The fine art of conservation

Queen’s hosts Canada’s only master’s program in art conservation, but many grads look beyond Canada for work

Emily Min, MA ’09, mends a torn canvas. Art conservation students choose to specialize in paper conservation, painting conservation, artifact conservation or conservation science.
Emily Min, MA ’09, mends a torn canvas. Art conservation students choose to specialize in paper conservation, painting conservation, artifact conservation or conservation science.

Tucked away in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s master’s program in art conservation is the only degree program of its kind in Canada and one of the University’s best-kept secrets.

John O’Neill, assistant professor of paper conservation and the department’s acting director, said there are art conservators trained at Queen’s working all over the world.

“I think our graduates are pretty well everywhere throughout Europe and North America,” he said, adding that there’s one graduate working in India as a private paper conservator.

Although some graduates go on to work in private practice, O’Neill said, many conservation students go on to work at museums and archives. Some of the program’s recent graduates are working at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa and as conservators at the National Gallery in Ottawa, others are working in the U.S. and one Queen’s graduate is teaching conservation at the University of Delaware.

“The recent graduates are mostly doing bench conservation or preventative conservation—they’re in charge of a particular collection,” he said.

Bench conservation refers to conservators who physically treat artifacts. Preventative conservation involves taking measures to keep items in good condition—for example, housing the items and regulating temperature and relative humidity.

“The older graduates … most of those now are in administrative positions,” O’Neill said, adding that the head conservator at the Tate Gallery in London is a Queen’s graduate.

Students choose to specialize in one of four streams: paper conservation, painting conservation, artifact conservation or conservation science.

O’Neill said the training is half practical and half theoretical.

“We try and train our students to look at things very carefully,” he said. “We try and get them to think critically. We try and instill in them the need to think about what they’re looking at.”

O’Neill said conservation students are taught to consider how an object was made, its age and its culture, as well as hands-on skills such as how to identify pigments when examining a painting.

In order to be accepted into the two-year program, applicants must have an undergraduate honours degree in art history, archeology, ethnology, fine arts, science or engineering. All applicants must have taken studio art courses, a full-year course in chemistry and a half-year course in organic chemistry. In addition, students with a science background must have taken two full-year courses in art history or archeology.

O’Neill said it’s also recommended applicants have prior experience working in a conservation lab, either in an institution or with a private conservator.

Approximately 12 students are accepted into the program each year, most of whom come from arts backgrounds, he said.

“Probably 80 per cent come from the arts and 20 per cent come from the sciences.”

Courses in the department are split between lecture and lab components. In their second year, students do an individual research project that takes the place of a thesis and is meant to be publishable, O’Neill said.

“It’s a project that involves original research that’s geared toward a specific problem in conservation,” he said, adding that the project focuses on testing a scientific hypothesis about conservation rather than treating a specific artifact.

O’Neill said current projects include a paper conservation student’s comparison of two methods of removing soot from books, an artifact conservation student’s project on the use of ox blood as a binding agent in paint from before 1900 and an artifact conservation student’s analysis of the effect of different types of gloves on silver objects.

In addition to their course work, art conservation students are required to do a 12-week summer internship working in their chosen stream. Students usually arrange the internships themselves and are free to work anywhere they can find a placement, O’Neill said.

He said one student recently went to Mongolia to work on an archeological dig.

“They can go basically anywhere in the world.”

But O’Neill said it can be difficult for graduates to find full-time employment in Canada because art conservation is such a small field.

“The demand for the graduates is not that great. … There are not a lot of museums and galleries that have full-time conservation staff,” he said. “The opportunities in Canada tend to be limited for full-time employment. A good proportion of our graduates tend to go to the States or Europe to work.”

But trained conservators can usually find jobs in Canada as long as they’re prepared to relocate, O’Neill said.

“If you’re willing to travel … there’s usually somewhere in Canada you can get a job.”

O’Neill said recent graduates typically intern for a few years before settling into more permanent positions.

“When they first graduate, they don’t go on to a permanent job,” he said. “Once they do get a permanent job, it’s at a gallery or a library or an archives.”

Although five universities in the United States offer art conservation programs, O’Neill said because the department is unique in Canada, Queen’s is able to attract the best students and faculty from across the country.

“I guess it’s an advantage in a way, in that someone from Canada who’s thinking about going into conservation would think of us.”

Although Fleming College in Peterborough offers a diploma program in artifact conservation, O’Neill said students who want to specialize in painting conservation have to choose between going to Queen’s and studying abroad, an option that often presents financial barriers.

Painting conservation student Jessica Veevers, MA ’09, told the Journal that coming to Queen’s wasn’t a difficult decision.

“It was made pretty simple because it’s the only program in Canada,” she said. “Being in Canada is more convenient, obviously.” She said she spoke with a number of conservators practicing in Canada, the United States, Italy and England.

“Everyone who knew of the program said it was well respected in the field of conservation,” she said.

After graduating from the University of Guelph in 2002 with a major in studio art and a minor in biology, Veevers decided to pursue art conservation because of her interests in both art and science.

“I thought long and hard about the things that motivated me, and it was always the duality of combining arts and science. When I did one I always missed the other,” she said.

“I always had a great respect for things that are old, and what we can learn from them. … To keep them around for future generations I think is a valuable skill.”

Veevers said she found it difficult to gain experience in Canada in her area of interest, fresco conservation.

“I went to Italy and I did a course in Florence on fresco conservation, and then afterwards I moved to Rome and I had a few contacts there who then put me in contact with a conservator there and I was able to volunteer with her and get some experience,” she said, adding that the experience also gave her a chance to learn to speak some Italian.

Veevers said the small size of the program at Queen’s allows students to receive individual attention while still working independently.

“You have to have someone that’s constantly guiding you and making sure things are done properly,” she said.

“Being able to go in and work hands-on in our labs for four hours every day is a huge advantage. … We’re encouraged to work independently, so it gets us thinking independently right away.” Veevers said after she graduates in the spring, she plans to find an internship or a fellowship before settling into a permanent job.

“There’s many that are offered in the States or in Europe that are available for recent graduates,” she said. “It’s difficult to get a job right out of school.

“I would definitely like to start in a gallery somewhere and get experience working in an institution like that. One day, my goal is to be self-employed and set up my own business.”

Veevers said she wants to work in Canada for the long term, but she’s open to international experiences for her internship.

“Somewhere in Europe would be fabulous.”

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