Q&A: Rachel Keith

Rachel Keith, chief registrar, has been working at Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum for 10 years. She spoke with me recently about efforts to conserve the Kemper Art Museum collection.

Allison Fricke: The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Painting Conservation Survey started June 9th. Can you tell me about what is involved in the survey?

Rachel Keith: For this conservation assessment, funded through the IMLS’s Museums for America grant program, we are systematically examining each painting in our collection.  This means going through each painting one by one, taking them off their screens in storage, and placing them where we have very good light and access for our guest conservators to study them. The guest conservators are two paintings specialists from the Midwest Art Conservation Center in Minneapolis. They are looking closely at every single painting, basically analyzing all the different components to look for insecurities and areas of concern. They’re also reviewing more superficial aspects that don’t endanger the painting, but interfere with our understanding of the artist’s original intent—factors such as grime on the surface, discolored or inappropriate varnish, for example.  Then they are writing mini conservation reports summarizing the condition and needs of each object.

AF: Most of these objects are rarely on view, so—from your perspective—what is the purpose of the survey?

RK: As custodians of this collection, our job is to look after the preservation of each painting no matter how often it’s exhibited. Every single object is treated as conscientiously and responsibly as possible—so that’s one purpose. The paintings that don’t often come out of storage are also those that end up not getting condition checks as regularly as others, so this is an opportunity to look carefully at each one.

The Kemper Art Museum does not currently have a conservator – which is not unusual for a museum of our size, but is unusual for a museum with such a significant collection. We rely on the services of contract conservators—usually from the St. Louis Art Museum—to come and perform all of the treatments that the art in our collection needs. Our needs really have outgrown this structure, and we need a little bit (or maybe a lot) more help! The survey will help us determine the extent of the conservation needs for this collection. One of the most important outcomes of the survey is that it will help us prioritize what needs to be treated. The registrars do condition checks of the paintings in our collection on a regular basis, but a comprehensive, systematic review such as this one is rare.  And of course the expertise of the conservators is crucial in determining treatment needs and priorities, both in terms of urgency of treatment and approximate costs for that treatment. So the survey is an important step in making sure that we prioritize the collection’s short- and long-term needs appropriately.

Guest conservator... examines Sanford Robinson Gifford's Venetian Sails: A Study, 1873. Oil on canvas on Masonite, 13 x 24". Bequest of Charles Parsons, 1905.

Joan Gorman, Senior Paintings Conservator at the Midwest Art Conservation Center examines Sanford Robinson Gifford’s Venetian Sails: A Study, 1873. Oil on canvas on Masonite, 13 x 24″. Bequest of Charles Parsons, 1905.

AF: There was a survey of the sculpture collection several years ago and this survey looks at the paintings in the Kemper Art Museum collection. Why painting this time?

RK: Three years ago, also thanks to another IMLS grant, we did a full survey of our sculpture collection. In a way, we were starting with the smaller project, although the size of the two collections are roughly the same. The sculpture survey took us only one week to go through all 400 or so objects, while the painting survey is taking us two weeks for roughly 350 artworks. Many of the sculptures are in boxes so you can get them in and out much more easily. But the paintings are all on screens, so taking them out of storage is more cumbersome.

I will say we have a very detailed long-range conservation plan and doing these surveys is a part of that plan. In 2001, Paul Haner, paintings conservator at the St. Louis Art Museum, did a CAP survey for us—that’s a Collections Assessment Program grant, also through IMLS—and he looked at the current state of our building and storage areas and a select number of objects in our collections and made recommendations about what we should do to ensure that we are caring properly for these objects long-term. A lot of the recommendations that he made in the report guided the design of this building—adequately sized storage facilities, hallways and doorways large enough for all of the artwork in our collection, and climate controls that are extremely stable. But there was another recommendation he made there—that because we have this collection that has gone for so many years without a conservator, doing an object by object survey would be a good idea. And I agreed. As soon as we had achieved most of the goals that he laid out in that report, we went into the next phase (the surveys). And the next phase after this will be to begin treating all of these objects based on the prioritized need.

AF: During this past week, have you come across anything surprising or particularly interesting?

RK: There have been lots of interesting things! One thing that I thought was really cool was that our Childe Hassam painting is a painting on board, which we knew, but once the conservator was able to get in and really look at it, we learned a lot more information about it. I had never seen this painting without the backing board (a piece of archival board that keeps the back of a canvas from getting dusty). The conservator thinks that the construction on the back of the board is an original board-and-batten construction, like board and batten that you might see on a house or on a garage. The battens stabilize the board and keep it from warping or curving.  Sometimes these battens are added to paintings on board, but it would be pretty unusual to have them there as part of the painting’s original construction.  The back was painted dark green and is one of them most beautiful backs of a painting I’ve ever seen. And it’s a mahogany board! If this is indeed an original part of its construction, it indicates to me that Hassam himself was concerned about the durability and long-term preservation of his painting. It’s fascinating getting into these materials and realizing the craftsmanship that goes into them beyond just the surface of the paint.

I’m pleased that the information we’re gleaning from this survey will be so useful. The conservators approached their reports in a very practical way. On almost every painting they examine, they could identify something that needs some sort of treatment. But, because they’re looking at the entire collection at once, they also have a good sense of how broad a spectrum of needs we’re dealing with. So it’s easier for them to say “This is your highest priority—it needs to be addressed immediately,” or “This one is okay the way it is—it’s not perfect, but you don’t need to plan to do anything to it—at least not for the foreseeable future.” I’ve been very pleased by the number of objects we can consider no-treatment objects. And I’ve been surprised by a few of the objects that do need treatment as soon as possible.

Rachel Keith examines the backing board of Childe Hassam's Diamond Cove, Isles of Shoals, 1908. Oil on board, 25 1/4 x 30 3/8". University purchase, Bixby Fund, 1914.

Rachel Keith looks closely at the verso of Childe Hassam’s Diamond Cove, Isles of Shoals, 1908. Oil on board, 25 1/4 x 30 3/8″. University purchase, Bixby Fund, 1914.

AF: Is there anything else you would like to add?

RK: In the first week, we made it through 238 paintings, which is terrific progress, and that will allow us to do an extra day of long exams during the next week. We initially planned to do long exams for ten paintings and now are hopeful that we will be able to do long exams for 20. I also would like to point out that the very good progress was largely due to the organization and diligence of the staff here, Kim Broker especially. She prepared all of the object lists and forms for the survey in advance, so everything was able to move along very, very quickly. And Jan Hessel, Ron Weaver, Erica Buss, and Dave Smith all worked very efficiently to get canvases out and put them back on the screens. It was a lot of work for them because the backing board of every painting had to either be completely or partially removed so the conservators could take a close look at the structure underneath. It was a lot of work for them! And, of course, the conservators: because our staff was so on top of things, the conservators had no down time between paintings, which is great for getting through a lot of paintings, but is also very hard work and very intense for them. We were very grateful for their willingness to maximize their time here!  We are also very grateful to the Institute of Museum and Library Services for their ongoing support of conservation projects—their support is really crucial for all museums!

By Allison Fricke (Thursday, June 26, 2014)

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