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Art conservation plays a key role

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Art conservation plays a key role

Giovanni Battista Lombardi's "Deborah"
Courtesy of U.Va. Art Museum
A conservator cleans and restores Giovanni Battista Lombardi's "Deborah," on permanent display in the U.Va. Art Museum.

By Jane Ford

Fine art must be seen to be appreciated.

But the pieces displayed by a museum at any given time represent only a fraction of its collection. The rest are at the mercy of whatever storage space and conditions are available.

Fortunately, said Jill Hartz, director of the University of Virginia Art Museum, many museums are paying more attention to the storage, maintenance and restoration of works of art.

She and conservation experts emphasized their importance during a May workshop co-sponsored by the museum and the Virginia Association of Museums. The workshop was the brainchild of Jean Collier, the museum’s collections manager. Curators from around the state gathered at the new storage facility near Grounds to learn how best to care for works of art.

An example was the Astor Collection of Native American Art, part of which will be included in the museum’s January 2003 exhibit, “Honoring the Legacy of Lewis and Clark: Native American Art and the 19th-Century American West.”

Donated to the University in 1937, the collection spent more than 30 years in the rafters of Old Cabell Hall. There was little alternative — the museum was closed during World War II and used for classrooms immediately afterward.

Almost forgotten, the collection remained stashed away until the museum reopened its doors in 1979, said Mary Jo Ayers, adjunct curator of Native American art.

Today, with an eye toward stabilizing and restoring the artworks, the collection is housed along with the bulk of the museum’s treasures in a new climate-controlled facility.

Experts at the workshop stressed common themes in caring for artwork: maintaining air quality, light levels, appropriate temperatures and humidity, and controlling pests and dust.

Each museum has different conservation needs based on its collection and the available funds, said Hartz. “Some museums have conservation endowments, and large museums have conservation labs on site.”

U.Va.’s museum has embraced a comprehensive plan to protect its collection. Collier recalled that when she started working there in 1988, the bulk of the ethnographic collection was stored in a warehouse with broken windows and no heating or air-conditioning.

“Light was provided by bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling,” she said. “There was no climate control and critters had easy access to the quarters.” These conditions hasten deterioration of art works.

In 2000, after years of storage in an interim facility, space was located near Grounds with the support of Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Leonard Sandridge, former Provost Peter Low and Associate Provost Shirley Menaker. The new, climate-controlled facility has good lighting and is easily accessible. It also has sufficient workspace for display preparation and for inspections to evaluate on-going conservation and preservation needs.

Advances in safeguarding U.Va.’s collection of nearly 11,000 works were made possible through a 1994 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
“Selected works had previously received some treatment,” said Collier. “The grant allowed us to look at the whole collection and consult conservators specializing in all kinds of media. Surprisingly, even works of modern art dating back to the 1960s sometimes need conservation.”

Hartz said, “Over the past two years we have raised public and private funds to prepare the museum’s collection of Japanese prints for an exhibition scheduled to open in fall 2003. Without significant conservation work, this exhibit would not be possible.”

Museum officials also consider conservation needs when they purchase or accept a donated work of art, and often the donor will include funds for conservation of the piece.

Some have considered conservation as a way to support the museum. The museum’s Young Friends group supported the 1999 restoration of Giovanni Battista Lombardi’s “Deborah.” The marble statue had absorbed dust and grime, which the conservator was able to remove by applying a poultice to draw the dirt away. The process was carried out right in the museum gallery.

“It was nice to bring conservation out from behind the scenes,” said Collier. “It generated a lot of interest and questions from visitors of all ages and University students.”

This year, the museum’s Volunteer Board provided substantial funding for a long-range conservation plan to prepare the Astor Collection for a major exhibit in 2007. The display will highlight the artistry of the works and their place in turn-of-the-century New York and American culture. It will also focus on the Astor family, who collected the art to exhibit in their New York hotel. When the exclusive hotel was demolished, Albemarle County native Nancy (Langhorne), Lady Astor, donated the collection to the University.

Now, preserving the delicate elements of the collection, such as beadwork and basketry, and conserving the unique nature of other pieces have a high priority and a new commitment.

“We would like to keep conservation as an on-going process, to continue to preserve and present many wonderful works that we have not been able to share,” said Collier.


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of the University of Virginia

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