“Saving Art” Art History Association Hosts Conservation Lectures

"Saving Art" is a series of three lectures that tell the stories and experiences of art conservation.

The SUNY New Paltz Art History Association is hosting a lecture series titled “Saving Art” via Zoom Oct. 21, Oct. 26 and Nov. 2  at 7 p.m. featuring NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts Chair of Conservation Center Michele Marincola, the Objects Conservator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art Carolyn Riccardelli, and the associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice Erin Thompson. The featured speakers, all New York City based, have a shared discipline within the art world: conservatism.

According to the Art Conservators Alliance, “Art conservation includes principles and practices of technical examination, documentation and treatment for objects of material culture. The intention of art conservation is to improve the condition of an artifact by stabilizing physical condition problems and addressing surface disfigurement arising from deterioration and/or damage. In doing so, the art conservator strives to retain as much original material as possible and to employ the best quality materials and the most carefully considered methods available.”

An example of art conservation that may be recognizable to many is the Daguerre monument outside the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. After years exposed to the elements, its bronze appearance became the light green aged look seen in the Statue of Liberty. Conservators cleaned and applied a wax treatment to undo the effects of dirt and algae seen on the monument, previously putting in its best presentable condition for future audiences. This is the goal of conservators — to restore. 

The “Saving Art” series being held explores deeper themes than simply conserving art like ethics and activism. The first speaker, Marincola’s lecture titled “Cultural Heritage Conservation as a Human Practice: Ethics and Decision Making in an Unstable World” gave examples from the field and her own experiences of issues that can arise when one tries to conserve art responsibly.

Marincola shared an anecdote of her efforts to conserve a wax model while finishing her training as a conservator. The wax model came to her overpainted and she lost track of her progress while cleaning it. She stepped away, and she saw that now she had done more harm than good because it was too clean for the 18th century. She said she wished she had made a “tiny little patch then stepped away to look at it,” or simply asked for a second opinion.

Marincola was happy to be involved with the lecture series saying, “It was an honor to speak to the students and faculty last night and I really enjoyed it.”

The experiences shared also highlighted the importance of collaboration as she recounted a moment where she and students were in possession of a helmet from “the pile” at Ground Zero and professionals from different associations and museums weren’t sure how to handle it responsibly. 

Carolyn Ricciardelli’s lecture titled “After the Fall: Conservation of Tullio Lombardo’s Adam,” held Oct. 26, focused on her and the MOMA’s efforts to restore the statue of Adam. The statue was cracked into a number of pieces after a pedestal failure while on display in the Vélez Blanco Patio in October 2002, Ricciardelli and the MOMA worked to restore the piece while exploring new techniques. 

In the lead up to her talk Ricciardelli said, “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to share the story of Tullio Lombardo’s Adam and the fascinating multidisciplinary conservation project that took place over a ten-year period. There may be students in the Art History Association who might be exploring conservation as a career, and I hope my presentation will inspire them to learn more about the field.”

Erin Thompson’s Nov. 2 lecture called, “A Conversation with America’s Only Full-Time Art Crime Professor,” will focus on the damage done to art history through looting, theft and destruction. Previously featured on outlets like CNN and NPR, Thompson is currently researching how terrorist organizations use art to fund and support their crimes and the ethics of digital representation. 

The Art History Association was able to secure such accomplished and interesting guests thanks to the hard work of faculty and students interested in getting the word out about developments and trends occurring within the art history field.

Third-year Brooke Cammann of the SUNY New Paltz Art History Association said, “Our club has been overwhelmingly supportive and has been working hard on getting the word out about the events. We hope this lecture series exposes students at SUNY New Paltz to intriguing topics such as the conservation of art and on the flip side the deliberate destruction of art.”

Judging from its in-depth beginning with Marincola, it may do just that.