Posted: Sep 26, 2013 5:45 PM
Updated: Sep 26, 2013 5:45 PM
HOUSTON (AP) In her training as a fine arts conservator, Ingrid Seyb learned to recognize the enemies of paintings, sculptures and other priceless works of art: temperatures, high or low, humidity, neglect, time's passage, clumsy repairs, high-heeled shoes the list seemed endless.
As one of 16 conservators at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, dealing with such menaces was all in a day's work.
Then came the maggots.
Unsightly larvae trickling from a dried goat part of a multimedia artwork that also included a dried rat and dried turkey may strike the typical museum-goer as unseemly. Seyb and her colleagues hardly broke a sweat. Though not an everyday problem, the loathsome creatures were far less worrisome than paint flaking from the canvas of an Old Master. A vacuum cleaner was dispatched, the problem resolved.
The Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1fIVpKs ) reports cool-headed, speedy problem solving, especially in unusual circumstances, is a hallmark of the conservator's craft. Part chemist, high-tech wizard and diplomat, conservators are among the least visible and most important members of any museum's staff.
"They are essential to our mission," said Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Executive Director Gary Tinterow, who noted that almost $1.5 million is budgeted for conservation. "We are a treasure house of objects of great value and interest made over 5,000 years of human history. The responsibility of our conservators is to ensure that those objects survive beautifully into the future."
Under the direction of David Bomford, who previously had worked at Los Angeles' J. Paul Getty Museum and The National Gallery in London, conservators are charged with the upkeep of more than 1,700 paintings, at least 30,000 photographs and a wide array of sculpture and decorative arts.
They must be conversant with artistic techniques, ancient and modern, and ever alert for signs of trouble among the glass, ceramic, canvas, wood, metal, ink, paper, glue, stone and miscellaneous objects from which art is made.
"The whole principle is to do as little as we possibly can, to make items stable and to preserve them. Knowing when to stop is part of the skill," Bomford said. "... Conservation and restoration are not creative. We're not artists. We're in the service of artists."
In addition to addressing existing problems, Bomford's conservators try to prevent future issues. Careful calculations are made, for example, on how long works on paper damaged by prolonged exposure to light can be exhibited. With a degree of care that almost could be called "loving," team members swaddle artworks traveling to and from the museum in redundant layers of packaging, then accompany them on their journeys.
Houston, increasingly recognized as a center for art, paradoxically is a town tough on art.
"Many of our paintings were in Houston collections. As very young paintings, they had to adjust to an extreme climate change," said head paintings conservator Soni Bomford, David Bomford's wife. "The European climate can be hot in summer and cold in winter, but there aren't extremes in humidity. There has been a shock to the systems of those paintings. We've had Picassos flake, Matisses flake. They haven't aged in a steady way."
Seyb, who directs conservation of sculpture and objects, a category that includes glass and textiles, said artworks deteriorate at different rates and in different ways. It is not uncommon for a single work to include a variety of materials.
The maggot problem afflicted "Lost Farm (Billy Goat Hill)," a 2000 multimedia piece by Alabama artist Thornton Dial that included, in addition to dried animals, steel, rope carpet, wood, tire scraps, plastic toys, farm equipment, construction tools, a motor oil bottle, chains, wire fencing and a peach basket.
Artworks often suffer multiple problems.
Now under conservation in Seyb's laboratory is a 17-by-29-foot mid-19th century wool carpet formerly used in England's Stowe House.
The carpet, perhaps trod upon by Queen Victoria, was donated to the museum by a Houston collector and has been exhibited at Rienzi, the house museum of European decorative arts.
"It's had a hard life, as would anything that's been walked on for 150 years," Seyb said. "It's been cut up and sewn back. ... We can see the lines of the re-weavings. It's had wax dripped on it. In the museum archives, a curatorial assistant found a Christmas season photo in which people were unpacking ornaments on the carpet. There were cigarettes, drinks and high heels.
"We're, essentially, doing a careful vacuuming," Seyb said. "We're removing wax deposits and sewing up splits. There aren't too many holes, but when we're finding them, we're putting in a little cotton backing. We're still in discussion on the cosmetics."
Bomford noted that conservators must weigh the extent of their interventions.
"In our collection we have highly polished furniture and objects made in the '60s and '70s that contain plastics. They don't last. Do you exhibit them cracked and flaking or do you refinish them?" he said.
If the artists are living, sometimes they are consulted. "That's not uncomplicated," Bomford said. "An artist may have made an object 20 or 30 years ago and now he wants it to look a different way. That's normal human behavior."
Currently in a lab run by decorative arts conservator Steven Pine is an oversized wooden bowl turned by the late Ed Moulthrop, sometimes described as the "father" of modern woodworking.
In his experiments, the artist discovered that wood saturated with a solution of polyethylene glycol was easier to craft.
The treated wood, however, was difficult to finish. Years after a piece had been completed, polyethylene glycol would ooze to the surface, creating a sticky surface to trap whatever floated in the air.
The problem began to emerge in Moulthrop's lifetime he died in 2003 and the artist's solution was simply to slap on another coat of varnish.
Pondering the problem of the museum's weeping Moulthrop bowl, Pine conceded, "There doesn't seem to be any magic bullet.
"It's a most beautiful thing," he added. "It just needs a little help."
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com,
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Houston Chronicle