Alexis has been with BACC since her third-year internship in 1998. In addition to treating paintings and painted objects, she is involved with the technical examination of paintings at BACC, including infrared reflectography, X-radiography, X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, and cross-section microscopy. Here she answers five questions about being a conservator:
When did you know that you wanted to be an art conservator?
The summer before my fourth year at the University of Virginia, I studied art history and photography in Florence, Italy. There was a huge flood in Florence in 1966 that destroyed or damaged many artworks, so when you walk around the city, there are plaques and reminders of the flood on the streets and in the churches and museums. You are surrounded by stories of loss but also stories of heroic efforts to save and restore the art. While I was there, an Introduction to Restoration class was offered, so I stayed another term and took the class. I was hooked. It was a blend of art and science. It made sense, seeing that my dad was a biochemist/molecular biologist and my mom is an interior designer! It was after this summer abroad that I decided that I wanted to pursue painting conservation as my career.
To date, what is the favorite conservation project that you have worked on?
One of my most memorable projects recently was the conservation of the San Diego Museum of Art’s painting by Francisco de Zurbarán, Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist. Examining the painting with infrared reflectography and x-radiography allowed us to see the artist’s process as he changed the composition during the painting’s creation. The treatment involved consolidation of insecure paint and then removing layers of grime, yellowed varnish, wax, and discolored overpaint. I enjoyed working with the Curator, Michael Brown, in deciding the extent of inpainting of the pentimenti (artist changes).
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Painting conservation is about problem solving. We look at the artwork to see how it’s made, to figure out the condition issues, and then to develop a treatment approach. Often times the biggest challenge lies in how to take a layer/s of something (varnish, grime, overpaint, wax, glue) off the painting. It seems simple to say “clean” the painting, but with the many types of art materials used by artists and then the many materials that end up on paintings (either through past restorations or circumstances), it can become quite complicated.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
We get small rewards throughout each painting treatment! Consolidating and setting down raised paint to make it flat again. Removing grime and varnish to reveal the original colors. Seeing the owner’s face when they see the painting after treatment. All in a day's work!
What do you wish that more people knew about conservation work and/or conservators?
I would like people to know that being a conservator takes years of study (including a graduate degree) and experience working with many types of paintings and with experienced mentors. Continuing education to learn new materials and techniques is essential. Unfortunately, conservation is not a field in which you can become certified in any way. Anyone can open up a shop and say that they restore paintings. It is up to the consumer to do their homework on the educational background of the person they are trusting with their artwork.
BACC's Chief Conservator of Paintings, Alexis Miller, recently conserved one of the few paintings that remain from the original construction of the Immaculata Church in San Diego. The painting by S. Rubiralta was meant to recreate the image that was said to have been shown to Juan Diego in 1531 in Mexico City.
As part of the conservation process, Alexis carefully cleaned the dirt and grime off of the work with a special aqueous solution. Touch ups were made to the paint, and a protective synthetic varnish was applied. All of the work was done on site.
Learn more by enlarging the article from their church bulletin, The Beacon, below:
The Balboa Art Conservation Center (BACC) is pleased to announce that Sara Bisi has been hired as Associate Conservator of Paper. Bisi started in early November, and will be responsible for the conservation, care and treatment of a wide variety of works on paper and paper artifacts. Bisi will also guide purchases of new equipment for paper conservation made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Comprehensive Organizational Health Initiative grant.
Bisi comes to BACC with a diverse background in art conservation and collections care gained by working with both large institutions such as the Yale Center for British Art and the Harvard Art Museums and smaller regional centers such as the Williamstown Art Conservation Center and the Northeast Document Conservation Center.
