming up. All of those are spelled out in clauses for what is supposed to happen if something like that happens.
In the case of a Leonardo, they will probably fly in their own conservators. (If) we have a chip on a frame; if something arrives, or if its an old frame there is a phenomenon called blind cleavage where you might not be able to see anything but from shaking and travel it might pop off and so we will get permission to touch it up. We do condition reports, and a narrative condition report along with visual images that we use for each piece that arrives.
OMC: Basically a work is uncrated? And...
JD: It's gone over with a fine-toothed comb. We have teams of people set up at tables. When it is uncrated, inspection lights are brought out, magnifying glasses are used, everybody signs off on it that it has not changed from when it left, or if it has, this is noted. If it requires treatment then, thanks to e-mail now it is a lot easier, we can send a jpeg describing what it is, and we get it signed off, we do the repair and get it on the wall.
OMC: So do you do the same thing on the way out?
JD: Oh yes. (Reaches for a stack of print-outs) This is just the beginning of one of the support jpegs, and then there are close-up jpegs of the painting. Now these are all old phenomena that just maybe should be monitored (points out some highlighted sections of the image). It's on its way to the Louvre. It needs to be identified over there as to whether anything has changed.
OMC: I'm trying not to lean back here. I am trying to make myself as narrow as possible here (in a space between worktables).
JD: I apologize for the all the stacks of things, we have Chinese scrolls for the summer show, literally this is this summer and underneath is French posters for next summer.
OMC: You're busy.
JD: Yes, we are very busy. This is a condition report that Chris has been working on that goes through all the categories, this (shows this) is a loan, dates entered, priority, what kind of photography taken, what kind of analysis, whether it was under a microscope or UV light or X-ray. We don't have those capabilities here but if we do need X-rays we use St. Mary's or Columbia Hospital. They are happy to see us; it's a break in their day.
OMC: Do you ever find that your report is different from other reports at the other place just because of the diligence of the inspectors?
JD: Oh yeah, you could look at something and you could have the most experienced conservator looking at something and still, it's just the nature of things, you might miss something.
And the person who receives it has the benefit of seeing that first person's observations, if they need to, and it depends upon the person. There are some countries; sometimes its cultural, that are a lot more cavalier.
At a certain point, and it is like the stars coming out at night, at a certain point you have to stop. This is a condition report that we write for treatment where a piece came in, and it was very clear that it needed some preparation work and conservation work before we displayed it. This is one (takes up another report) that just is one of those databases for the exhibitions, and we make observations.
OMC: In a sense this is just kind of insurance for you? When it left here it was fine.
JD: Exactly, and often when shows come in, the artwork has what we call wall-to-wall coverage. They take it off their wall -- say it's a painting -- if they drop it, we have to pay for it because we instigated that request.
OMC: And these are not inexpensive items. They are culturally important it's not something to be taken lightly.
JD: Sometimes, I try to coordinate exactly what it is we are working on, sometimes I will walk in and look around and say, "OK we have $15 million on the table, lets put this away and that away."
OMC: That's interesting that it's completely practical; that you would look around and say, "OK maybe some of this needs to go in the vault."
JD: At night we put everything away, and if they have to stay up we cover them.
OMC: I notice that nobody has any coffee in here.
JD: I am a little less rigid than other institutions because we have a really isolated area, and there is really no lunchroom down here to speak of, when we have meetings down here I do allow water and coffee at that table, but that's basically an office area. But not in this area absolutely not.
Then we have the fume extraction. All of this was built with private family foundation money that I raised with the assistance of the development department. We didn't get to move in here until 2005. We had to stagger our back of the house stuff. I was kind of second phase, but we were able to achieve it. We have about 1,500 square feet. For about the first 28 years I was here, it was a very small space about 500 square feet, right near the loading dock, which was far from ideal. It got to a point where, especially when Terri was working on projects, we literally were doing time shifts. I would come in on the weekends to work on paper because there was no room to work during the week.
OMC: So this is definitely a step up in terms of space?
JD: Yes, and we were able to show it off last year. The national professional organization for conservators had their annual meeting where they present technical papers and scientific research that had been done. It was here in Milwaukee and in conjunction with that the museum hosted the opening reception. I gave two tours of the lab, and made sure I did not give tours of the old lab.
It was nice, and one of the tours was sponsored by the Getty conservation institute for Latin American, South American conservators, and they wanted me to relate the story of how I as a mid-level museum, a not very well-endowed museum, was able to raise funds privately to be able to get a lab. Many of the South American, Central American museums are in those same positions that I call first-generation conservation programs.
I pretty much created this. All that was here when I was arrived was just a modest frame shop, and I just built it along with adding my own training through NEA fellowships and so forth, and was able to develop a in-house program to this point.
