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Meet the Conservators at the Nelson-Atkins Museum

By David Frese
February 10, 2017 11:48 AM

Kansas City Star

Of all the treasures and masterworks in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the more contemporary pieces can prove the most vexing.

While the old masters used the best materials they could buy, contemporary art can be made up of anything. A sculpture made from chocolate, for example, or a ketchup painting on a brown paper sack.

“Frankly, I’m not thrilled with working with things like that,” said Paul Benson, a Nelson conservator who works with objects. “You consult with colleagues: ‘Has anyone else worked with a chocolate sculpture before?’ You try to do the minimum that you can to stabilize them and hope they’re all right.”

The Nelson has had a conservator on staff since the late 1930s (it opened in 1933). Today, the museum has two conservation teams: one for paintings and one for objects — sculptures, pottery, furniture and, yes, giant shuttlecocks. Each team is charged with preserving and restoring the museum’s collection and acquisitions.

“Conservators are jokingly referred to as ‘art doctors,’ ” Benson said. “If there’s something wrong with an object, we will fix it.”

The objects department authenticates objects, stabilizes them and readies them for exhibit. Metal, glass, ceramics, wood — if it has three dimensions, they’ll work on it.

“There are a lot of glamorous projects, like the mummy coffin; that was a lot of fun and very, very challenging,” said Kate Garland, senior conservator. “But there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that people aren’t aware of.”

When we visited recently, Benson had just begun work on a pair of 100-year-old ornate silver thrones and stools from Dungarpur, India. The pieces belonged to that country’s maharaja and his son.

Benson said many questions beyond authenticity had to be discussed before he could begin work. The big one: What do they want the final appearance to be?

“That’s up to the curator,” Benson said. “Different curators have different ideas.”

One curator may say silver was always meant to be bright and shiny, so the conservators are asked to make objects look like new. Another may say the works should show their age, with corrosion and tarnish remaining deep in the crevasses to bring out the details.

“Once you take the tarnish off, you can’t put it back on,” Benson said. “So you do have to proceed slowly and with consultation with the curator so you know what their goal is.”

Benson started out in the oil industry. A layoff made him consider other careers, and he remembered back to when he took a class on prints and drawings at the Rocky Mountain Conservation Center in Denver.

“It looked like an Aladdin’s Cave of art,” he said. “I’d never seen anything like that. So when I got laid off I thought back to that place, and I thought, ‘I wonder what those people do there,’ because it looked interesting, whatever it was.”

Today, Benson and his colleagues in objects conservation work in a white room that looks more science lab than art museum.

Movable elephant trunk fume hoods hang from the ceiling, ready to suck out dust and solvents. White worktables feature binocular microscopes and extra lighting. Overhead along one wall are shelves featuring boxes with samples of leather, bone, linen, abaca (a textile) and a box of “Shuttlecock Samples.”

“The Shuttlecocks are certainly a challenge,” Benson said. “The materials in this climate expand and contract differently. There’s a lot of cracking that has to be fixed every year. Just the cleaning of them is a challenge because the scale of the pieces involves lifts and scaffolding and ladders. We have to get the entire department out there for a full day to make them look good and give them a bath.”

Also in need of the occasional cleaning: Robert Morris’ Glass Labyrinth. A professional glass-cleaning company comes out every couple of weeks, but the department sometimes has to wipe them down, too.

“We are called out there occasionally to clean up the blood because people do run into it,” he said. “That happens much more often than you would think.”

Benson says he particularly likes working on the older stuff. He has worked on the museum’s American Indian objects, which are challenging because of all the bone, feathers and other organic materials used.

During our visit, Benson and the objects conservation team were trying to determine the age and authenticity of a wooden Burmese sculpture of a man. The details were incredible, right down to veins on the arms. And intern Stephanie Spence from the State University of New York at Buffalo was examining a small vase or jug from Iran with script written on the outside.

One of Benson’s big recent projects was the restoration of an Egyptian relief from 2500 B.C. that took the better part of two years to complete. On the relief, he discovered the makers had used Egyptian blue, a pigment that required some fairly sophisticated chemical processes for the time.

“There’s a lot of surprising things you just wouldn’t think people then knew how to do,” he said. “They didn’t have any kind of thermometers to measure temperature. If you’re trying to melt something for a particular process, you’re just looking at it, trying to determine what you think the temperature was. A lot of little things like that really make a difference.”

Benson said the Chinese metalworking also is just superb for the time period.

