Patience and a steady hand: Increasing diversity in art conservation

Fifteen students from historically black colleges and universities recently got hands-on experience in art conservation thanks to a new Yale partnership.
HBCU students in a Yale art conservation class.

Fifteen scholars from historically black colleges and universities came to Yale for a weeklong program intended to introduce them to the field of art conservation and preservation with the aim of increasing diversity in the profession. (Photo credit: Jessica Smolinski)

The work of an art conservator requires patience, concentration, and the willingness to spend extended periods of time absorbed in a delicate task, said Mark Aronson, chief conservator at the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA).

More often than not, conservation is sitting for long hours, perhaps with your headphones on listening to some calming or inspiring music, while trying to relate to the object you’re trying to repair,” Aronson said.

Fifteen students from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) recently received a hands-on introduction to art conservation during the 2019 Yale-HBCU Student and Mentor Institute in Technical Art History (SMITAH), a program that exposes scholars from HBCUs to careers in the cultural heritage sector with a focus on preservation and conservation. A partnership between Yale and the Alliance of HBCU Museums and Galleries, the program is aimed at increasing diversity, equitable representation, and inclusion in the museum field, which is predominantly white.

Over the course of the weeklong program, the students learned about conservation issues museums and galleries face, the analytical tools and techniques used to examine art objects and diagnose problems, and the relationship between making art and conserving it. On June 7, the students spent the morning in the world-class conservation lab at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) at Yale’s West Campus engaging in the nitty-gritty of treating an object. The group was divided into three stations: one simulated repairing ceramics, another focused on filling in losses on paintings, and a third centered on paper mending.  

We really wanted to give the students a taste for what it’s like to be a conservator and sit for a long period of time focusing and being patient with one project,” said Cynthia Schwarz, associate conservator of paintings at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG), and co-coordinator of the program with Aronson. “Often when we teach conservation, we spend an hour looking at a painting or object, or trying out an artist’s technique, but we really wanted to give them experiences that simulated what conservators do all day.”

Chima Osuagwu
Chima Osuagwu, a senior at Hampton University, reconstructs a shattered dish as part of a workshop on restoring ceramics at the conservation lab at Yale's Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage. (Jessica Smolinski)

Chima Osuagwu, a senior at Hampton University, was assigned to the ceramics station. The instructors had purchased a variety of ceramics from IKEA, which they subsequently smashed to pieces. Osuagwu and his fellow students pieced together the shards — securing them with tape before applying an adhesive.  

It’s challenging but it’s also relaxing,” he said. “I’m taking my time and making adjustments. The process is fun.”

A political science major, Osuagwu is the president of a campus art club called “The Bigger Circle.” His academic advisor suggested he apply for the program, thinking that he might be interested in museum studies, he said.

It’s been a great experience all around,” he said. “I’m glad I took the opportunity to participate. It is furthering my interest in the field. I had no idea about all the various realms included in conservation and museum studies.”

Te’Arra Stewart, a junior at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, was applying paint to a blank spot in a reproduction of “Artemisia Prepares to Drink the Ashes of her Husband, Mausolus,” a 17th-century painting attributed to the Italian artist Francesco Furini.

I wanted to paint today, so I’m excited I was picked for this station,” said Stewart, a visual arts major, acknowledging that the work required concentration and a steady hand.

Te’Arra Stewart tries her hand at "inpainting,"
Te’Arra Stewart, a junior at the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff, tries her hand at “inpainting,” the process of reconstructing lost or deteriorated portions of a painting. (Jessica Smolinski)

Stewart and her peers were practicing in-painting methods, including trattegio, which is a technique developed in Rome in the 1940s based on the idea that in-painting should be visible on close inspection so areas of restoration can be easily distinguished from the original paint.

It’s satisfying to see that I can mimic another artist’s work and it still looks good,” Stewart said, adding that she was enjoying the experience at Yale. “The lectures and visits to the galleries have been really interesting. Today is the first hands-on experience and a chance to get one-on-one time with the conservators, which is great. I’m definitely considering conservation as a career.”

