In Arts & Entertainment

Chief conservator Jim DeYoung has more than 30 years experience at Milwaukee Art Museum. (PHOTO: Whitney Teska)

In Arts & Entertainment

The 1,500-square foot conservation lab, opened in 2005, is a massive upgrade from its 500-square foot predecessor. (PHOTO: Whitney Teska)

In Arts & Entertainment

Preservation archivist Tim Ladwig is part of the a four-member conservation team at MAM. (PHOTO: Whitney Teska)

Behind the scenes: Conservation staff is key team at Art Museum

Even folks who spend a lot of time at Milwaukee Art Museum might have only the vaguest idea of what it takes to run such an institution and the amount of sweat, energy and attention to detail that goes into staging exhibitions.

That's why went behind the scenes recently at Milwaukee Art Museum and met the people who toil long and hard -- getting every last detail right -- so that Brew City can have a world-class art museum.

Last week, chief curator Brady Roberts gave us an overview tour of what happens outside the public spaces at the Art Museum. This week, we spent some time with chief conservator Jim DeYoung to find out how the museum cares for its precious inventory.

DeYoung has been at the museum for more than three decades and in addition to his conservation skills he possesses a considerable portion of the museum's institutional memory. Do your projects tend to be timely things; I mean for upcoming exhibitions?

Jim DeYoung: Yes, we do have things that we call back log and permanent collections that we just try to get to between all the exhibitions.

OMC: So the priority is obviously the exhibition stuff?

JD: Correct.

OMC: How many people work in your department?

JD: There is a total of five of us. I have four staff. I run the lab and am also the senior paper conservator. Terri White is the objects conservator and she works on everything from Chinese vases to folk art cows.

OMC: That's a pretty broad job description, huh? You have to know ceramics, you have to know wood and you have to know all sorts of things.

MAM2: Yeah, you have to know a bit about a lot of different materials.

JD: I have Tim Ladwig. He is the conservation assistant who works primarily with all our rotations, whether it is the German Expressionist art (or) folk art. He is also our point man in the archives. We have the George Mann Niedecken archives, and he has a degree in library sciences, and has quite a bit of experience as an archivist, so he is a preservation archivist.

Then we have Chris Niver, who is here currently only two days a week. He's been with me about the same time as Terri; about 20 years, he does some of the more advanced paper conservation assignments with me. Some of the washing of prints, taking stains out of Rembrandts and Picasso etchings, stuff like that.

OMC: Yeah, all in a day's work, as people say?

JD: Here they do. I tend to have a very, very low turnover. We also have another staff person who is in my department but does not work in the lab. He primarily works in framework which is in my department and he just needs to be near the woodcutting equipment.

OMC: Does the effect of having this kind of veteran staff make it hard when you have turnover?

JD: Yeah, the institutional memory is very important, remembering all the works. We also maintain a very different database from that of the curators, and we are in the process with our new database system, which I think they just upgraded last Friday. We still are in the process of integrating our files, the medical records, as it were, into the main database. All of my staff, in addition to their duties here in the lab, has to (work on that) when there is time. They are assigned sections of the galleries, and we have to go out, ideally, every six weeks, and the entire gallery is covered in terms of dusting of surfaces but also doing inspections and entering into a log that it was closely inspected and that there were no changes noted for the baseline inspection, and if there are, to make notes on it.

OMC: Is that done behind the scenes, as well, with the works that are in the vault?

JD: It is mostly done with the ones that are on display, but we do get to the works in the vault, as well. It's challenging because there are a lot of works to cover. While we have a database, a new person could theoretically just pick it up and go through the work but it is much easier when you have that continuity. People know what to look for.

OMC: Do you find that there is a lot of the effect of the public on the works that are on view? Are people touching more than they should?

JD: Not that I know of. It's something that, even when I meet with my colleagues people are a little tight-lipped about, but I get the general sense from our professional blogs and so forth -- the do-not-touch task force -- there is obviously a reason why people are asking "what do you use that is effective" (in terms of preventing touching). When I go to the Met and I see stanchions where there weren't any the last time I was there, I think it's a common problem. I don't think that we have it to a greater degree than anybody else.

That is part of the reason why we do those inspections, to look for evidence through observations. The security guards are very helpful. They say, "well you know that painting with that child playing with the cat is constantly getting touched," so we have put glass on it.

OMC: So they are helpful in sort of being on the front line and telling you what is being touched, what is drawing the most crowds?

JD: Very much so. We are on a first-name basis with all of the security guards. We get to know them very well, especially the new ones.

Sometimes we get e-mails (from visitors, saying), "I noticed this while I was there." It seems like people get very much involved.

OMC: There might not always be a security guard present.

JD: No, there isn't, and especially the way things are laid out you cannot really cover.

OMC: Especially up here in the older building there are those galleries where unless you have a security guard in each room there is no way they can watch it all.

JD: They are always dealing with what we call the agents of deterioration. I kind of lapsed religiously so I never really could remember the 10 commandments but ... we have 10 areas that we try to address -- light, temperature, humidity, particulates, security issues with people touching, or even if there is theft or vandalism is another issue. Addressing them is the program that we call preventive maintenance, the conservation, the unsung part of it, the submerged 90 percent of the iceberg.

