Williamstown Art Conservation Center saves, restores art history


WILLIAMSTOWN -- When a forgotten 19th century fire hose cart turned up in the back of a barn, the volunteer fire department wanted to spruce it up -- but without damaging the original finish.

So they rolled it into the Williamstown Art Conservation Center.

A bar in New York City wanted to redecorate, but they wanted to save the four canvas wall murals for future use. They couldn't store them without removing the adhesive on the back, so they shipped the murals to WACC.

A 16th century Venitian mural recently unearthed needed significant cleaning and repair. Conservators at WACC are working on it now.

When Hildene, Todd Lincoln's former residence and now a museum in Manchester, Vt., noticed that Abraham Lincoln's stove-pipe hat was starting to sag, they contacted WACC.

Using advanced scientific methods and art history, the team at the nonprofit center toils daily to preserve valuable art for museums, collectors, private owners, colleges and institutions around the Northeast, including the Williams College Museum of Art and the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Each piece has a unique history and a unique need, and both play a major role in how any given case is handled.

A wide variety of art is handled by conservators, including paintings, sculptures, murals and drawings or prints on paper. They have worked on paintings by famous artists such as Rembrandt, Picasso and Degas.

Some recently completed paintings are brought in by local artists for protective coats of varnish. Other pieces may have just been discovered in storage and need a simple cleaning, or a more significant effort to repair tears or other damage. The cost of conservation ranges from $95 to $125 per hour.

There are a wide variety of treatments and tactics available, but it takes a nimble mind with plenty of education and training to know how to handle any given issue, according to Rob Conzett, WACC's office manager. He noted that "most, if not all," of the Clark's collection has been treated at WACC.

The road to a career as an art conservator includes the four years of undergraduate study of both chemistry and art, two more years in graduate art conservation school, and then another year interning in art conservation.

WACC was established in 1977, part of a nationwide effort to form an infrastructure to conserve valuable pieces of art and history, on the Clark Art Institute's campus.

In 2008 it moved into the lower level of the recently constructed Stone Hill Center, which has recently been renamed the Lunder Center at Stone Hill, as recognition for significant financial support from the Lunder Foundation of Portland, Maine.

The Lunder Foundation has initiated a five-year grant to WACC and has supported the Clark's campus expansion program with another grant. The foundation also established an endowment to create the Lunder Internship Program at the Clark, providing for yearlong post-baccalaureate internships and undergraduate summer internships.

"Given the Lunder Foundation's interest in conservation and their appreciation for the Clark's campus expansion program, the decision to rename Stone Hill Center in honor of the Lunder Foundation is particularly appropriate," said Michael Conforti, director of the Clark Art Institute. "We are very proud of our long-standing relationship with the Williamstown Art Conservation Center and worked closely with them to ensure that this building would become the exceptional facility that it is. Both organizations have benefited greatly from the Lunder Foundation's support."

Sometimes, members of the art conservation team respond to scenes of recent fire or water damage to assess the damage to artwork.

Leslie Paisley, who heads up the conservator of paper department, said that sometimes, a client might see a need for work on a piece but upon further evaluation, the determination is made to leave the piece alone.

"Sometimes, my clients respect me more if I talk them out of doing the work," she said.

Paisley has been at WACC for a couple of decades, a term of service not unusual at the center.

"What really excites me is being as close to the art as the artist was -- you get something from it that you don't get when it's hanging on a wall," she said. "It is a career that continues to be interesting."

Sandy Webber, an art conservator for WACC since 1980, is working on a wall painting from 16th century Venice, Italy, a job that will likely carry her through her retirement planned for May 2015.

Webber knows what needs to be done and what not to do because of the potential for chemical reactions.

"There's art in the science and science in the art, and a good conservator thinks both ways," she said.

To reach Scott Stafford:
or (413) 663-3741, ext. 227.
On Twitter: @BESStafford


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