Before she completed an Andrew Mellon Fellowship at BACC, Morgan Wylder worked as the NEH Fellow in Paintings Conservation at the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA, having already earned her graduate degree in Conservation of Easel Paintings from the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. During graduate school, Morgan interned at the Regional Laboratory for the Science of Cultural Heritage Conservation, Portland State University, and the paintings conservation department at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Her current areas of interest include the conservation of Modern and Contemporary paintings and mixed media artworks, materials and techniques of 20th century California painters, and helping artists to better understand materials to support their artistic practice.
Now an Assistant Conservator of Paintings at BACC, she shares some thoughts on what it’s like to be an art conservator.
When did you know that you wanted to be an art conservator?
I knew I wanted to be a conservator fairly early in my life. Growing up and into high school, I was very interested in both fine arts and sciences. A family friend, then a curator at our local art museum, noticed and suggested I look into a career in art conservation. I started doing a little research and I became more and more excited about the prospect of spending my life restoring and preserving artwork for future generations to enjoy. Then, for the summer after my junior year of high school, I applied for a school-sponsored scholarship that allowed me to spend several weeks learning fresco conservation in Vittorio Veneto, Italy. Between working on the historic Italian wall paintings and the endless amounts of gelato that summer, I was officially hooked.
To date, what is the favorite conservation project that you have worked on?
One of the best parts about conservation is that we get to work on a range of artworks, each piece with its own fascinating, individual history, materials, and conservation challenges. It’s so difficult to choose a favorite! But I will say: one of the things I love about working in a regional center like BACC is that we treat artwork that has incurred incredible damage—from floods, fires, pest infestations, or long-term storage in poor environments—and sometimes we can bring it back to life completely.
One of my favorite treatments at BACC was the large landscape painting Mission Hills by local, early-20th century female painter Belle Baranceanu. Water damage had resulted in major paint loss, perhaps over a sixth of the painting, and the remainder of the paint was unstable. The treatment took hundreds of hours of conservation and research (a painted sketch of the same scene was referenced in order to visually re-create the missing areas), but now it is stable, looking great, and ready to be enjoyed at the San Diego History Center! The before and after photographs can be seen in the Treatment Gallery of our website.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
One of the most challenging—but also most exciting—parts of my job is determining how to conserve and preserve Contemporary Art. With historic artwork, we often have a better idea of what traditional materials and techniques an artist would have used in a certain region or during a certain time period, so while conservation treatment may be challenging and time-consuming, at least we don’t have to start from square one to determine a treatment pathway.
With Contemporary Art, there’s no such luck. Many contemporary artists have chosen much more experimental materials and techniques (motorcycle paint? bubble gum? feathers and hair? There are no rules.) Not only do we have to think about all of the chemical, physical, and aging properties of these disparate materials before we determine a conservation treatment or preservation plan, but we must also consider the collector’s or museum’s wishes and budget, and the artist’s wishes for the preservation of his/her/their artwork. Ideally, we work with all of these stakeholders to agree on conservation goals. While artists’ legal rights over their artwork (after it has sold) vary from country to country and state to state, we as conservators believe it is ethical to document and follow artists’ wishes for the preservation of their artwork as much as we reasonably can. In summary: There can be a lot of materials, opinions, and logistics to consider for just one object!
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part of my job is certainly when I/we are able to bring an artwork back to life through a conservation treatment so that families, collectors, or museum-goers can enjoy it once again. Artwork is meant to be seen, thought about, interacted with, and that is very difficult to do if it’s too broken or dirty. It’s extremely gratifying to be able to fix something that is damaged, especially when other people will be able to enjoy it afterward.
The second most rewarding part of my job is getting to spend lots of time with an artwork: looking with magnification at individual brushstrokes and drawing marks, researching its history, looking for clues with technical examination techniques. By the end of a long conservation treatment, I feel like I know the artwork and the artist much better. I can see if an artist was neat and tidy, or if there are lots of wild drip marks and fingerprints along the tacking edges. I can see if an artist bought a commercially-made canvas or took the time to stretch and prime his/her/their own canvas. We can often see if an artist labored over something, getting it just perfect with many attempts, or if it was quickly and freely done. I love imagining artists in their studios, working with their favorite supplies, talking to their contemporaries about whether a composition is working or not. All of the little clues help me understand the person behind the art as well as the art itself, and I just love that.
What do you wish more people knew about conservation work and/or conservators?
It’s a team effort! While we conservators are trained to do the actual conservation treatment interventions, it takes a village to preserve artwork. Good preventive conservation—which includes displaying and storing artwork in the right environmental conditions, handling and transporting artwork safely, and doing routine dusting or maintenance (depending on the material)—means that artwork is far less likely to deteriorate or get damaged. Artwork is only in our lab for a short time, so the rest of the time, we need your help to keep it looking its best!