Expert Advice On Art Preservation

Conservation Practices of The National Gallery of Art

By Karyn A. Meyer-Berthel, Artist and Art Material Blogger

Karyn A. Meyer-Berthel  has worked in the fine arts industry for over 14 years. She is a painter, art material researcher and blogger. While working at the National Gallery of Art in the conservation department with the Mellon Art Materials Collection she received an exposure to one of the largest art material collections in existence. Visit her website at http://karynmeyer.com/

Quality and Care for Art

Shopping for art begs the question, “Why am I buying this?” Unlike most consumer items, art holds a much bigger answer. There are two main reasons to purchase art — for pleasure or for financial investment. Knowing why you are buying an artwork lays the foundation for what you should look for in the quality of the piece and how to care for it.

Karyn Meyer Berthel
Karyn A. Meyer Berthel, Golden Fringe, acrylic on panel, 12″ x 12″.

When purchasing an artwork for pleasure, home decor, or for a gift, the work only has to be aesthetically pleasing for a limited period of time. Your taste changes as does the paint color in your house; if your artwork lasts for more than twenty years, you’ve gotten your money’s worth.

On the other hand, if an artwork is being purchased for the sake of investment, then it best be the highest quality work that an artist can create. It needs to last for centuries so that future generations can marvel and enjoy. Each of these scenarios means that the work will be cared for very differently — the way the work is housed, displayed, stored or moved.

Advice from Michelle Facini
The National Gallery of Art

Michelle Facini, a paper conservator at the National Gallery of Art, weighs in about caring for art on paper. “If you are acquiring an artwork for posterity, then you incorporate as much preventative care as possible to protect it. Light damage is cumulative, so every moment it is displayed counts towards exposure.

To keep paper objects well preserved, start by storing works using high-quality mats and archival boxes in a place with constant humidity and temperature; this is an ideal storage environment for a work on paper.”

JMW Turner, Oberwesel, watercolor, 1840
JMW Turner, Oberwesel, watercolor, 1840

Making Preservation A Priority

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. displays their artworks on paper in low lit galleries with limited display times of three to six months and museum quality glazing that protects the art.

When work isn’t being shown in the galleries, it is carefully stored in archival materials such as window mats, folders, custom-made boxes, Solander boxes, flat files and compact shelving in pollutant-free environments with temperature and humidity control.

Paintings and sculptures at the National Gallery, depending on their material requirements, will usually lend to more display time in the galleries, but when are off view are also stored in the best conditions making preservation a priority.

Caring for watercolors
“Time to Eat” by Darlene Kaplan http://www.darlenekaplan.com. Kaplan creates Oriental Brush Paintings using Chinese watercolors on archival paper. She stores her unframed art in different size acid free boxes. The acid free box above is used to store wedding gowns. This size is most suitable for her long paintings.

Watercolor Papers – Then and Now

Facini explains, “The medium and substrate are particularly important to how the art is cared for long term. For example, watercolors are very sensitive to light and will fade, even if it is not immediately visible in the first few years… traditionally some of the highest quality watercolor papers were sized with gelatin that protected the cellulose from pollutants in the environment.

“That is one of the reasons why J.M.W. Turner’s works on paper from the early 19th century are in such a great state of preservation; the Whatman watercolor papers he used were of the highest quality cotton with gelatin sizing that could withstand his bruising techniques of scraping, sanding and working wet on wet.”

Facini further explains, “Modern papers with synthetic sizing and optical brighteners do not hold up well to extensive light exposure, pollutants and fluctuating environments, so artworks on modern papers require special attention. The quality of modern papers and pigments also varies tremendously, so consulting preservation professionals to help you care for your artworks long term is extremely helpful.”

Dorothy and Herbert Vogal
Dorothy and Herbert Vogel donated a large art collection to the National Gallery of Art that presented many challenges.

The National Gallery’s Preservation Plan

When the National Gallery acquires modern works, curators and conservators interview artists to understand how works are made so that the museum has a preservation plan for storage and display.

The Herbert and Dorothy Vogel collection recently acquired by the National Gallery of Art, presented many modern material preservation challenges with works of art that incorporate plastics, light-sensitive felt-tip pens and consumer goods like tape.

More Advice on Caring For Your Art

If you are considering purchasing artwork for investment, have conversations with art dealers to learn how to properly care for a piece. Contact a conservator to better understand the works of art in your current collection and get preventative advice.

You can find a list of private, active conservators on the American Institute for Conservation website http://www.conservation-us.org/.

To learn more about art conservation at the National Gallery, you can log on to their website and see ongoing projects here: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/conservation.html

The National Gallery of Art is located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets NW along Constitution Avenue NW.

Do you have any advice or questions about caring for and preserving art? Please comment.

5 thoughts on “Expert Advice On Art Preservation”

  1. This is really interesting information. I know that this post was written with collectors in mind, but it seems like artists should be paying more attention to this sort of information too. I’m going to look into getting some archival boxes to store my current watercolors and drawings in. Canvases will have to stay in their racks for now though… 🙂

    1. Rebecca, thank you for your comment. You are absolutely correct. Artists need to be aware of conservation too. I’m so glad you learned something from this wonderful article written by Karyn Meyer-Berthel. I hope you’ll be a regular visitor and commenter!

  2. Yes I totally agree with Rebecca. This is valuable information not only for the collector but as an artist as well. I’ve never considered using boxes to store my art but it’s something to consider down the road. Thank you for this article it has been totally helpful.

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