Sara Bisi joined BACC in November of 2019 as the organization's Associate Conservator of Paper. Her diverse background in art conservation and collections care was gained by working with both large institutions, such as the Yale Center for British Art and the Harvard Art Museums, and smaller regional centers like the Williamstown Art Conservation Center and the Northeast Document Conservation Center.
She earned an M.A. in Art Conservation from SUNY Buffalo State College with advanced study in paper conservation and a B.A. in Art History from Saint Joseph College. Bisi held post-graduate positions as a research associate in paper conservation at the Yale Center for British Art and was awarded the Craigen W. Bowen fellowship in paper conservation at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums in 2010.
Her areas of interest and previous research include the analysis of color printing methods and materials before 1800, the development and analysis of an iodine vapor treatment for silver mirroring on photographs, and teaching workshops and courses on general collections care and preventive conservation practices.
Here we learn more about her thoughts on being a conservator, favorite projects worked on to date, and more.
When did you know that you wanted to be an art conservator?
I first learned about conservation during college. I was a chemistry major and intended to find a job in materials science or education. In my second year I was taking an art history course when I realized I didn’t have to choose science over art, I could choose both. From then on my sights were set on attending a graduate program in art conservation.
To date, what is the favorite conservation project that you have worked on?
Memories of projects have really melded together over the years, but there are actually two that stand out. One was a pastel portrait on paper that had at one point been prepared on canvas and stretched on a strainer. By the time I saw it, it resembled swiss cheese. Piecing the fragments back together, creating new fills, and inpainting all the losses was a labor intensive and incredibly satisfying project. As a paper conservator, you don’t often get the opportunity to channel your inner paintings conservator and reconstruct so much. I had a blast!
The second project was an engraving that had a large loss in one of the corners. Another museum nearby had the exact same print with the corner still intact. I was able to create a pulp fill to match the paper. Using the other impression as a guide, I recreated the engraved lines one by one on the new pulp fill. While I loved the treatment itself, the highlight was a visit by the Print Council of America meeting attendees. The treatment was explained during a tour of our lab, but they were not able to identify where the loss had been until I revealed the location of the fill using UV light.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
The most challenging part of my job is maintaining a balance between being knowledgeable and able to make informed decisions for a treatment with wanting to learn and research materials, techniques, historical context, and the nature of a work on paper’s condition until I’m blue in the face.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I think the process is the most rewarding part. In a regional conservation center that means meeting people, hearing their stories, educating each other about the history of a piece, having an opportunity to problem solve and then provide a service that leads to more people safely accessing and appreciating their artwork or family treasures whether in a public gallery or shared with friends and family in a private setting.
What do you wish more people knew about conservation work and/or conservators?
Many people either don’t know of our field outside of the occasional movie character (here’s looking at you Sigourney Weaver) or the mention of conservation during antiques roadshow broadcasts.
Most don’t understand how accessible we really are. We do exist and are here for you! Conservators don’t only live in museum basements. Regional conservation centers and many independent conservators hold a place for anyone and everyone to gain advice and have their works of art or family collections examined.
I would also like more people to know that conservation doesn’t start or end with physical treatment. Conservation helps inform all of us on preventive measures you can take on your own, even if treatment isn’t financially possible right away. Proper handling, housing, display and storage are the most important, and take the least effort and investment. Conservation can help fix damages, but it can never turn back the clock.