Contemporary Conservation Philosohpy: a Conversation with Christopher Foster, Detroit Institute of Arts

The Detroit Institute of Arts describes the conservator as one who “examines works of art, treats condition issues, investigates artists’ materials and work methods, determines appropriate display conditions, studies potential acquisitions, establishes the design and construction of mounts for the safe display of objects, and conducts research related to artists’ materials.” In addition, conservators work alongside exhibition designers, collections management, lighting designers, and the registrar’s office. Conservation requires more than care for a physical object; it also demands meticulous record-keeping, research, and a creative impulse. In order to learn more about the field, I spoke with conservator Christopher Foster. Foster has worked at the Detroit Institute of Arts for the past 24 years in Works On Paper.

I was immediately interested in the ethics of conservation and Foster’s personal philosophy on how far to take his work. I asked, what choices must a conservator make in their work? It’s a bit like being a translator; you are in charge of how to relay visual information to a public who usually doesn’t have the same depth of knowledge on the subject of art and art history. For example, say you’re working on a Titian. Do you emphasize the red in the composition, or do you treat the whole painting equally?

From Foster, I learned that there are different schools of thought on how far to take a restoration, though the American Institute for Conservation has a standard code of ethics that all conservators follow. In general, the contemporary philosophy skews toward the conservative; conservators are more accepting of wear on objects, for example, than in the past where objects were expected to look near-original. In the commercial art market, however, auctioneers are less willing to accept pieces with noticeable wear; the better the condition, the higher the price a piece will garner for the company. Foster’s own philosophy is for a kind of “invisible conservation.” That is, his goal is to present the piece in such a way that “the eye isn’t disturbed by damages,” especially in repair or in-painting. For example, Foster showed me a piece he was working from India, which had at one point been pasted into a book. There were a few tears around the corners of the page which Foster treated by adhering period- and culturally-appropriate archival paper (of which he has at least three large flat files full, and many different varieties such as kozo and mitsumata). This paper was toned to suit the color of the original paper, a shade or two lighter than an exact match (any darker would draw the eye toward the repair), and adhered with wheatpaste, which is strong but water-soluble. I hadn’t noticed Foster’s work until he pointed it out to me–“invisible” indeed.

Jan Hals, Portrait of a Man (1644). Oil on Canvas.

Foster’s work requires him to have a slightly different philosophy of conservation than a conservator in the Painting department. I was fortunate enough to meet Becca, a Paintings conservator working on a 1644 Jan Hals portrait, during my tour of the conservation lab. The portrait Becca was working on had been restored at least twice before she began work on it, including one restoration that left the work over-cleaned, inappropriately framed, and clumsily varnished in two places. Becca’s own work began with the removal of the varnish, followed by extensive in-painting in black (which is an extremely difficult color to work with). Her plan was to present a version of the piece as it was imagined by the artist, made possible through photographs of each of the painting’s many restorations. It would also be reframed with a black ripple-frame, according to the customs of 17th century Flanders.

Master of the Triburtine Sibyl, Crucifixion (c. 1485). Oil on oak panel.

There was another painting in the lab of Flemish descent, of Christ on the Cross. The piece was at least 500 years old and the varnish had yellowed a bit over time. Foster explained to me that the conservator working on it had decided to work with the varnish rather than removing it altogether. Foster also noted that any kind of patina or varnish that changes the tone of the paint also “affects the key [signature] of the piece.” In this case, the yellowing was appropriate–one would expect a 500-year-old painting to have some discoloration. Therefore, keeping the viewer’s expectations as well as a commitment to presenting the painting authentically in mind, the conservator chose not to remove the varnish.

The painting was also backed by a “cradle,” or wooden grid common to the period that is meant to move with the canvas. As it turns out, such cradles are almost never successful–the wood is usually locked too tightly into place and warps over time. Becca assured me that to remove the cradle would be too “invasive” a procedure for the conservator’s comfort, so since it wasn’t causing any problems, she had decided to leave it.

These examples of conservation procedures are all different, though they work within the context of the museum’s conservative conservation philosophy. This philosophy is in part defined by the viewer’s expectations of the work, the object’s own history, and the museum’s commitment to presenting artworks authentically and to explain to viewers why artworks appear the way they do.

This last point is perhaps the most important in a museum environment, and prompted me to ask, to what extent does a knowledge of a work of art’s provenance and the culture it came from inform the work done in conservation? 

Foster replied that while knowledge of the culture’s history is important, most of the responsibility for that knowledge is accorded to the curator; a conservator must be a generalist. For example, I had just seen Foster’s work on a hundreds-of-years-old Indian drawing, but he was also currently working on a contemporary Japanese textile work. Since Foster works in Works On Paper, he must have a knowledge of many different cultures. It is also important to note that conservators work with their department’s curators to create a plan for conservation before any physical work begins. Where a curator may provide art historical and cultural knowledge, the conservator brings knowledge of materials, technique, chemistry, and deterioration characteristics to the partnership. This working relationship is important both inside the conservation lab and outside of it, for example, in acquisitions.

When a work of art is being considered for acquisition, a conservator provides the curator with questions about the work to be acquired dealing with issues of its condition, materials, and provenance. The curator will then attend an auction with these questions in mind and a UV lamp in hand–Foster recommends that his curator views each piece in raking light and with a UV lamp before deciding to bid. If the piece is acquired, it is immediately sent to the conservation lab, where the conservator will perform an XRF (X-ray Fluorescence) test for the condition report. The XRF analyzer uses an X-ray beam to disturb electrons in the atoms making up an object, which are in turn categorized by element. This way, conservators are able to understand the chemical makeup of the materials used in an artwork, and therefore its deterioration properties. It follows that this information will be used when the conservator draws up a plan for the work to be done on the object.

At this point I was wondering how material and visual cultures intersect, and what the Detroit Institute of Art does to emphasize that intersection.

As an academic institution, the Detroit Institute of Arts is always attempting new ways to engage its viewership, which include work in conservation as well as curation. For example, the DIA is working with a program called Lumen, a handheld device which allows viewers an in-depth audiovisual analysis of objects in the collection, including photographs of an object’s past restorations. One example Foster thought would engage children in particular was a CAT-scan of the DIA’s mummy, housed in an Ancient Egyptian sarcophagus. Foster is also working on imaging for a model of a Bernini sculpture, based on a drawing from the artist’s workshop. The drawing will be shown alongside this model in order to give a sense of what the work looks like in three dimensions. This will help illuminate the process of turning a two-dimensional artwork into a three-dimensional object, which was crucial to Bernini’s work as an architect as well as an artist. The museum is also redesigning many of its exhibitions including the Asian wing, which will soon include contemporary works alongside ancient works, to provide insight into the art historical lineage of different Asian cultures, as well as to showcase the exciting work created by Asian artists today. These projects would be impossible without the expert team of conservators working in the lab and on the exhibition floor.

With all of the time and work a conservator puts into their practice, I wondered if the excitement of working with art ever wore off. 

Foster assured me that it does not, and that he treats every work with reverence and the respect it deserves.

Many thanks to Christopher Foster for his generosity and time in allowing me to speak with him and for giving me a tour of the conservation lab. I would like to thank him also for the work he does every day to further each viewer’s knowledge of art, and for providing us creative and intellectual inspiration. It was my pleasure to learn more about the field of conservation and all that it encompasses.

For more information on the Detroit Institute of Arts’ conservation department, see the museum’s website or Instagram, as they have recently completed work on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Wedding Dance (1566).

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