Blair Bailey’s workspace on the first floor of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is a cross between an art studio and a science lab. Centuries-old gold leaf frames sit just feet from a microscope. A blue exhaust vent snakes out of the ceiling and hovers above a fluorescent-lit, climate-controlled room filled with paintings, pigments, and research publications.
It’s no surprise that Bailey, CAS/BA ’11, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Painting Conservation, ended up here. As a child, she was fascinated by finger paints—not because of their creative potential, but for the film they produced as they dried. Although she entered AU on a pre-med track, she pivoted to art history after an inspiring summer abroad in Florence between her sophomore and junior years.
Now, as a conservator, Bailey cares for sick paintings and gives routine check-ups, mending tears, tending to wear, and cleaning pieces slated to be exhibited or loaned. Most of the artists who created her patients are long gone; they can’t explain their materials and techniques or how to approach their works as they age. So Bailey has the difficult job of saving their work without inserting too much of herself into it. An art doctor’s decisions must be guided by research and must withstand the test of time and scrutiny by future art conservators.
Mariotto di Nardo’s Madonna and Child—one of more than 60,000 items in DIA’s collection—is among a handful of paintings that have required more than a year of critical care.
“It was very scary when Blair first got it,” Ellen Hanspach-Bernal, DIA paintings conservator and Bailey’s supervisor, says of the wood panel painting.
“I think I have a picture of it floating around,” says Bailey, who’s two years into her three-year fellowship at the Motor City museum.
“Of you fainting [when you first saw it]?”
Bailey chuckles. “Not of me fainting, no.”
An image of the early fifteenth-century painting taken before Bailey got her gloved hands on it reveals a Madonna in need of salvation. Time has eroded the tempera from the Virgin Mary’s head covering, ears, and blushed cheeks. The Christ Child’s face and body have seen better days. The gold halos hovering over both figures are no longer immaculate either.
Months spent with the one-time altar piece, and a trip to Florence to see more of di Nardo’s work, have enabled Bailey to address some of the paint losses and accentuate the Italian’s clever punch and scratch work and intricate gold gilding that still pop after centuries of wear. But the question of how to address the gilding losses while honoring the original work lingers, even after a year of research.
“Do you just completely show [the losses]? Do you re-gild it, which isn’t really an acceptable answer anymore?” she asks. “Do you in-paint the biggest areas but leave some of the smaller ones?”
The answers are the prescription that will return the 500-year-old masterpiece to its former glory.
Bailey recalls a recent day in the lab when she and two colleagues sat with myriad masterpieces: two Titians, a Monet, an Artemisia Gentileschi, a Roy Lichtenstein, and an Arthur Dove.
She shakes her head. She forgot about the Van Gogh. After a while, the luster of a superstar painting wears off, and it becomes just another item on the to-do list.
“It can be daunting at first,” Bailey says. “But we spend so much time up-close-and-personal with the art that at some point, it stops being a celebrity and it just becomes your friend.”
In February, she and DIA conservation imaging specialist Aaron Steele handled Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Wedding Dance—one of the museum’s most popular paintings, which received a nine-figure valuation in 2013—to X-ray the 1566 oil painting more effectively. Her research on the work, including Bruegel’s painting technique and underdrawings, will be featured in an upcoming issue of the museum’s bulletin. One of her first DIA cleanings was Andrea Sacchi’s The Madonna and Child with Saints Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Cosmas and Damian, one of only two paintings by the Italian baroque artist to adorn the walls of an American museum. And next year, she’ll work with more than 30 van Goghs in preparation for DIA’s retrospective of the Dutch postimpressionist, which opens June 21.
“That’s something you only get to do in a certain class of museum—that’s exciting, but also humbling,” Bailey says. “I’m one of the few [people] trusted to care for these objects. They have survived far longer than I ever will, and I want to make sure that continues.”
For Bailey—who studied abroad at Studio Arts College International in Florence and interned at the National Portrait Gallery—that trust has been earned over years of experience. After graduating from AU with degrees in history and art history, she worked at private firms to build up her resume for highly selective art conservation graduate programs, most of which accept 10 or fewer applicants each year. During her two years at Northumbria University in Newcastle, England, Bailey learned how to decode paintings with acid-base chemistry, solubility testing, and ultraviolet light—and what to do when backed into a corner by difficult painting. These skills served her well during a two-year post-graduate fellowship at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida.
Not all conservators’ paths mirror Bailey’s. The field takes many forms in the arts—paintings, paper, photographs, frames, and sculptures—and in archival settings, and intersects hard science, history, and ethics.
