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Collecting Guide / March 24, 2020

The Specialists: Making It Last—or Not

Contemporary approaches to art conservation combine lo-fi solutions with in-depth research

Art conservation isn’t just for blue-chip artworks—at least that’s what Patricia Smithen, a conservator and assistant professor at Queen’s University’s art conservation program, thinks.

“To me the biggest misconception around art conservation is that artworks are only conserved or restored when they are worth a lot of money,” Smithen says. “I find it’s actually about how we value objects. It may be a Picasso worth millions, but more likely it’s an artwork somebody loves because of how it looks, or because their grandmother made it.”

Smithen suggests low-cost ways that any collector can use to preserve their art. “One of the most obvious things is to look at your artwork frequently—not only do you get to enjoy it more, you’re then more likely to notice if anything changes. Keep the artwork out of direct, bright light—damage due to light is irreversible. And keep it away from temperature extremes; don’t hang it over a fireplace or radiator, or on a damp wall.”

If an artwork is in storage, “keep it in a solid box in a clean, dry and secure location,” Smithen says. “A lot of people will store things in basements and attics and that’s tricky, because if it gets very damp your objects might be attacked by mold, which can eat through the materials.” While Smithen says dusting an artwork with a very soft brush is sometimes acceptable, Wendy Baker, a senior conservator at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, recommends reaching out to a professional if any more cleaning or restoration is needed.

“When or if a family member or friend suggests that they can fix the artwork” is the time to start searching the Canadian Association of Professional Conservators member directory, Baker says. “Never accept [amateur] help, no matter how well-intentioned. Previous attempts at restoration/conservation are almost always more difficult to reverse than the original damage.”

A reputable conservator, Baker notes, will always operate on the principle of informed consent: “The owner or custodian of the work must always be made fully aware of, understand, and agree to any treatment intervention.”

Of course, many contemporary artists make work from non- traditional materials and in various unconventional formats—and occasionally intend for their artworks to disintegrate or change with age, rather than remain statically preserved.

That’s an area that art conservator Ruth del Fresno-Guillem is interested in. “One thing I’ve decided to implement in my practice is an artist interview,” says del Fresno-Guillem, “to understand what living artists want and mean with their artwork, and not just the material part of the artwork. Sometimes, for example, an artwork was not meant to last, and in making it last, you are destroying the idea and intention behind the artwork.”

Artist interviews are now used by conservators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Fresno Guillem says. She encourages collectors to take the plunge and conduct their own artist interviews: “Better late than never!” Understanding the art, and the artist, more closely is a huge benefit.

This post is adapted from the Canadian Art Collecting Guide, out in our Spring 2020 issue, “Influence.”