Ellen Baxter, the chief conservator at the Carnegie Museum of Art, has been working on John White Alexander’s enormous 1904 portrait “Aurora Leigh” for nine months.
Baxter is nearly finished with treating the artwork — primarily with a light layer of varnish to gloss over the aging paint’s flakiness — which will then go into the permanent collection galleries.
“I prefer to work very locally under the microscope to try and bring back things like the artist’s signature on ‘Aurora Leigh,’” Baxter said. “I didn’t treat that, I treated all the missing dots around it. So now it’s reading better without me having to interfere with the original signature.”
Behind the scenes
The conservator’s work is inherently subtle and nearly invisible to the public. Artists typically get all the credit for their work, but in the museum world, the conservator is constantly tinkering behind the scenes to ensure that paintings, sculptures and the like are ready for exhibition.
But as a field mixing art history with science, labs like the one in the Carnegie Museum of Art aren’t populated with people in white coats and safety goggles. Instead, the space is less sterile and looks more like an artist’s own studio.
Baxter’s work uses disparate tools for cleaning — from surgery and dentistry — in order to remove surface dirt from older paintings.
Conservators treat paintings on a case-by-case basis, with the goal of limited invasiveness and a balance of lasting but reversible repairs, so that future conservators can still access the original work.
Baxter studied with a conservator from North Carolina for seven years before earning her master’s in art conservation with a specialty in painting at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. When she came to Pittsburgh, she helped with the original opening exhibition of the Andy Warhol Museum in 1994.
“I just felt this connection with paintings,” Baxter said.
Like Baxter, conservator Ana Alba works primarily with paintings. Alba took her first fellowship following graduation in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and now owns a private practice in Pittsburgh — an art preservation and restoration studio called Alba Art Conservation.
“Conservators adhere to a code of ethics that stresses minimal intervention, reversibility and documentation,” Alba said. “Aside from the actual restoration process, we are trained in the science of the materials, analysis and prevention of further deterioration.”
Baxter deals with painted works from as old as the 16th century to modern pieces that museums have not yet displayed. For more recent artwork, Baxter typically works to stretch canvases a small degree to fit its frame.
“I’m working on [pieces] from about 1510 to about next week,” Baxter joked. “It really could be something brand new.”
Many of the pieces Baxter treats are minimally damaged. One of her restoration projects, Hans Holbein the Younger’s “Portrait of George Neville, Third Lord of Bergavenny,” had a significant amount of damage and required much more work. Baxter removed a discolored brown varnish from the left side of the painting to uncover the original paint, but the restoration is not yet complete.
“It looks a bit like a cat attacked it,” Baxter joked.
Once the painting’s damage has been reversed, the small portrait will go in Carnegie’s permanent collection gallery.
Artwork and its environment
Unlike CMOA, the University Art Gallery at Frick doesn’t require its own in-house conservator, because of its relatively small collection.
According to Isabelle Chartier, the gallery’s curator since 2012, the gallery sometimes calls in conservators from local businesses in Pittsburgh.
“I rely a lot on professional conservators to help me apply the best care to the objects that I oversee in this gallery,” she said.
Like most of what Baxter does, the care that Chartier puts forth falls under the specific category of preventive conservation.
“Preventive conservation doesn’t necessarily imply a direct manipulation in cleaning and restoring the artwork. So when you take care of objects in a collection, it’s all about risk assessment,” Chartier said.
But a conservator’s work does not focus solely on the works of art themselves.
When Baxter took an art history course in college, she was irked by the professors who never discussed the physical structure of the museums and galleries where paintings are displayed.
“I can repair one painting, but if it’s going back into a gallery that has a leak in the roof, or there’s an infestation … it’s not going to do any good for that,” Baxter said. “You have to sort of get the envelope of the building treated.”
The condition of the gallery, especially the Scaife Galleries holding the permanent installations at CMOA, is about as important to preserving artworks as the work done directly to them. Baxter works with the museum’s facilities and collection care committee in order to maintain the proper environment for the works — including lower light levels as well as glass to protect the art from heat and ultraviolet rays — and to ensure effective pest management.
With advancing technology, conservators are able to do their jobs more effectively and protect their artwork more substantially.
“[Conservation] has really evolved in the last few decades as a whole new field that’s based a lot on technology and machines and scientific processes that will help minimize the way that we touch and leave marks on the objects,” Chartier said.
Tedious, but Rewarding
The job of a conservator requires a fascination with art and cultural conservation, but also the virtue of patience. What can sometimes become a tedious job is all worth it for Alba — who’s treated works range from old family heirlooms and portraits, to modern acrylics.
“I enjoy helping people restore and preserve the objects most precious to them and being involved in the local Pittsburgh preservation and arts community. Every job is a challenge in one way or another and solving the puzzle is both frustrating and enlightening,” Alba said.
In numerous respects, there is a clear artistry behind preserving artworks. Following the patience and craft of painters and artists throughout history, conservators act as their own painstaking creators in maintaining or saving precious cultural artifacts for the remaining millennia. But the pride of working with treasures of both past and present has an ethical nobility as well.
“We allow the state of the artwork to determine the course of treatment and not let our aesthetics or the market dictate decisions that are made,” Alba said. “In our practice, the conservator should put the artwork first.”