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A Conversation with the Conservator

close-up of the component at the center of Grossman's "Car Horn" that recently underwent conservation.

Conservation is an ongoing concern in any museum, whether it be an art museum, natural history museum, or archive. Crystal Bridges works regularly with various conservators who keep tabs on our collection:  thoroughly inspecting each object, preparing detailed condition reports, and performing needed conservation or recommending future actions.

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008 "The Tower," 1957

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008
“The Tower,” 1957

Paula Hobart is an objects conservator who lives in Kansas City and works in private practice (Hobart Conservation, LLC) specializing in objects conservation. She visits on a regular basis to inspect new items, check up on certain objects for signs of any change in their condition, and to clean, repair, or stabilize any artworks that require her aid. Paula was here not too long ago to work on several new objects, including Nancy Grossman’s metal, leather, and rubber assemblage Car Horn, and The Tower, a “combine” by Robert Rauschenberg that utilizes a host of materials, including  paper, fabric, tin cans, painted wood, a broom and umbrella, rubber, wire, metal, dried turf, a cigar box, electric lightbulbs, and various types of paint.  I talked with Paula to learn more about how she goes about conserving artwork that is so diverse in its media. –LD

How do you go about stabilizing something like the Rauschenberg?

Canvas strips that were used to stabilize Rauschenberg's combine, "The Tower"

Canvas strips that were used to stabilize Rauschenberg’s combine, “The Tower”

It’s a composite object, so you have multiple materials, and you have to find an appropriate adhesive that works for each of them. On this piece there are breaks at three joints. Previously somebody did an attempt at repair with canvas strips. They’re very old repairs and maybe even done by the artist. For the wood joints, I used a wood adhesive, and then for the canvas strips I used a different adhesive. Because the canvas was hard and brittle, I chose one that softened it enough to re-form it. The canvas strips were separating from the wood, so I went ahead and removed those fully so I could gain access to the wood joints [to stabilize them].

What work needed to be done for the Grossman?

Nancy Grossman, b. 1940 "Car Horn," 1965 Leather, metal, rubber, wood, and paint assemblage on canvas mounted on plywood

Nancy Grossman, b. 1940
“Car Horn,” 1965
Leather, metal, rubber, wood, and paint assemblage on canvas mounted on plywood

It had a metal component that was really rusty and flaking. When I examined it, I barely touched it and pieces were coming off. So I stabilized those corrosion products so they wouldn’t continue to flake off. I had to use an adhesive that basically penetrates in and holds all those flakes together so it won’t continue to come off. With a piece like this that is mostly made up of corrosion products, you have to use something that wants to penetrate in to get to all those layers. Otherwise you might hold the top layer on, but then there might be another layer below that wants to pull off, so you have to almost penetrate the whole thing. For this I used a very dilute adhesive so it soaks in, and then I also used a little bit of acetone too to drive that in. Then I tried to take off the sheen so that it didn’t change the look. It did darken it just slightly, but I tried to take off the outer sheen by dabbing it to remove the excess sheen on the outside.
close-up of the component at the center of Grossman's "Car Horn" that recently underwent conservation.

Close-up of the component at the center of Grossman’s “Car Horn” that recently underwent conservation.

It’s also got leather, rubber, metal—rubber is one of those that you cannot slow its deterioration, it’s going to continue to deteriorate.  [The leather] is in good condition.

What does it take to become an objects curator? Grad school is only three years, but to get into grad school you have to have a lot of experience.

You have to have experience just to get in? Yes! There are only three programs in the U.S. that cover all specialties. There’s a separate archaeological conservation school. The other three schools: in your first year you study painting, paper, objects, and then you choose which specialty you want to go into for your second year. But everybody, before they even get into school, have years and years of experience. You’re expected to seek out internships and get as much experience as you can. I had four years of experience. It’s very competitive and each school only accepts ten students. I think the year I applied there were 70-some applicants and I hear now it’s in the 100s. So that’s just thirty students getting in. [You spend] two years in school and then the third year is an internship. Then you come back and you present and you go on to graduate. Then most people go on to do more internships. It’s a long road.

And what undergraduate degree is required? You have to have your undergrad in either art history, chemistry, or fine art, and then basically a minor in the other two areas. I started out in fine art, got interested in conservation, and transferred. My undergrad is in art history and then I did four semesters of chemistry: two general chemistry and two organic chemistry courses.

What got you interested in it? I realized I didn’t see myself just being an artist. I didn’t know what else I wanted to do, but I knew I liked to work with my hands, I liked art, and I liked science. I had no idea conservation existed until I started doing a little bit of research and said “that’s exactly what I wanted to do!” So I started interning at the Nelson Atkins. And then started doing the chemistry. I spend four years working at the Nelson and tried to do other internships in the summer.  I did a paintings conservation internship, and went on an archaeological dig in Italy. Basically just trying to get as much experience as I could because I knew that’s what they wanted to get into grad school.

So why did you choose object conservation? I like that it’s so diverse. Every single piece is different, as opposed to paintings and textiles. I think it’s the most challenging of all the specialties because of that.

Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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