Assessing Paintings During a Pandemic: How the NEH Has Bolstered BACC’s Ability to Connect Virtually with Clients
Last summer BACC was approached by a museum in Salt Lake City, Utah, about the possibility of conserving a selection of paintings by an American painter for an exhibition. The work was housed in the museum’s collections storage in Utah, posing an interesting logistics challenge for BACC’s art conservators who needed to do an initial assessment of the paintings in order to draft a treatment plan but were limited by travel and access restrictions due to the current global pandemic.
BACC has a long history of working with clients throughout the Western region (everywhere from Washington to Arizona) and doing so has required the need for travel and transport. During a global pandemic, however, how does BACC continue to support institutions like this and their collections safely and securely? The solution: our newly developed Virtual Pre-Examination Program or “VPEP.”
The Virtual Pre-Examination Program was developed with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities as an innovative way to connect with clients during the pandemic. Like arts and cultural institutions all over the world, this connection (or lack thereof) was a major concern, and for art conservators so much of their work is, of course, hands-on. And, while conservators have often asked for information and photos from long distance clients in the past,the NEH Cares Act funding gave BACC the ability to build on previous ideas and greatly improve, formalize, and find efficiencies in the virtual exam process.
The first component of VPEP is a photography “how-to” guide. BACC staff developed this to share with cultural institutions. It outlines, in great detail, what clients need to send BACC in order to best tell the story of the art object that needs to be conserved. In essence, the guide gives insight to what an art conservator is looking for on a piece by instructing collections managers, curators, or other staff in exactly what to look for and how to take the photos.
The second component of VPEP is a photo kit that can be sent to institutions, as needed. This kit includes items such as magnifying lenses that work with cell phone cameras, soft rulers to use to get a sense of dimension of either the object or the damage on an object, and photography lights to improve visuals.
“VPEP is a great example of the measures being put in place by institutions world-wide to help us function during the pandemic, that will shift the way we collaborate and operate long after,” Leticia Gomez Franco, BACC’s Executive Director, notes. “VPEP in theory is genius, but seeing it in practice has been especially rewarding. Using VPEP, the team at the museum in Utah was able to provide us all the information and images we needed to draft a treatment plan. This was accepted and the works were transported to BACC for conservation, allowing both the institution and BACC to make use of this ‘down-time’ to focus on collections care and prepare for reopenings.”
While BACC continues to navigate the new norms and new economy of art conservation during a pandemic, being able to pivot quickly and safely adapt to the challenges brought on by COVID-19 has already provided BACC with a more sustainable and forward-looking future.