Bisi most recently worked in Massachusetts as a consultant, providing both oversight and hands on treatment in conservation, collections management and preventive care of historic and artistic works, including the successful inventory and move of 2700 objects in an institutional collection within a three-month deadline. Prior to this she served as the collections care manager for the Harvard Art Museums where she oversaw preventive care for three distinct museum collections totaling over 250,000 objects. Bisi has also owned and operated a paper and photograph conservation studio. Her post-graduate work included a position as a research associate at the Yale Center for British Art and as the Craigen W. Bowen Fellow in Paper Conservation at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Harvard University.
Bisi holds a Master of Arts degree in Art Conservation with advanced study in paper conservation from SUNY Buffalo State College, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History (with chemistry and studio arts minors) from Saint Joseph College, West Hartford, Connecticut.
Bisi says, “I am thrilled to join this warm and welcoming community and begin working with such a skilled team at a time of exciting growth and development of the programs here at BACC.”
BACC conservation staff have been busy soaking up and sharing valuable information at various conservation conferences and symposia this fall.
In October Assistant Paintings Conservator Bianca Garcia and Chief Conservator of Paintings Alexis Miller presented a poster on “Remounting Lined Paintings at the Balboa Art Conservation Center” at the Conserving Canvas Symposium in Connecticut. Former Chief Conservator of Paintings at BACC (now independent conservator) Elizabeth Court also contributed to the poster.
The Conserving Canvas Symposium was hosted by the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at Yale University and represented the first major international gathering on the subject since 1974, addressing historical approaches to the structural treatment of canvas paintings; current methods, materials, and research; and the challenges facing the structural conservation of modern and contemporary works. As part of the larger Getty Foundation’s Conserving Canvas Initiative, Morgan Wylder, Assistant Conservator of Paintings, attended a three-day intensive "Tear Mending Workshop" at the Getty in Los Angeles. Instructors were Petra Demuth and Hannah Flock of the Technische Hochschule Köln.
In early November, Assistant Paintings Conservators Morgan Wylder and Bianca Garcia participated at the Western Association for Art Conservation’s (WAAC) 45th Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, CA. Garcia presented “Cleaning a Jean Charlot Fresco with Gellan Gum - A Case Study,” and Wylder discussed “The Artistic Practice of Alfred Mitchell: San Diego's Favorite Painter.” WAAC is a nonprofit membership organization for professional conservators founded in 1975 to bring together conservators practicing in the western United States to exchange ideas, information and news.
If you saw the 2014 film The Monuments Men you already know a little about a key player in the formation of BACC, even if you don't realize it. Remember Frank Stokes, the main character played by the one and only George Clooney? It turns out that George Leslie Stout, one of the founders of the Balboa Art Conservation Center (BACC), was the real-life inspiration behind Clooney’s mustachioed role.
A pioneer in the field of art conservation, Stout was the Director of Technical Research at Harvard’s Fogg Museum and a part-time Conservator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum before helping to establish the American Defense Harvard Group. This group was instrumental to the formation of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Area. Later known as the Roberts Commission, it was “charged with promoting the preservation of cultural properties in war areas, provided this mission did not interfere with military operations.”
In 1943 Stout enlisted in the U.S. Navy where he was initially charged with testing and developing camouflage paint and techniques for military aircraft. Later he was transferred to the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section where he used his professional knowledge to help transport and save precious works of art throughout Europe. Harvard Magazine notes that “When George Stout left Europe in August 1945 after little more than 13 months, he had discovered, analyzed, and packed tens of thousands of pieces of artwork, including 80 truckloads from Altaussee alone.”
After Stout returned to the United States, he resumed his post at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, and later accepted positions as the Director of the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1947 and as Director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum from 1955 to 1970.
A few years after his retirement from the Gardner, Stout was serving as the visiting director at Timken Museum of Art, where he noticed a growing need to establish a conservation center for the San Diego area’s growing cultural heritage. He teamed up with Henry Gardiner, the director at the time of the San Diego Art Museum, to develop a plan for the center and in 1973 BACC was born.
Sources: Monuments Men Foundation, Harvard Magazine.