In reality, that's probably over half of what we do, prevention, conservation measures, resetting things into frames so they don't slide around and get abraded. Making sure that the flat file drawers are not overcrowded and then pulling things out and damaging things. So we are dealing with that a lot and then the 10 or 15 percent that you see in the papers ... (like) cleaning the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

OMC: The glamorous stuff?

JD: Yes, the glamorous stuff is really just a small part of the actual job. If you have, say, 20,000 works in the collection, plus works in the archives -- and this is a medium-sized museum -- trying to do the kinds of treatments with one-hair brushes is just an impossible task. What we try to do is head all that off before it happens. So we try to prolong the conditions of the artwork; the good conditions.

OMC: What kind of leeway do you have with working on pieces that don't belong to the museum? What happens if something comes in for the China exhibition and there is an issue? Are you supposed to not do anything, are you supposed to call the other museum?

JD: That is all very formal protocol and contracted. That's why the shows are planned years out and the registrar works with the curator and the contract that is written say for the "Forbidden City," which is coming up. All of those are spelled out in clauses for what is supposed to happen if something like that happens.

In the case of a Leonardo, they will probably fly in their own conservators. (If) we have a chip on a frame; if something arrives, or if its an old frame there is a phenomenon called blind cleavage where you might not be able to see anything but from shaking and travel it might pop off and so we will get permission to touch it up. We do condition reports, and a narrative condition report along with visual images that we use for each piece that arrives.

OMC: Basically a work is uncrated? And...

JD: It's gone over with a fine-toothed comb. We have teams of people set up at tables. When it is uncrated, inspection lights are brought out, magnifying glasses are used, everybody signs off on it that it has not changed from when it left, or if it has, this is noted. If it requires treatment then, thanks to e-mail now it is a lot easier, we can send a jpeg describing what it is, and we get it signed off, we do the repair and get it on the wall.

OMC: So do you do the same thing on the way out?

JD: Oh yes. (Reaches for a stack of print-outs) This is just the beginning of one of the support jpegs, and then there are close-up jpegs of the painting. Now these are all old phenomena that just maybe should be monitored (points out some highlighted sections of the image). It's on its way to the Louvre. It needs to be identified over there as to whether anything has changed.

OMC: I'm trying not to lean back here. I am trying to make myself as narrow as possible here (in a space between worktables).

JD: I apologize for the all the stacks of things, we have Chinese scrolls for the summer show, literally this is this summer and underneath is French posters for next summer.

OMC: You're busy.

JD: Yes, we are very busy. This is a condition report that Chris has been working on that goes through all the categories, this (shows this) is a loan, dates entered, priority, what kind of photography taken, what kind of analysis, whether it was under a microscope or UV light or X-ray. We don't have those capabilities here but if we do need X-rays we use St. Mary's or Columbia Hospital. They are happy to see us; it's a break in their day.

OMC: Do you ever find that your report is different from other reports at the other place just because of the diligence of the inspectors?

JD: Oh yeah, you could look at something and you could have the most experienced conservator looking at something and still, it's just the nature of things, you might miss something.

And the person who receives it has the benefit of seeing that first person's observations, if they need to, and it depends upon the person. There are some countries; sometimes its cultural, that are a lot more cavalier.

At a certain point, and it is like the stars coming out at night, at a certain point you have to stop. This is a condition report that we write for treatment where a piece came in, and it was very clear that it needed some preparation work and conservation work before we displayed it. This is one (takes up another report) that just is one of those databases for the exhibitions, and we make observations.

OMC: In a sense this is just kind of insurance for you? When it left here it was fine.

JD: Exactly, and often when shows come in, the artwork has what we call wall-to-wall coverage. They take it off their wall -- say it's a painting -- if they drop it, we have to pay for it because we instigated that request.

OMC: And these are not inexpensive items. They are culturally important it's not something to be taken lightly.

JD: Sometimes, I try to coordinate exactly what it is we are working on, sometimes I will walk in and look around and say, "OK we have $15 million on the table, lets put this away and that away."

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artlover2 | April 13, 2011 at 11:50 a.m. (report)

great article on the extremely interesting and important work of art conservation. The museum must be very proud to have this fabulous asset.

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j106 | April 13, 2011 at 8:17 a.m. (report)

Agreed. You lost me at the headline. "Team" is singular, yet it is followed by "are," a verb that is used with plural subjects. That is inexplicably followed by the plural "key figures." WTF? How about "Conservation Team Is Key at Art Museum" or "Members of the Conservation Team Are Key Figures at Art Museum?"

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rsbeowulf | April 12, 2011 at 4:45 p.m. (report)

This is one of the most poorly written articles about an extremely interesting subject that I have ever read. The writer chose the laziest of styles, ersatz q&a; the spelling was atrocious; the grammar and rules of usage must have been borrowed from a foreign language because they were definitely not english; and mistakes abounded. I understand that is somewhat of a fledgling e-zine but this is no excuse for such a lazily written, poorly edited piece. Publishing this article in this form is an insult to the people whose professions it alleged to describe.

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