Design New England

Creative Lives: Art Conservator

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Conservator Jessica Chloros works to restore a piece from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum collection.

By Courtney Goodrich

Jessica Chloros has an intriguing, creative career, but people outside the rarified art museum world might not have any idea her job even exists. As associate objects conservator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, she is a combination of art historian, studio artist, chemical scientist, professional photographer, and precise librarian.

Art conservators such as Chloros work in the present while looking backwards and forward. They reference notes from fellow conservators and historians who came years before them while thinking of future conservators who might also work on a piece. Their work should never be irreversible, and they are constantly dealing with changing technology — and changing genres. Did you know, for example, that contemporary art is much trickier to conserve than ancient sculptures? “Stone is stone,” says Chloros, but new plastics introduced by artists in the 1960s and 1970s are a puzzle when it comes to stabilizing, especially since the goal is to enjoy art “forever,” a daunting word conservators, especially those working with priceless pieces in museums, think about with every swipe of their Q-tip.

A conservator’s workload is often planned out years in advance since a single project can take months. At the same time, unexpected assignments arise. Someone might accidentally bump an invaluable piece of furniture, or a security guard could notice paint abnormally falling off an ancient statue. While such smaller projects might require less time, the item in question still has to be taken off view, photographed, analyzed, given the proper treatment, tediously described and recorded, and then put back on display.

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Chloros, who grew up in New Hampshire, lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, with her spouse, Melissa Carr, a furniture conservator who owns Masterwork Conservation, a private studio based in Arlington, and their 5-year-old twin boys. She agreed to share her personal story and observations on the career she loves.

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An art conservator’s tools and work palette.

Getting hooked: I realized I wanted to be an objects conservator during my sophomore year at Simmons College in Boston. I was doing a part-time work-study job at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and met with the head of objects conservation to talk about what it takes to become a conservator. She ended up offering me part-time work in the MFA’s objects lab that year and I fell in love with the profession.

Becoming an art conservator: Conservation used to be an apprentice-trained field, but these days you need a master’s degree in art conservation to work as a museum conservator. There are three main training programs in the US, which are three or four year programs. Generally, in the three-year program, which I did at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, the first two years are spent at school with internships during the summer and the third year spent in a full-year internship at a museum, private conservation studio, or, possibly, an archaeological site. The four-year program also grants a master’s degree in art history in addition to the conservation degree. Each program takes six to 10 students per year so you can imagine it is pretty competitive. Prerequisites include courses in art history, studio art, and chemistry, as well as around 400 hours of work in the field of conservation. You also have to provide a portfolio of your artwork and your conservation work.

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I graduated from my master’s program in 2007, but before that I worked for about five years gaining hands-on experience. Two years of that “pre-program” experience was at the Gardner Museum and it was an amazing opportunity to be mentored by talented conservators. So all together, I’ve been working in the field of conservation for about 15 years and I’ve been fortunate to spend nine of those at the Gardner Museum.

On working at the Gardner Museum: I love the collection, the setting, and the history of how Mrs. Gardner created such a special and unique place in Boston. I also love that I still notice new objects in the galleries, even after working here for nine years.

We have a talented and collaborative conservation team and I really value that. We have objects conservators, textile conservators, a painting conservator, and an historic upholsterer on staff. If we have a project that is outside our range of specialties, we will hire a conservator in private practice for that specific project. We are fortunate to have a lot of talented colleagues in the Boston area. We work on a mix of both individual projects and group projects — it is a very collaborative field so it is rare that we don’t at least consult with each other or another colleague while working on a project.

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The head of conservation and paintings conservator Gianfranco Pocobene is currently working on cleaning a painting usually on view in the museum’s Raphael Room.
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The staff historic upholsterer, Gisele Haven, is currently working on rebuilding a chair.

What the not-so-typical workday is like: A lot of work happens in a museum in the hours before opening to the public. Any art movements or in-situ gallery work usually happen during this time [before 11 a.m. for the Gardner Museum]. I try to spend several hours doing treatment, research, or material analysis, and I also usually spend time working with our technicians or interns. At our museum, we also work with other departments to ensure the safety of the collection when planning activities and events that take place in the museum. And, of course, there is always the email and administrative side of the workday.

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The influence of technology: Technology has changed a lot since I first started in conservation. At my graduate school interview I gave a slide presentation because people hadn’t started routinely using digital cameras. The advances in photography over the last 15 to 20 years have made a big impact on the field. There is a huge amount of information you can learn about an object by using different imaging techniques before you even physically touch the work of art.

There are great resources online and many books and journals can be downloaded for free. And I think there is still a lot of value in having a library of conservation books and journals, like we do at the Gardner Museum, where you can go and pull a book off of the shelf and page through it. I just referenced a book on glass conservation this past week.

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The library in the conservation department has books and journals for referencing art conservation, art history, chemistry, physics, and restoration techniques.
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Smaller objects are worked on under an exhaust hood, where chemicals and dust are drawn up quickly so not to harm the conservator.

A conservator’s recommended reading: The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel is an excellent book that tells the story of some of the American pioneers of modern conservation including George Stout who was the second director of the Gardner Museum and one of the earliest conservators at the museum.

What you may not know: Being a conservator is an amazing job and extremely important for the sake of preserving art for future generations, but it is becoming increasingly harder for conservators to secure permanent jobs. With museums across the country dealing with budget constraints and decreased resources from government grants, there is less money for conservation positions. It is not uncommon for a trained conservator to do 5 to 10 years of post-graduate fellowships, moving around to different institutions before securing a permanent museum job.

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Favorite project to date: A painted and gilded terracotta sculpture of the Virgin Adoring the Child by the Italian artist Matteo Civitali that dates to 1480. This sculpture is displayed in the Long Gallery on the third floor of the museum. There was a lot of technical research done on this sculpture in addition to the treatment and it was extremely exciting to discover that the majority of the existing paint was original.

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