Major Grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Helps Balboa Art Conservation Center Prep for Next Chapter
Janet Ruggles, Executive Director, to Retire after 37 Years of Service
A $700,000 grant awarded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in collaboration with the Nonprofit Finance Fund is helping the Balboa Art Conservation Center (BACC), the region's premier art conservation facility, move into its next phase as an institution. Given “to support change and growth capital, as part of the Foundation's Comprehensive Organizational Health Initiative,” the grant has already allowed BACC to improve infrastructural elements. Soon it will provide support while the organization searches for its next executive director. Janet Ruggles, BACC’s chief executive, has announced her retirement effective December 31, 2019 after 37 years of service to the organization.
Founded in the 1970s, BACC is a nonprofit organization that offers museum-quality art conservation treatments, investigative technical imaging and analysis, and extensive preservation services for institutions and individuals. It also offers conservation education and often mentors conservation interns and fellows who require years of specialized training before entering the workplace. Like other regional conservation centers in the United States, BACC is dealing with significant structural changes in the field, coupled with funding uncertainties. While art conservation is a field that requires great care and training to protect and restore artistic history, it usually does so with little fanfare or support compared to other fields.
That is where the Mellon funding has stepped in. The first phase of the grant allows for both upgrades to existing equipment and investments in new equipment, giving highly trained BACC staff even better and more cutting-edge tools to do their job. These infrastructure improvements include upgrades to BACC’s paper lab, upgrades to BACC’s digital infrared reflectography (IRR) system, purchase of a portable x-ray fluorescence (XRF) tool (that helps identify inorganic materials more precisely when examining objects such as paintings on canvas and panels, polychrome sculpture, works on paper, and gilded ornamental frames), and IT upgrades in support of imaging and for tracking projects.
The second phase of the Mellon grant will help BACC look for its next executive director as Janet Ruggles, who has served in the role for more than two decades, has announced her retirement. She currently serves as both chief conservator of paper and executive director, splitting her focus between these two critical areas. The Mellon grant will assist the transition to a new organizational model that provides equal focus on museum-level conservation and organizational sustainability by separating these roles out into distinct positions. The new model also looks toward partnerships with institutions of higher learning, enhancing relationships with museum and private clients, as well as implementing innovative fundraising strategies. Ruggles notes the grant funding could not have come at a more perfect time in BACC’s development.
BACC board president Jennifer Nelson says, “Ruggles has been a resourceful leader for the BACC, developing and overseeing programs that have spanned conservation, education, scholarship and field services throughout the Western United States. I’m especially impressed by her expert conservation work as chief conservator of paper. We are so grateful for the foundation she has laid through her tireless work, and acknowledge her great contribution to the field of art conservation.”
Karen Coutts, vice president of BACC’s board, says “The Mellon Foundation has been a partner of the Center for decades, and they have always been supportive of conservation as a practice across the country. This funding is allowing us to evolve, to better meld tried-and-true practices with cutting edge technology. The expertise of our staff, combined with new equipment and innovative practices, will allow us to make great strides in preserving and restoring important art — important history — for years to come.”
With funds from the Mellon Foundation, and an invigorated board that has been diligently planning next steps, BACC looks forward to launching a new business and leadership model.
For those interested in applying to the Balboa Art Conservation Center’s executive director position, please visit www.bacc.org/job-opportunities.html
About the Balboa Art Conservation Center
With more than 40 years of experience, the Balboa Art Conservation Center (BACC) is the region's premier art conservation facility, offering museum-quality conservation treatments, investigative technical imaging and analysis, and extensive preservation services for institutions and individuals. A nonprofit organization, BACC is located in the heart of Balboa Park. Learn more at www.bacc.org
(Click here to download a copy of this press release in PDF format)
What the Balboa Art Conservation Center, Ralph Waldo Emerson's Grandson, and a YouTube Video with More Than 2 Million Views Have in Common
Maybe you’ve seen this video already on social media. The one masterfully produced by Great Big Story that features intriguing glass vials filled with colorful pigments that have been collected from all over the world. The deep blues, vibrant yellows, earthy reds, and myriad other colors inside are made up of minerals, plant dye, dried insects, and many other materials, and are an important reference point for conservators, scientists, technical art historians, and others. Referred to as the Forbes Pigment Collection, this more than 3000 sample strong assortment is stored at the Straus Center for Conservation and Preservation as part of the Harvard Art Museums.