OMC: Is that unusual for someone in your position to have to raise the money for a lab at a museum?
JD: Well, kind of.
OMC: Well I assume, it's considered less glamorous to a donor. It's not quite the same as having your name on the gallery, is it? It's an important part of the museum, but for a donor it might not be as attractive.
JD: Well, we were not allowed to approach donors actively or proactively because there was a moratorium on fundraising and you may have heard we went over budget. But people knew that this area was designated for conservation, which, again, was my initiative. So they would approach me and they would say, "how is the situation with the lab?" After a certain point people stepped forward and said, "I am going to help get this started."
OMC: With the addition of space were you able to improve the equipment that was at your disposal?
JD: We did this on a shoestring budget. It was about $300,000, when all said and done, and I divided that into two phases. The first phase was to take the concrete shell, which it was, and put in the lighting, the plumbing and all the other fixtures.
The fume extraction was the second phase, because that was equal to everything else, because we had to go five football fields to a sub-basement, to the north parking lot to duct out. We couldn't go through the theater, or up toward Calatrava's roof or anything like that, so that was a real challenge.
I separated that out, so I wouldn't frighten people away, and said we can deal with that. There have been a lot of scientific advances in the conservation field over the last 10 or 15 years in particular, where we got rid of more and more extremely toxic solvents, and are working more on water based poultices and enzymes and things like that. The need for fume extraction is much less. We need to have it for state law and building codes and so forth, but to be honest with you, we rarely use it.
OMC: Well that's good, if you are barely using it that means that your rarely using things are bad for you.
JD: Oh yeah, the whole generation that taught me, there was an epidemic of brain cancers and things like that that were pretty nasty. That's one of the reasons I stayed in paper conservation, because one of the main solvents that we use is water.
OMC: It's rather ironic that water is also often the thing that does the damage.
JD: It does the damage, but the uncontrolled application of water, as it were -- flooding and so forth. I will use ultrasonic mist. We have suction tables that the drawing is laid on top of and the mist is applied to the surface of a print and the moisture pulls stains through, after it solubilizes them. We have Gore-Tex felts that introduce moisture in a very controlled fashion. We measure it. We have the humidification hanging on the wall there. So it's all in the way water is applied. It's the opposite of a tsunami.
OMC: Could you say that within the last 10 or 15 years the advances made could be the equivalent to the advances made in the previous hundreds of years?
JD: Well, I never thought of it that way. I started here in 1976 and there was quite a large presence of the old way of doing things. One of my teachers was of the old school from Great Britain and it actually benefited me with some of that training to learn what not to do and how to recognize some of those old techniques.
OMC: Did some of those old techniques actually have a long-term sort of reverse affect, I mean did they deteriorate the work?
JD: We don't use the word restorer anymore because restoration implies just aesthetically making it look better. Conservation implies that we are trying to make more structurally stable.
OMC: It also makes it plain that you are just moving the works forward for the next generation.
JD: Exactly. It can be a lure to an amateur restorer to get lulled into, or hypnotized into, wanting to get that spot out regardless. As you know from faded blue jeans, the white spots are the spots that turn into holes. You know that bleach will destroy cotton fiber, which is in a lot of paper.
So, you may be able to get something to look like you got these stains out -- tide lines from some flood damage -- but in the process microscopically you have destroyed the fiber structure which is a point of opportunity for future mold growth.
They have discovered, as some of these conservation and restoration treatments have aged, there is a phenomena called color reversion in which after 20, 25 years, some of these chlorine bleaches have only temporary effect, and slowly these stains start re-emerging.
I have had a number of instances where I get alarmed calls from collectors that bought something at auction or a gallery or that had previous owners -- and galleries are notorious for not sending along (records of) previous treatments -- and all of a sudden they're looking at the piece on the wall and there is this stain that is slowing emerging and they think it is something that they did, when actually it is a legacy that they purchased and didn't see.
OMC: Are those problems fixable?
JD: It depends on how aggressively they were treated. I have looked at some prints under magnification that have had previous treatments before I decided it could be safely treated again and noticed that it looked like felt fuzz.
The fibers had shattered to a point where I didn't think there would be any structural integrity if I started to wet it up and tried to work on it. I said, "well you are going to have to accept it." Sometimes we will just -- if it can't be treated safely -- we will take some earth tone chalks, white chalks or whatever and just literally blemish or dust it to the point where your eye is not drawn to it.
Some of the things we do are very negligible. Sometimes if something comes in and it's so brittle from being stored in an attic or a very dry environment -- again I am just talking about works on paper, newsprint -- I will just humidificate. You can just flex it a little bit and you could almost hear this metallic rattle it's so brittle, and just humidifying it very carefully between the Gore-Tex felts and then carefully drying it back down, the paper fibers expand and crowd into each other and reestablish a bond.