“Conservation is an interdisciplinary field,” says Carmina Lamare-Bertrand, SOC/BA ’97, communications associate for the American Institute for Conservation. “It’s not [just] somebody sitting in the office trying to glue a piece of paper or restore a painting. Conservators can work with archaeologists, scientists, and industrial hygienists.”
Painting conservators have a strong foundation in chemistry, and typically hold graduate degrees. But some professionals, like Meris Westberg, SIS/BA ’10—who’s working on a master’s in historic preservation with a focus on architecture at the University of Pennsylvania—are able to crack archives conservation primarily through on-the-job training.
An interest in history and a friend’s connection led Westberg, then a French and European studies major at AU, to an entry-level archives technician job at the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House in Logan Circle. She then spent four years at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), mending and stabilizing paper documents as a conservator technician, before embarking on a two-year run as a preventive conservation specialist at the National Gallery of Art, where she focused on antique frames. Like Bailey, Westberg’s job placed her in the company of legends like Dürer, Renoir, Matisse, and van Gogh—something she couldn’t have imagined as a student.
“There’s a lot of design, aesthetic, and material themes that run through all conservators that are different from somebody who works in publishing or politics,” Westberg says. “It was a funny revelation that I had after leaving college, that I could do my work in a material way.”
While strolling through the 658,000-square-foot museum where she’s worked since 2017, Bailey plucks a pair of purple nitrile gloves out of her pocket. Sometimes she’ll use them to avoid finger-to-painting oil transfer, or latex gloves to create a thicker barrier between a dangerous solvent and her skin. Art is, however, a field that requires dexterity, which means it often makes more sense to go gloveless.
At NARA, Westberg almost never wore gloves. Fingerprints can be removed from paper, but one wouldn’t want to cause a tear from a lack of tactile sense. Those who handle old materials are ethically obligated to consider what’s safe and reversible, and avoid lotion, nail polish, bracelets, and long necklaces that could interfere with their work.
Risks only multiply after a piece leaves a conservator’s hands. Artwork must be moved carefully, stored in a controlled climate, and shown in a way that will minimize potential damage from the elements and the public. The American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center holds 25 to 35 six-week shows every year. That means the artwork—and its handlers—are constantly in motion. The AU Museum more than doubled its holdings last year with the addition of 9,000 pieces from the Corcoran Legacy Collection, but not every item will stay in AU’s 3,500-square-foot offsite storage facility. Therein lies a tension, says Carla Galfano, AU Museum registrar: art is at its best, but also its most vulnerable, when it’s on exhibit.
“You’re always balancing what the art really wants, which is a quiet, dark room, and the fact that the art gives people joy and tells them about a different time,” she says. “We love objects because of what they say about the people who made them and the period in which they were made. It’s a privilege to be with them, and for me to help try to make them available.”
DIA’s resources and the value of its collection means that Bailey travels with paintings to museums where they’re on loan. It’s impossible to spot the box trucks carrying the priceless pieces and conservators remain tight-lipped about the details. Bailey will hang around the host institution for a day or two to allow the art to acclimate before heading back to Detroit.
“You always pack food and you always have clothes for any situation. It’s not glamorous, but once it’s on the wall, and you see how grateful the people are, it’s rewarding,” she says. “You [try] to reduce the risks as much as possible because there are a lot of people wanting that object to get there safely and on time.”
Disaster preparedness is also of increasing concern to institutions, which have developed more clever ways to mitigate risk. DIA, which resides in a city that experiences both scorching summers and frozen winters, closely monitors temperature and humidity. The Katzen Arts Center utilizes a proprietary, non-water fire-suppression system, and the AU Museum is equipped with pre-action sprinklers, which localize water in the event of a fire.
Unfortunately, fortifying against future disasters with better technology and planning means learning from the ones that have already happened.
Jerry McCoy, CAS/BA ’80, a DC Public Library special collections librarian and archivist who spends three days a week in the Georgetown branch’s Peabody Room, received the phone call he always feared in April 2007.
“Jerry, I wanted you to hear it from me first,” the then branch manager said, sirens wailing in the background. “The library’s on fire.”
McCoy remembers firehoses snaking Wisconsin Avenue and leaning on two colleagues to steady himself, but not how he arrived at the library or how he got home. Watching flames leap from the building’s dormer windows and collapse its cupola was traumatic for McCoy, who sought grief counseling in the aftermath of the blaze. Still, a few gaps remain.