Back in the 1920s a gentleman named Edward Waldo Forbes (grandson of the famed philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson) began collecting pigments and their source materials over a period of several decades. An art historian, he directed Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum from 1909 to 1944 and laid the foundation for this unique collection. George Stout, a graduate student at Harvard at the time Forbes was the museum director, began using the samples as a teaching tool. Later Stout worked for the Fogg Museum, as well, becoming a pioneer in the field of art conservation.
Fast forward to the 1970s in San Diego: Henry Gardiner, San Diego Museum of Art director from 1969 to 1979, was significantly expanding the museum’s collection, and grew concerned about its ongoing care. In November 1973, Gardiner sought the counsel of George Stout, who happened to be the visiting director of the Timken Art Gallery (now the Timken Museum of Art) at the time. Together, Gardiner and Stout developed a plan to establish a conservation center in San Diego, and in 1974 hired Richard Buck, an important leader in the field of conservation, and fellow Harvard alum, to establish and direct the Balboa Art Conservation Center.
Buck had experience opening regional conservation centers. He had also been a conservator at the Fogg Museum, where he had helped organize and manage the Forbes Pigment Collection. At the time Buck was starting BACC, conservation centers could obtain a portion of the pigment collection to keep as a reference resource in their analytical toolbox. So, with Buck’s connections, the Balboa Art Conservation Center did just that.
To this day, BACC is one of only a handful of institutions that house a subset of this extraordinary pigment collection, both maintaining a tangible connection to the very beginning of the professional art conservation movement in the United States, and creating a new and fun connection to that wildly popular (more than 2 million views! ) video on YouTube.
The San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) opened "Art and Empire: The Golden Age of Spain" this May. In it, a gorgeous oil on canvas titled Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist by Francisco de Zurbarán is featured. Painted in 1658, it's a magnificent example of a devotional painting by this Spanish artist.
Exhibition goers may not realize that the painting had been removed from the SDMA galleries in 2017 to undergo a meticulous conservation treatment.
Over the years, the varnish on the paint surface had aged considerably, yellowing the Spanish master's luminous color palette underneath. Thanks to funding from a generous SDMA donor, the painting came under the care of BACC's conservator, Alexis Miller, who completed technical analysis with infrared reflectography and x-radiography to fully understand the layering structure of the painting and the condition of those layers before embarking on treatment. She then consolidated the paint layer and lifted the varnish to reveal the vibrant, warm color tones that Zurbarán had originally intended.
The painting can now be seen in all of its glory inside Art and Empire, on view at the San Diego Museum of Art through September 2.
You can learn more about what went into conserving and restoring this masterpiece on August 23, 2019 at 7 pm when Dr. Michael Brown, Curator of European Art at SDMA, and Alexis Miller, Chief Conservator of Paintings at BACC come together for an in-depth discussion at the James S. Copley Auditorium at SDMA (buy tickets, here)
Featured in this post: Francisco de Zurbarán, Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist, 1658. Oil on canvas, Gift of Anne R. and Amy Putnam. 1935.22.
BACC's Assistant Paintings Conservator, Bianca García, recently presented a talk on 14th Century Italian paintings at the Timken Museum of Art as part of its docent training.
Garcia spoke about the traditional materials and techniques used to create egg tempera panel paintings with gilded backgrounds, a technique that was common during that time. She also brought some of the materials and tools (like gold leaf and powdered pigments) to share with the docents so they could get an idea of what the pigments and layers of the painting look like before the piece is finished.
Learn more about the Timken's collection, here.