The whole reason I’m here’

There is a glaring lack of diversity in the cultural heritage sector. African Americans represent about 1.5% of cultural-heritage professionals, while whites account for 85%, according to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

In 2017, Caryl McFarlane and Jontyle Robinson, curator of the Tuskegee Legacy Museum at the Tuskegee University, formed the HBCU Alliance of Museums and Art Galleries to promote diversity in the cultural heritage sector, targeting preservation and conservation. That same year, the alliance partnered with IPCH to develop the first HBCU SMITAH program at Yale, which is funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. The inaugural program brought 11 students and five mentors from HBCUs to campus in June 2017 for a week of lectures, workshops, and discussion.

The effort is already producing results, McFarlane said.

Building on what was established in 2017, we are now seeing our undergrad students begin to move into the profession and into graduate school,” she said. “We've had students receiving offers and scholarships from graduate schools that would not have happened without the program. In short, this program is working.”

Genevieve Antoine, a participant in the 2017 program, is currently a postgraduate associate at IPCH’s Lens Media Lab where her research measures gloss on photographic paper from the 19th century to the early 21st century. The postgraduate position followed an internship at IPCH last summer, during which Antoine conducted experiments evaluating the efficiency of a new technology for cleaning acrylic paintings currently being developed with the engineering department.

The HBCU-SMITAH program is the whole reason I’m here,” said Antoine, who graduated from Tuskegee University with a degree in chemistry and physics. “Without that experience, I wouldn’t have been plugged into this entire network of people, not only at Yale, but also within the HBCU Museum Alliance. It was invaluable to me personally and it has directly influenced my trajectory toward working in museums.” 

Art conservation is a challenging field to enter, noted Aronson. There are only a handful of graduate programs in art conservation in the United States, and to be considered for them, candidates need to have experience in making art and to have logged at least 450 hours in a conservation studio, he explained.

Those studio positions are really hard to find,” Aronson said. “Too many of them are volunteer, so people who don’t have the means to work for free get excluded from the profession.”

Antoine, whose fellowship runs to October, is considering whether to pursue a graduate degree in art conservation or return to chemistry and physics. She values what her experience at Yale has taught her about the conservation field, she said.

I’ve learned that conservators are always looking for new ways to be more efficient and more effective in their practice,” she said. “It is more scientific than I first thought. I’ve really learned that conservation is as much a part of STEM as it is a part of art.”

A perspective on conservation

This year’s program welcomed 15 students and five mentors from the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Texas Southern University, Fisk University, Tuskegee University, Hampton University, Winston Salem State University, North Carolina Central University, Spelman College, and the St. Louis Art Museum.

In a change from the 2017 program, this year’s agenda included separate sessions for the five mentors — all faculty and curators from HBCUs — offering professional development training on topics such as fundraising, emergency management, public relations, and teaching with collection material.

Students and mentors had opportunities to engage with staff and collections from YUAG, YCBA, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, and the Yale University Library, including the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. A keynote lecture by artists Tomashi Jackson ’16 M.F.A. and Naomi Safran-Hon ’10 M.F.A.  explored their use of traditional and non-traditional materials and how their material choices and combinations relate to themes of political, racial, global, and personal conflict.  

On Friday, the students toured NXTHVN, an art space housed in a former manufacturing plant in New Haven’s Dixwell neighborhood. Founded by artists Titus Kaphar ’06 M.F.A. and Jonathan Brand ’07 M.F.A., with private equity analyst Jason Price, NXTHVN helps artists from within and outside the New Haven community to develop their talent and practice.

The students had sessions exploring the scientific element of art conservation, learning about the use of microscopy, x-ray, ultraviolet, and infrared imaging. They learned about analytical techniques used to understand the physical and chemical structures of art objects. The Wednesday morning session in the conservation lab proved popular with the instructors and students alike.

Jordan Wright, a recent graduate of Winston-Salem State University, was struck by the amount of patience required to repair a torn postcard with wheat paste at the paper-mending station.

Soyeon Choi teaches Jordan Wright techniques for mending paper.
Soyeon Choi, head conservator for works on paper at the YCBA, teaches Jordan Wright, an illustrator and recent graduate of Winston-Salem State University, techniques for mending paper. (Jessica Smolinski)

It’s challenging,” he said. “It requires a delicate touch.”

An illustrator who majored in art and design, Wright said he appreciated the opportunity to learn about the conservation field.

I love studio work and working with traditional materials,” he said. “Getting this perspective on conservation will inform my work in the future. It’s given me some things to think about as I consider my next steps.”

 Schwarz praised the students for their commitment and passion.

The students are smart, observant, enthusiastic, and dedicated,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot from them, and it’s been a lot of fun.”

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