This month we discussed art conservation and the Florida market with leading art conservator Gordon Lewis, Senior Vice President and Director of The Fine Arts Conservancy. Learn about this highly capable conservation studio that serves clients globally, how Florida collectors need to take extra care preserving their collection, the most challenging conservation cases they've seen in 45 years, what exactly is "digital art conservation", and much more:
The Clarion List: What is The Fine Arts Conservancy and who are your clients?
Gordon Lewis: Celebrating our 20th year in South Florida and our 45th year as a fine art conservation laboratory, The Fine Arts Conservancy (FAC) is a respected, leading art conservation studio. With over 5000 square feet of modern, well-equipped laboratories in West Palm Beach, FAC is a highly regarded facility. Although largely known for work at the masterpiece level, we do not hesitate to work on heirloom pieces, dear to their owner. We are noted for our commitment to excellence. There are separate labs for sculpture and objects conservation, painting conservation, paper conservation, framing, and diagnostic and technical examination. We also restore, conserve and maintain outdoor sculpture. While textiles are conserved and restored in our main laboratories, furniture conservation (because of the dust it generates) is performed in a separate facility. Because of our reputation for quality, works are sent to us from throughout North America, South America and Europe. Among the 47 museums we served nationally and internationally, are The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The National Gallery, who recommends us.
TCL: What type of conservation work do you specialize in?
GL: We have specialist experts in the conservation and restoration of both traditional and contemporary works of art – all of whom hold one or more advanced degrees in conservation from the most prestigious universities in the Unites States or Europe.
Our website (www.art-conservation.org) has examples of our work. You will see views of our laboratories and some of the interesting pieces we have had the pleasure of conserving. For all of the interesting pieces on the website, there are many which have not yet been entered. We also have several glossaries (paintings, paper and furniture) which are presently being used for art graduate courses throughout Europe and America.
Among the highly important paintings we have conserved are:
Minerva Saving Peace; Peter Paul Rubins
The Battle of Tetuan; Salvador Dali
Standing Portrait of George Washington; Gilbert Stuart
Adoration of the Children; Fra Angelico
Untitled: Gerhardt Richter
Untitled; Amsel Keifer (9’x11’)
The Battle of Tetuan; Salvador Dali
TCL: Tell us about the Florida art market and arts conservation in general. Are there unique conservation needs common among your clients thanks to the warmer and more humid climate? Do you regularly provide in-home consulting regarding damage prevention? Is there a seasonality to your business?
GL: The Florida art market is definitely secondary to the New York market since the majority of collectors are from the Northeast and the Midwest and they rely on the Philadelphia – Boston corridor as their primary source, with some from Chicago and elsewhere. For the most part, Florida is a secondary residence.
But Florida does have challenges for owners; primarily heat and humidity. We find that, whenever possible, two dimensional arts should be framed in a sealed frame to minimize humidity transfer. These framing systems are simple but isolate the work in its own environment, controlling and stabilizing humidity (and eliminating UV damage) within the frame itself. The added advantage is that, with the art being isolated from the environment, the home can be open to the Florida air and sunshine. Finally, these are great protection during hurricanes and other power outages.
Interestingly, one would think there is seasonality to our business, but there does not seem to be. During the summer, many collectors leave art with us to have it conserved or the framing upgraded, while during the rest of the year we are occupied with restoration of damage which occurs during the season. While normally one would believe that there is a lot of in-home consulting required, our experience is that most collectors are savvy enough to have their homes properly controlled. However, in older homes, frequently the glass does not have UV filtering and that has to be modified. The fact is that Florida ultraviolet levels are the highest in the nation. New York during the bright sunny day will average 3500 nanowatts per lumen of UV; that same day in Florida will be 12,500 Nanowatts per lumen, with its highly increased capability to fade and deteriorate paper and textile products. There is no safe level for light, although the less, the better; some museums have sensors which turn on light in a case for viewing when anyone approaches, the returns the case to darkness upon their leaving.