“We have a dagger from China in here that actually has fingerprints on it etched into the metal, and that was probably from the person who wrapped that dagger up and put it in the tomb,” he said. “So when you discover something like that it really brings a smile to your face.”

Over in paintings conservation, the senior conservator for paintings, Scott Heffley, works in a similar lab environment, only his team’s space is awash in soft natural light from a bank of north-facing windows. All the better to see the pigments and colors used by the original artists as well as in their own work.

Heffley started as a conservator at the Nelson 33 years ago. He laughed when he said he didn’t even know which state Kansas City was in at the time.

“I mean, I knew there were two,” he said. “I knew there was one in Kansas, but what state was next to Kansas? I had no idea.”

Like Benson, Heffley started out on the science side in the oil industry. Once he learned of the art conservation field, however, he redirected himself.

“The blending of the three — the chemical sciences, the studio art and the art history — is really what I love about my work,” Heffley said.

Sometimes his job will require using a microscope and a scalpel for months, carefully chipping away at the old restorations, stuff that can’t be removed with solvents.

Sometimes he’ll get into a project and discover something completely unexpected. While restoring the museum’s Rembrandt about 15 years ago, he discovered someone had added a strip of canvas to make it taller. Through research, Heffley was able to prove that the painting was supposed to be smaller.

“This was a painting that was painted in 1666,” he said. “And working with a curator, we both agreed it should not be this configuration, and we changed it to its current configuration by buying a new frame that covers up 3 1/2 inches of the top of the canvas that shouldn’t have been showing. That was a major change to a very important painting in our collection.”

Heffley also restored the museum’s “The Penitent Magdalene” by El Greco, a process that took more than a year. He spent eight months scraping overpaint off the artist’s original work, using a microscope and a tiny scalpel, a process he called “definitely tedious.”

“Conservators have patience,” he said. “I don’t have patience when I’m driving in my car, but under a microscope, I can sit there. I don’t know why. I just can.”

During the restoration, he also found that El Greco had painted the woman’s left ear three different times.

“Even a great old master like this was getting it right,” he said. “I love seeing that kind of thing, where they change their mind and improve it. He’s not automatically a genius. He has to work at it.”

Everything the conservators do has to be easily reversible. Heffley carefully documents all the materials he uses, so when the work has to be restored again in 80 years, the conservator will know what to use to remove it.

“Restorers in the past used oil paint to restore an oil painting that crosslinks with the original oil painting, and that’s really hard to get off,” he said.

The conservation department also monitors the museum temperature, humidity and light levels to ensure preservation. When a painting goes out on loan, they vet the borrowing institution to make sure the piece will be cared for appropriately. Sometimes conservators will even accompany the artwork when it leaves to make sure every step along the way is careful and controlled.

Heffley said conservators are easy to spot in art museums.

“They’ll be getting in the light and getting a closer look,” he said. “When I’m in another city’s museum, I want to get up close, but I know that the guards are going to get at me, so I always put my hands behind my back so they know I’m not going to do anything. Some will still sometimes yell at me — and they should.”

Though he has worked on much of the Nelson’s collection, Heffley said someday he’d like to get his hands on the museum’s “Madonna and Child With Infant Saint John the Baptist,” a 1510 painting by Lorenzo di Credi.

“It’s a very important painting,” he said. “It’s kind of in the school of Leonardo da Vinci. We’re not going to have a da Vinci, but this is as close as we’re going to get. We’ve had it a long time. It has some real challenges. I feel like I’ve had enough experience with all kinds of issues that I could be the right person for restoring it.”

During our visit, Heffley was touching up Nathaniel Dance’s unfinished portrait of artist Jeremiah Meyer, which will hang in the new Bloch galleries, opening in March.

It was impressively detailed work to cover just an inch-and-a-half spot that looked slightly greener under the galleries’ new LED light system. The spot looked fine in natural light, but under the new lights, something was off.

When it’s finished, the piece will hang in the museum with so many other works he has restored. If he has done his job correctly, few outside of curator and conservator circles will have any idea he was there.

“It’s cool when I walk through the museum and I see that I’ve worked on all these paintings, I kind of feel like they’re mine,” he said. “I mean, I don’t own them, of course. You spend so much time with them, and you learn so much about them, you just feel connected to them.”
David Frese: 816-234-4463, @DavidFrese
Where to see their work

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday and 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Admission is free. For more, go to Nelson-Atkins.org.