Art Workers: SAM Conservation Team

Silver is a big point of contention among art conservators. “Other countries don’t polish,” Associate Conservator Geneva Griswold explains. “You’re removing original metal material.” This question of whether the silver should retain a natural, time-earned patina or as Chief Conservator Nicholas Dorman puts it, “look like the Duke of Wellington is coming for dinner,” is a hotly debated subject in this niche area of the art world. It sounds like a trivial point, but the debate over polishing is a revelatory window into the world of art conservation. The question is settled by Griswold, who concludes that the Seattle Art Museum errs on the side of shininess. “Two summers ago we spent many hours doing that.” 

Senior Objects Conservator Liz Brown at work. Photo by Nicholas Dorman. Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

The job of conservator is one of those invaluable art professions that has toiled behind the scenes for decades, and is now, due to changing museum conventions, getting some well deserved public attention. Conservators approach art from a unique vantage point, intimately located between science, art, and museum politics. “We’re kind of in an ivory tower, but we’re looking at the front line.” Nicholas Dorman explains. Dorman and Griswold were kind enough to give me a peek at the in-house laboratory at the SAM, bringing me up to date on their biggest ongoing venture: the imminent reopening of the Seattle Asian Art Museum in the wake of a major expansion and renovation. The museum’s new features will include a window onto the conservation laboratory, allowing the public a view into this highly-specialized work. Dorman explains how important this is “for advocacy reasons.” He admits, “This work’s expensive.” 

Chief Conservator Nicholas Dorman. Photo Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

On the day of my visit, Dorman is busy preparing incredibly intricate paintings created some five centuries ago, and Griswold is toiling away on a figural work that contained “body parts” made of metal or fabric that were crafted by monks. A rolling cart with the carefully-arranged pieces removed from the object’s interior conveys the preciousness with which each object is handled. She explains that sometimes treasures like these are found when an object is subjected to CAT scan, and other times it’s just a “paper wasp’s nest.” She is currently working on identifying tiny seeds and other organic matter likely used in rituals or dedications of the sculpture. 

The treatment of organic matter can be especially important in a museum with such a large collection of indigenous objects. “We’ve been testing collection items for pesticides,” Griswold explains, as they are often treated “when they go through the trade.” A 1990 law known as NAGPRA, The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, required every “institution to identify” such objects and make plans for repatriation or conservation, based on the desires of Native communities. It’s in this area where conservators are especially served by interpersonal connections. “This is a part of the collection where we are eager to cultivate relationships.” says Griswold. 

Associate Conservator Geneva Griswold. Photo courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

Like the methods they employ, the field of conservation necessarily has one foot in the old world and one foot in the new. “There’s been a real professionalization of the field,” Dorman explains. The SAM team keeps a photocopied image of Dr. Fuller, the museum’s founder who collected so many of the objects in the museum’s Asian collection, shown in a photo handling “without gloves!” one of the collection’s precious objects- a reminder of how much the field has advanced. “You do as much reading and reaching out to colleagues as you can.” Griswold says. Relationships are as important as scientific expertise. But as art practices begin to include new media, those with technological savvy are also in demand. Many new media works require technological expertise, which means more conservators from computer science and tech.

Contemporary art also offers a special set of challenges. Senior Objects Conservator “Liz Brown works on it because it’s so specialized,” Dorman says. Conserving the work of artists who are still living means there are simply more opinions to consider, in addition to the fact that contemporary art practices are not always archivally-minded. Griswold explains that if the artist is still living, “part of the intake process is to do an interview. Robert Rauscenberg was an interesting one.” She mentions the artist’s penchant for including masking-tape in his early paintings. This non-archival material “gets brittle” over time. As a conservator it’s important to suss out that vital junction between form and content.  “What is the tape doing?” she wanted to know. “All of our work is in coordination with curators.”

Not only does this team think from exhibition to exhibition, but they have an eye on the impending centuries as well. “A lot of what we do is re-treatment.” Dorman says, “nowadays we have a mind to make it re-treatable,” so that the next generation of conservators, curators, and art-viewers will have access to the museum’s collection. Conservators are art lovers first and foremost. Dorman explains “I worked on a Jackson Pollock. The topography [of the painting] made you work slowly. I got to slow down and really look at that painting,” he says with a measure of awe. It’s a rarefied experience that doesn’t seem to lose its wonder for those whose job it is to be close to the artwork. As Griswold puts it,  “I wanted to get back to something where I was working with my hands. I like working through other people’s work.”

For more information on the Seattle Art Museum’s conservation work, click here.

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