High Time for a Little R&R

It’s not rest and relaxation, but this year’s renovation and reinstallation is a time of self-care for the High Museum’s collection.

We are only weeks away from the High Museum of Art’s 2018 renovation and reinstallation reveal! We’re excited for visitors to see new collection installations, discover artworks we’ve never shown before, and reimagine longtime favorites.

The first stage of the process involved deinstalling the galleries. With the artworks off the walls and out of cases, we had a rare opportunity to do a comprehensive assessment of the collection’s condition and conservation needs.

Art conservators at the Williams Town Art Conservation Center and the affiliated Atlanta Art Conservation Center work to both prevent and repair damage to artworks. Ambrosius Benson, St. Mary Magdalene, during and after restoration. (Columbia Museum of Art collection.)

According to Hélène Gillette-Woodard, Head Objects Conservator at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, “The care and preservation of artwork is one of the main jobs of a museum, which conservators have a great deal of input on.”

For the High’s reinstallation, we invited Gillette-Woodard to evaluate the permanent collection using her expertise in the proper display and storage of art.

Gillette-Woodard explains: “Any time you’re doing a reinstallation, you want to put your artwork in the best environment possible for its display. You have a number of things you’re looking at. One, you’re trying to tell a story with your exhibition. Two, you also want to create an environment that will preserve your artifact. And then you want to determine how long that exhibition can be up safely.”

Hélène Gillette-Woodard evaluates an artwork in the High Museum’s folk and self-taught art collection.

As a conservator, Gillette-Woodard is knowledgeable about the needs of a broad range of materials, each posing its own set of challenges. She notes that the main causes of damage to artworks are “exposure to light, changes in temperature, and the amount of humidity in the environment.

What are the chief environmental factors that affect an artwork’s condition? Light, temperature, and humidity. Museums carefully control these elements to protect artworks.

Light is one of the more damaging elements of the environment. It causes chemical reactions within a material. These reactions can be catalyzed so that the color changes and shifts over time, or actually will destroy organic material over time because it becomes brittle and easy to break.”

Howard Finster, TV Woman and Child, 1980, Paint, concrete, rocks, metal, brick, and cement.

Older works that have acquired years of grime or damage often require conservation to stabilize their condition. Surprisingly, very new works can cause issues, too. For example, take this work, TV Woman and Child, by Howard Finster (American, 1916–2001). Although it was only created in 1980, it’s made of concrete, rocks, bricks, cement, metal, and paint — a challenging mixture of materials to preserve.

Unorthodox materials coax conservators into uncharted territory. There’s no single guidebook that covers all the materials that artists use. After all, artists are some of the most creative, innovative, and daring experimenters out there. They’re bound to tinker with unpredictable substances. To develop best practices for these materials, conservators must conduct research and test new methods. Luckily, Gillette-Woodard says, art conservators are still a “fairly tight and small community,” and they often reach out to share information.

The work of an art conservator requires expertise in a combination of areas, often including art history, studio art, preservation theory, chemistry, and materials science.

How has the group remained so tight-knit? There are just three graduate programs in the country — and they’re highly selective. Training to be a conservator is rigorous, but it’s also a passion for people like Gillette-Woodard who choose the profession.

“I have always been fascinated with art. I was an art history major, but I also love science. So, I was also a science major. In graduate school, I met this person who said, ‘You really should look at this field.’ And at that point in time I really had only known a little bit about art conservation. And from there I started looking into what it meant, and basically it fit my interests very closely. It’s a wonderful marriage of science and art. You never get bored with the field. Because everything’s new. Every project is different.”

With guidance from experts including Gillette-Woodard, we’re keeping our artworks stable and beautiful for generations to come.

Don’t miss the High’s big reinstallation reveal — including many new and recently conserved artworks — opening to the public on October 14.

By Eva Berlin, Digital Content Specialist, High Museum of Art