Just that simple humidification can strengthen it back down again. (On) some things that's all you can do. There are some folk art pieces on shopping bags, that's all you really can do.
OMC: What do you think the biggest challenge for you on a day-to-day basis is?
JD: Keeping all of the things moving forward. It reminds me of those old Ed Sullivan acts where the guy has the plates spinning on the rods, and the crowd's screaming "that's ones about to fall off." That's the way I feel. There are always these plates in the back that are about to fall off and there are so many projects that we start and then we get totally overwhelmed with exhibitions and we don't get to them.
I am always trying to find windows of opportunity where I can find time to work on those projects. For instance, next month we are having our fifth annual conservation symposium or seminar. It's a day-long event sponsored by the American Arts Society, one of our sponsor groups. Each year we have a different theme. This year's theme is Frank Lloyd Wright.
One of the neglected projects is our (Wright) archives, we have a lot of very brittle folded architectural drawings that we really need to be re-housed in a better way, and every couple of years we manage to incrementally improve that. But one of the housing techniques I wanted to introduce into that collection so they are more safely handled is something called encapsulation, where you -- after an architectural drawing is flattened and treated by us that does not get damage because some scholar is looking at it and lifting it -- put it between Mylar and a Mylar sleeve. We have to have a whole workstation for that.
The proceeds from this event are going to go toward this workstation. For the first time in 35 years, I'm finally going to get this project moving and Tim is probably going to spearhead that. Maybe one day a week or one day every two weeks, sending about a half dozen or so pieces down here and getting them properly housed. So, that's one example of using a current obligation I have, programming obligation, and having it feed towards one of those backlog projects.
OMC: What comes next?
JD: We contract out painting conservation, for various reasons. I have it in my five-year plan to do that (ourselves) because we have room for one now. We try to show all of these things to the public as much as we can. I speak once a year to them. Last week I did last week a conservation update.
OMC: Do the people that come through to see the space here tend to be students?
JD: Yeah, everything from these support groups, adults; we have had elderly groups through here. But mostly students -- college students -- although for the first time I had junior docents.
I think it is a fabulous program (the junior docents program with sixth, seventh and eighth graders from area schools). When they're in doing their presentations I try to go up and listen to them. But, they were expressing an interest in what we did here and they called and asked if they could actually see. So I had some seventh graders come through here.
OMC: How many visitors come through in a year?
JD: It's about 700. We only can fit maybe about 30 or 40 people comfortably in here at any given time and we try to keep it to people who are relatively serious. We are not at the point yet where the National Gallery or the Smithsonian Museum of American Art are. When they did their renovations, they moved the conservation lab to where there is a glass wall, and visitors can walk past on their way from one gallery to another and actually see all the conservators working.
I don't know if they have overhead cameras or things that are not in real time showing past treatments. I have suggested that we do that but where would they put us? Sometimes you may feel like it's a zoo, (with visitors) banging on the window (shouting), "Do something!"
One of my degrees is in radio and television, film and studio art and so I am very aware of the need to prepare this interpretation and outreach.
OMC: What is one of the most common questions you get?
JS: The more we have digital, there are many people who don't understand the difference between an original and a reproduction. I'll have people call on the phone saying, "I have this painting and its got a scratch in it," and I say, "well could you describe it more?" I realize they are talking about a print reproduction and sometimes it's a poster and they're calling it a painting, so there is this real gray area.
Now you walk around (museums) and you see all the time ... you'll see somebody look away from their cell phone for once and they look at something and are really struck by it and really taken back by it for a little while, and then they take a picture of it and walk away.
It tells me that there is this real fluidity between reality and the digital reproduction. So I think our part of that is to provide some of the dimension behind what a real piece is and that it occupies a physical space and time (and) has these real needs, and that can help make it more real. I think that makes it more integrated into the museum's mission.
great article on the extremely interesting and important work of art conservation. The museum must be very proud to have this fabulous asset.
Agreed. You lost me at the headline. "Team" is singular, yet it is followed by "are," a verb that is used with plural subjects. That is inexplicably followed by the plural "key figures." WTF? How about "Conservation Team Is Key at Art Museum" or "Members of the Conservation Team Are Key Figures at Art Museum?"
This is one of the most poorly written articles about an extremely interesting subject that I have ever read. The writer chose the laziest of styles, ersatz q&a; the spelling was atrocious; the grammar and rules of usage must have been borrowed from a foreign language because they were definitely not english; and mistakes abounded. I understand that OnMilwaukee.com is somewhat of a fledgling e-zine but this is no excuse for such a lazily written, poorly edited piece. Publishing this article in this form is an insult to the people whose professions it alleged to describe.
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