Flipside Career Focus: Visit to the Art Conservator
In celebration and exploration of Flipside, which displays the often hidden unexposed backsides of Tibetan paintings, RMA Teens journeyed to the Brooklyn Navy yard to meet with members of the Art Conservation Group—a group of art conservation specialists who have helped behind the scenes to preserve many of the Rubin’s own, and often very ancient, pieces. What started out as a gloomy day weather-wise quickly turned into an exciting trip consisting of behind-the-scenes access into the world of art conservation.
We entered the spacious warehouse building where the art is kept, and where, as we were to learn, the conservators spend their hours deliberating over what it is that plagues the art and how best to conserve it. Us Teens then sat in a rather oblong circle, like we often do, and Leslie, the Group’s founder, began speaking to us about her role as an art conservator. Right away we were captivated, listening intently to Leslie’s description of conservation duties, which, to summarize, include locating the “problem” with the art piece, sending samples of it to a lab to identify possibly harmful microorganisms, and figuring out the safest and most effective way to “cure” and conserve it. She explained that Renaissance art is easier to conserve than modern art, because the materials Renaissance artists used were both more organic and more permanent. She explained that salt pollution is a killer for conservators, seeing as it causes most materials to discolor and deteriorate, and often makes objects very difficult to clean. Beyond fun facts regarding conservation, Leslie went into detail about her personal inspiration for becoming a conservator, which arose from a love of art but no desire to be an artist, as well as about the academic processes necessary to becoming a conservator. It is essential to have an extensive knowledge of art history, the fine arts, and chemistry, and a whopping three college/graduate degrees in order to be a professional art conservator. Leslie noted that having to succeed in chemistry class was a struggle, considering she came from an art background, which I’m sure would resonate with the lot of us.
As our seated discussion wrapped up, we prepared to see, first-hand, Leslie and her team’s most recent projects. After being told to keep our hands in our pockets so as to not accidentally (or purposefully) touch the fragile art, we were led into a huge room with intensely bright lighting that contrasted the dark outside sky. All of the Teens, Pauline included, gasped out of excitement and near disbelief. We found ourselves faced with beautiful modern sculptures, as well as some kind of tribal art, clearly from two completely different dimensions, but all in a room together. Many of the items in the room were waiting for diagnoses—for the team to inspect, investigate, and detect the issues to ultimately cure them. At one point, I simply couldn’t contain myself any longer and just had to ask Leslie how much of a rush she gets when she touches these incredible, and usually very old and historic pieces of art. Her eyes lit up as she responded with an enthusiastic “It’s awesome,” and I couldn’t imagine the feeling being any less.
We stayed talking with Leslie for longer than scheduled, clearly inspired and very curious still. After thanking her on the way out, we convened outside to reflect on our fresh experience. The opinion was unanimous: Art conservation is awesome. What I realized both stands out and appeals to me is how hands-on and investigative the nature of art conservation is. Furthermore, conservation integrates art and science in such an interesting way that makes the connection seem utterly natural.
With regard to the Rubin, it is remarkable to understand now how and why its art is able to remain so intact and beautiful. Without the discipline of art conservation, it is very possible that much of the Rubin’s art, all of which we love so much, would be falling apart faster than a sand mandala on a windy day. Art conservation is the key for maintaining the beauty, integrity, and health of art. Like a doctor diagnoses his or her patients and attempts to treat them, so does a conservator for art, and for that reason, it is a very honorable, very essential profession.