UP CLOSE | A new push for renewal

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No caption. Photo by Lauren Motzkin.

In the 1950s and 60s, the Yale University Art Gallery undertook a zealous conservation project for its collection of 13th- and 14th-century Italian paintings, removing all traces of repaint, dirt and discolored varnishes from previous restorations. Over the years, though, conservators came to realize this method of aggressive cleaning was doing more harm than good — leaving Yale with more than 100 damaged paintings and a less than sterling reputation in the world of art conservation.

But in more recent years, the gallery has begun to restore these damaged paintings, while also shoring up efforts to establish a comprehensive conservation department for the University’s more than 185,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs and other pieces of art. Within the past three years, for example, the gallery hired two new conservators, and the Yale Center for British Art established a painting conservation lab.

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Moving the Gerasa mosaics to West Campus, according to Carol Snow, was a challenging process.
Moving the Gerasa mosaics to West Campus, according to Carol Snow, was a challenging process.

Nonetheless, between the gallery and the British Art Center, there are still only seven full-time conservators — not nearly enough hands to keep up with the demands of maintaining an encyclopedic collection, according to five conservators interviewed.

This, coupled with space constraints on central campus, severely limits the amount of work these expanding departments can accomplish, the conservators added.

A solution to these problems, though, may lie in the West Campus, specifically in a former pharmaceutical manufacturing building known as “A21.” The site, once it is fully functional, will provide the storage and laboratory space desperately needed by Yale’s art museums, and if funding is secured, it will be equipped with scientific resources necessary for conservation research. A21’s major drawback, however, is its distance from the majority of the collections on Yale’s campus — a problem for fragile works of art that are exposed to the added difficulties of transportation.

But, for now, conservators are willing to wait it out for a facility they have long hoped will allow them to realize restoration projects that have been on hold — and to make damaged or aged works of art accessible to Yale and the public once again.

OUT OF SPACE

In 2008, the art gallery brought in Ian McClure — then the director of Cambridge University’s Hamilton Kerr Institute, which is one of the world’s leading centers for teaching and research in the conservation of easel paintings — as its chief conservator. Later that same year, the gallery named Carol Snow its first objects conservator to work on restoring the gallery’s large collection of sculptures, cultural artifacts and mosaics.

With these recent additions, the gallery had assembled a conservation team of four full-time staff members who are responsible for the routine cleaning of works in the collection, in addition to emergency repairs, the stabilization of works in frames to be loaned out to other museums and the preparation of pieces for exhibitions.

Though the gallery had a conservation lab in its Louis I. Kahn building before its renovation was completed in 2006, during construction the laboratory was forced to take up residence in Yale’s Library Shelving Facility in Hamden, where the lab remains today. The team there is currently working on Roman sculpture, 19th-century mural paintings and several Old Master paintings, including a 16th-century piece that was so dirty it was previously unidentifiable. Now that the painting has been cleaned, European Art curator Laurence Kanter suspects the painting may be a lost work by the Italian painter Titian.

But setting up shop in a storage facility in Hamden is far from ideal because of the limited space and the isolation from the gallery, McClure said. He added that the University Library has asked the gallery to leave by 2015 when the library will need the space currently occupied by the conservation department for its own growing collection.

When the art gallery fully reopens in 2012 after the renovation of Egerton Swartwout’s Old Art Gallery building on Chapel Street is completed, the conservation department will open a small laboratory in the basement of the Swartwout building for emergency repairs, McClure said. But neither this space nor any other location in the gallery’s central campus complex will be large enough for a full-scale conservation laboratory, where conservators can spread out several large-scale works such as floor mosaics, rooms and maps at the same time.

Similarly, Mark Aronson, who was appointed the head of painting conservation for the Yale Center for British Art in 2007, said the low ceilings in his lab at the British Art Center make it difficult to work on the largest of British paintings.

“I love my studio,” he said. “But the one limit I have is in vertical feet.”

The conservation laboratory for works on paper, run by Theresa Fairbanks-Harris, who teaches “Connoisseurship and Conservation” in the History of Art Department, suffers from a similar problem. The lab serves both the British Art Center and the art gallery across the street, treating the more than 150,000 prints, drawings and photographs held between the two collections. Besides Fairbanks-Harris, the laboratory staffs an associate conservator, a preparator who prepares works for exhibitions and a postgraduate research assistant. The narrow studio has only one wash table for cleaning and very little storage space — a problem for preparator Mary Regan Yttre, who is in the process of mounting and framing large posters for the center’s upcoming exhibition “Art for All: British Posters for Transport,” opening May 27. Yttre said the center will not have enough space to store the posters in their custom-made frames at the Chapel Street location.

The painting conservation laboratory at the center was established three years ago. Aronson said British Art Center Director Amy Meyers spearheaded the project because she believed the conservation and restoration of the art collection was not just a matter of routine maintenance, but an important part of the academic investigation of painting. But the laboratory — whose team consists of Aronson, two research fellows, an undergraduate student and a conservation assistant — is understaffed for the kind of initiative Meyers envisioned.

LOOKING WEST

While arts facilities on central campus are pressed for space, a 15-minute shuttle ride away, building A21 on the West Campus provides 426,000 square-feet dedicated to Yale’s art collections. But there is still progress to be made — and funds to be gathered — before Yale’s are galleries, along with the Peabody Museum, will fully be able to use the space for conservation and storage.