TCL: What has been the most challenging conservation project you’ve worked on and what was your favorite work of art that you’ve conserved?
GL: While, as a young conservator, there were a tremendous number of challenging projects, after 45 years there is very little that we have not seen and dealt with, so completely new challenges are few and far between. However, in those years I have made acquaintances and friends with many of the top experts in related fields to art, which enables us to reach out and bring the world’s top expertise into projects if they are useful.
That does not mean that we do not have some interesting situations:
Several years ago a client who is a major dealer in antiquities had a group of mummies that he wanted to have x-rayed to see if there was a “heart scarab” where the heart is.(in the process of preparing them, the internal organs – with the exception of the heart -were removed and placed in separate containers known as canopic jars) Scarabs were used only in one particular dynasty and it was possible to identify and date the mummies to that dynasty by the heart scarab. Having another client who is the head of radiology in a major New York hospital, I called him to ask if he could like to work with us on this; he said he would love to do it. I put six mummies in the rear of my station wagon and took them to hospital where we took them by gurney to radiology. We were not told that the only entrance to radiology was through the emergency room waiting area. So we dutifully loaded the mummies onto the gurney and pulled it through the ER waiting room. I don’t need to tell you that we emptied the waiting room in less than 30 seconds - I doubt seriously that their ER business never recovered. The looks of sheer horror on the faces of the people in the waiting room were truly incredible to behold….. By the way, we did not find any heart scarabs.
My favorite work of art to have conserved was a small Renaissance painting by Frau Angelica, titled the Adoration of the Children. It was a painting of the manger with Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus. Outside of the manger, thousands of children, coming to worship him, wound through the landscape of Tuscany headed for the manger. Of course, painters of this era in Italy had never seen the holy land, so the landscape painting was a typical one of Tuscany; that is hilly, with the children pouring out from between the hills. Remembering it still gives me chills. Several years later, the Director of the Vatican’s Museums was showing me through the Vatican and hearing about this painting, showed me a Papal apartment which had been entirely painted by Frau Angelica.
TCL: Aside from helping your clients conserve their collections, you are very involved with Friends of Uffizi Gallery. Tell us more and why it is so important to you.
GL: Aside from our normal projects, I have been deeply involved with the Friends of the Uffizi Gallery, and through them the Uffizi itself. The Uffizi was the world’s first Museum and today contains in addition to more modern works, an unparalleled collection of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque art. The mission of the Friends of the Uffizi is to develop funding to restore their works of art in need. The Italian government does not have the resources to assist museums, so their collections have been left largely in limbo; each Museum must find his own source of funding.
Workers rescuing art damaged during the Florence flood of 1966
TCL: What about art conservation work might even the most veteran (non-conservator) art market professional find surprising?
GL: Many questions arise about the field regarding conservation and restoration of digital art. The fact is that that, comparatively speaking, there is so little digital art that the need for conservation rarely is broached. Digital art, by its very nature, is best corrected by the artist who retains the computer program.
TCL: What do you like about The Clarion List?
The Clarion List is where I turn first when I need a resource in art or a related field. The list is well organized and makes it easy to identify resources which can then be straightforwardly researched and vetted.
TCL: How has technology changed the field of conservation? How have conservation methods evolved? What unique conservation needs do contemporary digital works of art have?
GL: There have been many technologies advances all underscoring or with the mandate to be less invasive, improving on the techniques and materials of the past.
Evolving technology has had a major impact on conservation and our ability to develop solutions. But that being said, the conservation world is too small to be commercially viable, for the most part, to the development of technology expressly designed for the field. As a result, most of the field’s technology is adopted from other fields and then applied to conservation.
Interestingly conservation methods have changed very little in the past half century, with the exception of paper restoration, where treatment has become less aggressive over the years as we have learned how to approach paper issues with more finesse.