Exploring Careers in art: Art Conservation

Written by Abby Leedy

Barbra Buckley, the head of the conservation department at the Barnes Foundation and her team.
Barbra Buckley, the head of the conservation department at the Barnes Foundation and her team.

What is an art conservator?

An art conservator works to conserve original works of art, generally with a focus on preserving them as the artist originally intended them to look. They can work to conserve different kinds of art, often distinguished by kind of material- either paint, paper, or furniture. I spoke to Barbara Buckley, who works in paint conservation at the Barnes Foundation.

Art conservators generally do work in three areas within their material specialization: treatment, research, and prevention.

Work in research generally consists of working on understanding the material the artist was using (the kinds of paint, etc), and researching the chemical makeup- for instance, conservators at the Barnes find the period elements in the paint of art they are working to conserve, and can use this information to determine the exact pigment of the paint (paint with arsenic and copper, for instance, creates a specific emerald color favored by Cezanne). Art conservators use many tools for research, including X-Rays and UV light.

Work in treatment involves doing physical ‘touch-ups’ n the art- using the information gathered in research to determine which paints to use to repair weathered sections of the painting, for instance. Treatment can also include removing and replacing varnish and glaze on paintings, or re-pairing discoloration or mistakes made by conservators of different eras (this is especially important for older paintings that have been held by many collectors and museums).

Work in prevention includes using information from the research process to alter the environment the art is being kept in to make it most hospital to the art (regulating light, temperature, etc), as well as doing periodic check-ups on the art and determining what treatment, if any, is necessary.

What kind of education do art conservators need?

Jobs in art conservation almost always require a master’s degree in art conservation. In the United States, there are three programs where art conservators get their degrees: at the University of Delaware, the University of Buffalo, and New York University. Conservators all take the same courses of study in their first year, and specialize by material in their second. Art conservators need a solid background (generally a undergraduate degree or undergraduate study in) studio art, art history, and chemistry. One art conservationist I spoke with (also at the Barnes) started her undergraduate work in chemistry, before adding studio art and art history and attending graduate school. The other, Barbra, studied studio art and art history as an undergraduate, and had to complete additional coursework in chemistry before beginning graduate school.

Where do art conservators work?

Art conservators generally work in museums, but can also work at other non-profits, like historical societies, or for private collectors.

An interview with the head conservator at the Barnes:

This is from information gather (rather than quotes from) an interview I conducted with Barbra Buckley, the head of the conservation department at the Barnes Foundation.

What is your day-to-day work like? Barbra says that her day-to-day work often includes a mix of research and treatment, both of which she finds exciting. This usually means working on a specific painting- figuring out which chemicals or elements are part of the paint, which pigments were used, when it was worked on, which additions or alterations were made by the artists or other conservators, etcetera. She also works to repair works altered by weathering or other conservators- this could mean using specific chemicals to remove the clear varnish on top of the original paint, or repainting parts of a painting that were discolored.

What is your favorite part of your work? Barbra says that her favorite parts of her work are that it “doesn’t get boring” and that the field mixes many things that she finds interesting- including chemistry, art history,a dn studio art. She says that all of these focuses gives her the opportunity to really “understand’ the artist whose work she is conserving.

What project are you working on right now? Currently, the conservation team the Barnes is working on researching and conserving a painting from Cezanne’s Bathers series, from the end of his career. They are working with a special grant provided by the Bank of America, and hope to better understand Cezanne’s artistic process and materials.