Purchased from the Bayer HealthCare in 2007, the building was a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant complete with offices, high-tech laboratories and massive warehouse space. Though A21 was initially set to be demolished and rebuilt within the next 10 years as a space equipped for the arts, the project is currently on hold due to the economic downturn, associate director of planning for the West Campus Mark Francis said.

Still, the building’s amenities make it the ideal space for a large-scale conservation studio, McClure said, adding that committees are currently meeting to determine the specifics of how the project will proceed.

Once funding is secured, McClure said, he envisions a shared laboratory with rooms determined by function, such as cleaning, drying, dirt removal and freezing. These large laboratories, already equipped with electricity, fume hoods and water tables, could become studios for treating the large textiles, maps and architectural drawings in Yale’s collections. He said he also hopes to include laboratories for conservation research to create new ways to analyze materials, evaluate methods of preservation and develop new materials.

Even though many of the art gallery’s plans are waiting for approval and funding, the gallery already has three large-scale conservation projects underway in building A21.

The first is a historical room from the Youngs family house in Gilead, Conn. — a room whose wooden floor, decorated ceiling beams, original glass and a built-in alcove have been preserved from an 18th-century home. The room has never been installed in the gallery and was only recently reconstructed. The massive, high-ceilinged room in building A21 allowed workers to make sure all the pieces of the Gilead room, distorted and warped over time, still fit together, said object curator Snow. In the process, conservators also determined that the room would not quite fit inside the gallery because of its dimensions.

“They actually had to rebuild one of the gallery walls [during the renovation] to make sure the room would fit,” Snow said. She noted that it was only the team’s access to the West Campus that made this realization possible.

Snow is also working on the more than 18,000-piece Gerasa Mosaics, which were excavated in the 1920s in Jordan and then placed in large slabs of cement and stabilized with metal frames at Yale in the 1930s. The mosaics were displayed in the sculpture hall at the gallery but were taken down shortly thereafter, perhaps due to World War II, and remained in storage for the next 70 years, Snow said.

“It wasn’t this hidden treasure of the collection that we recently rediscovered,” associate curator of ancient art Lisa Brody said. “We knew it was there, we just didn’t have the resources to restore it.”

The third piece is a set of wall drawings from the Roman temple Mithraeum in the ancient city of Dura-Europos that date back to the second century A.D. The temple was covered with dirt when the walls of the city were fortified, preserving the wall drawings until they were excavated in the 1930s. In addition to routine cleaning and stabilizing, Yale conservators and curators have been able to create a mock-up of the installation, recreating the structure through photographs of all the drawings — once again taking full advantage of the space afforded on the West Campus.

That the West Campus is home to many of Yale’s scientific resources provides an added benefit to Yale’s art conservation efforts.

“Being surrounded by scientists, you might pick up some ideas over coffee or a sandwich,” McClure said.

He said he would like to collaborate with other Yale departments, such as Chemistry and Engineering, and hopes to hire a scientist by summer 2011 to consult on projects, if funding permits. Center conservator Fairbanks-Harris agreed that having a scientist who specializes in conservation on campus would be a great time and money saver because the position would eliminate the need to send out pigment samples to conservation scientists at other universities, which is a current practice.

“Part of the problem with conservation work is simply knowing and understanding what your problems are, which involves analysis — something our conservation laboratories have never been equipped to do,” Kanter said. “But now with the juxtaposition of research facilities available on the West Campus, the amount of analytical machinery available and colleagues who understand its use, enables us to do more work than we could ever do before.”

FAR FROM HOME

But West Campus is not without drawbacks. The site is nearly eight miles away from the art museums’ downtown locations and 15 miles from the Library Shelving Facility in Hamden, where much of the gallery’s collection is currently stored. This distance not only requires that fragile objects be moved for treatment, but also further isolates the conservation department from the rest of the museum.

Snow said moving the Gerasa mosaics to the West Campus was a challenging process because of the metal frames supporting the cement backing on the mosaic. When they were moving the piece, the curators ran the risk of cracking the cement along the lines of the frame, potentially damaging the ancient mosaic. Part of this problem will be solved when the gallery moves its off-view collection to the West Campus for browsable storage — part of McClure’s long-term plan, which is yet to be realized.

But conservators at both the gallery and the center agreed that maintaining conservation facilities closer to central campus, despite spatial constraints, has its merits. Because the Center for British Art collection is largely housed in the center itself, it is more efficient to have laboratories in close proximity to the objects, Meyers said.

Another concern is to make conservation accessible to students and researchers on campus, McClure said.

When the gallery reopens in 2012, McClure said, he plans to use his small laboratory in the basement of the Swartwout building not only for emergency repairs, but also as a way to showcase the work of Yale’s conservators. He said he hopes to use the space as a classroom to share the work of the department with students more formally. These opportunities would not be easily available on the West Campus, where more time and planning would be necessary to attract visitors to the conservation projects.

“The conservation and restoration of the art collection is not just a routine maintenance thing,” Aronson said. “It’s an important part of the scholarly and academic ladder of how we look at paintings.”

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