Miraculously, no one was hurt, and neither was much of the precious history housed in the Peabody Room. Ten percent of the collection, including some records on historic Georgetown homes, was destroyed by water damage from firehoses. Books were freeze-dried to avoid mold, leaving them with a distinctive crinkle. Many artifacts, like the library’s original copies of the Maryland Gazette, the weekly newspaper that chronicled the Declaration of Independence, remain intact. Others, like a rare, early 1800s oil painting of freed slave and Georgetown resident Yarrow Mamout, were restored by conservators.
During the Georgetown branch’s three-year, $17.9 million renovation, which was completed in 2010, McCoy toiled in the basement of the old Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, rummaging through boxes and reassembling collections.
“It was like having a million-piece puzzle and not knowing what the overall picture was, but it wasn’t unpleasurable or anything. It was a history discovery every day,” he says. “It took every bit of the three years to get the collections back together, but it was certainly helpful. The best way to learn your collection is to handle every piece of paper.”
It can also be the best way to honor heritage. Westberg’s first assignment at NARA was the Iraqi Jewish Archive preservation project, which began in 2003 when US troops discovered a trove of Jewish books and documents in the flooded basement of the Iraqi Intelligence Service after Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled.
She spent two years repairing documents, vacuuming mold, sterilizing, and organizing for digitization. It was impossible to be delicate with every one of the thousands of pages she handled, but Westberg understood the importance of preserving the memory of the hundreds of thousands Iraqi Jews expelled during the twentieth century.
“What makes that kind of work precious is knowing that you’re restoring somebody’s history that was taken from them,” she says. “The record was set a little straighter.”
Titian, the famous sixteenth-century Italian painter, decided toward the end of his career that he was done with portraits—with two exceptions: friends and people from whom Titian wanted favors. That means the handsome, bearded man staring back at Bailey was one or the other. Aside from that, the identity of Man Holding a Flute (pictured with Bailey), painted between 1560 and 1565, remains a mystery.
“It’s super frustrating,” she admits. “But it’s also fun.”
An intensive, year-long cleaning and analysis project has helped piece together the puzzle. A dark, tinted varnish, which Bailey removed with specialized tissue, indicates the painting was treated by a paintings conservator in the 1920s. A stamp on the back points to the painting’s stretcher being added in London between 1850 and 1910.
An analysis of the overpaint revealed the element chromium, which wasn’t used in large quantities in artist paints until the 1800s. After consulting a curator, Bailey used a gelled solution, followed by a microscope and scalpel, to remove the unoriginal paint.
Man Holding a Flute must return to the gallery by January, before which Bailey needs to in-paint some of the abrasion losses, conceal the tears near the right edge of the canvas and by Titian’s signature, and give the man a coat of varnish. The museum is also working with a musical instruments expert to identify the type of flute depicted in the painting.
Bailey and her colleagues have done good detective work, but she’s still looking for a break in the case.
“We’ve gotten a fair amount of his secrets out of him,” she says, “but we don’t have all of them yet.”
Treasures abound in bank vaults, museum galleries, attics, and living rooms. Mementos, from a hand turkey drawn by a now-grown child to a black-and-white photo of a great-grandmother on her wedding day, are imbued with meaning. Following a few simple and inexpensive preservation practices can extend the life of your favorite keepsakes:
- Avoid storing objects in an attic or basement. A stable environment for most items is 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 45 percent relative humidity.
- Do not place old treasures above an active fireplace.
- Keep papers, pictures, paintings, and watercolors out of direct sunlight and away from bright artificial lights.
- Keep wooden items away from places with high humidity or at higher risk of flooding. Wood distortion can’t be reversed.
- Make sure cardboard storage boxes are acid- and insect-free.
- If an object is moldy, water damaged, or showing signs of insect activity, consult a professional.
- Photocopy documents and other two-dimensional objects onto acid-free paper, or take a picture and print it to preserve the information.
- Avoid hanging original photographs year-round. Instead, frame a duplicate while preserving the original in an acid-free box.
- If labeling the back of a photograph, use a photo pen or place the photo in a labeled sleeve.
- Digital photographs should be stored in at least two locations, including one outside the home.
- Do not rely solely on flash drives for long-term data storage. They aren’t designed to last forever.
- Do not use tape to repair or preserve items.
- Wrap a wedding dress or quilt in clean, unbleached muslin or acid-free tissue paper. These materials also work for preserving old books.
- Remember that fireproof safes have a shelf life and can’t fend off blazes of all temperatures and durations.
- Store items in containers made from metal, not plastic or wood. Plastics degrade over time.
- Before discarding an old document or object, take it to an archivist. A library or research institution might be interested in items for which you no longer have use or space.
Sources: Blair Bailey, Carla Galfano, Jerry McCoy, and Meris Westberg