One Woman’s Quest to Save the Art World, One Painting at a Time

One Woman’s Quest to Save the Art World, One Painting at a Time

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Whether the art was created by the Old Masters or by modern artists, Suzanne Siano is a master of art conservation. Her mission: to preserve art history, one painting at a time.

Siano cares about art conservation as much as the creators do — if not more. And she is a trailblazer in the art world not for what she puts down on canvas, but for how she saves the work of others, preserving what makes them so extraordinary.

Below, Siano shares more about her life as an art conservator and offers an in-depth look at the art of art conservation. Enjoy!

Leading with Passion

Suzanne Siano always knew she wanted a career in the arts. Her mother was a painter, her father was in the fashion industry, and visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) were routine family outings.

“We loved art,” says Siano. “I didn’t feel a compelling desire to create new art; rather, I liked making copies of famous artworks and was fascinated with art materials and techniques. Growing up in New York City exposed me to so many artistic periods and styles that I was equally passionate about contemporary artworks and Old Master paintings. Becoming an art historian seemed the right path to follow.”

While studying art history at Barnard College in New York, Siano visited the Paintings Conservation Department at the Met, an experience that altered her career trajectory. “I knew immediately that being a paintings conservator was what I was meant to do,” she recalls.

Siano continued her art history studies abroad in Florence and began working closely with master conservators. “I wanted to stay and work in Italy,” says Siano, “but I was encouraged to return to the States for my formal conservation training.”

Rising to the Call

There was a time when one might have prepared for the art conservation profession by apprenticing in a studio with a master. When Siano began training, however, the field, along with the greater art world, was rapidly changing — and in many respects, expanding.

The explosive growth of the art market, especially in the U.S., and the concurrent rise of experimental materials spiked a demand for conservators who had specialized technical and art historical training and who would adhere to professional standards and ethics. This increased the responsibility of the conservator and elevated the profession’s status.

Benchmark practices required graduate-level courses in art history, chemistry and conservation techniques. “I was accepted into the conservation program at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts,” notes Siano. “There are very few conservation training programs. … I was fortunate to attend one that had an incredible curriculum for students specializing in paintings conservation.”

She continues, “Dianne Dwyer Modestini, renowned restorer of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, and her husband, Mario Modestini, master restorer of the Samuel H. Kress Collection, gave me the practical expertise and ethical base for the challenges I subsequently encountered once I began conserving modern and contemporary paintings.”

Art Conservation Credentials

With credentials in hand, Siano began her professional career in 1994. She joined the Paintings Conservation Department at MoMA, training under eminent conservators of modern and contemporary paintings, Anny Aviram, Michael Duffy and Jim Coddington. She continued at MoMA until 2009, also working part time with conservators in private practice and learning the business of art conservation.

In 2006, Siano joined the faculty at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, as an adjunct professor. And in 2007, she launched Modern Art Conservation (MAC), a private practice offering consultation, treatment of paintings and training for museum and gallery staff, among other services.

Conservation Par Excellence

Siano was soon recognized as a leader in the conservation of modern and contemporary paintings and mixed-media artworks. As director of MAC, she oversees one of the larger practices in the U.S. with a team that includes conservators from around the world, preparators, a conservation photographer, a registrar and conservation students and interns. “You need a talented team to find creative solutions and bring the best minds and hands to the artworks we care for each day” says Siano.

The MAC facility occupies an entire floor in a former warehouse in New York City’s West Chelsea art district. Comprising 7,000 square feet of space, with three walls of floor-to-ceiling windows, it’s a real-estate coup. In this setting, the effect of watching the team at work restoring blue-chip art is cinematic.

That wow factor is fully intentional. Not everyone gets invited to the MAC studio. The experience is a rare peek into the upper reaches of the art world.

“We do a lot of sale-related treatments and condition reporting for galleries, private collectors, auction houses and museums,” notes Siano. “Given the potential impact on the art market, our work is kept from the public eye.” To that end, the space is divided into quadrants to guard client confidentiality and safely store valuable works undergoing treatment.

Art conservation involves a lot of research and experimentation, Siano explains — particularly with modern and contemporary works, in which nontraditional materials and techniques are often employed. When the artists are still living, the conservator can sometimes confer with them directly on their materials and working processes.

Every Detail Matters

Recreating the processes employed by deceased artists is more problematic, requiring an in-depth knowledge of art materials and a combination of educated decisions and guesswork. “We always try to get an early photograph of the work.” says Siano. “Sometimes the piece we’re working on has had multiple restorations that aren’t easily reversible from the artist’s original work.”

She continues, “In other instances, we may be asked to alter something in an artwork that appears to an untrained eye to be deterioration or damage but, in fact, is an intentional part of the work. Our goal is to understand what the artist’s intent was, what has altered that along the way and how we can get back to that intended appearance while keeping in mind that materials change over time.”

Once Siano has outlined a treatment plan, the proposed interventions are often vetted on test materials. Through her years of practice, Siano has developed an extensive archive of these materials — including support samples, paints and binders — the most extensive being the materials of Andy Warhol.

“Foremost, our aim is to stabilize the artwork and prevent further deterioration,” explains Siano. “The prescribed treatment must also be reversible and inconspicuous. A work should neither look as if it was restored nor necessarily look as if it just left the artist’s studio. We work with the knowledge that art materials interact with the environment and change with age.”

Don’t Try This at Home

Conservation treatments include setting down flaking paint, repairing tears, inpainting losses and cleaning of discolored varnishes, accumulated nicotine or dust. Cleaning art might strike one as a simple process, but Siano reports cleaning can be the most challenging and irreversible treatment.

In older works, subtle glazes can be intermingled with a varnish, which can limit cleaning. In more modern works, where the surfaces are often unvarnished and the paint layers matte and underbound, just touching the work incorrectly can cause damage.

“People see a conservator dusting a painting or using a damp swab to clean and think, I can do that,” says Siano. “But a good conservator will have examined the work, perhaps carried out discreet tests, gained an understanding of the materials and chosen the right solvent or tool.”

Damaging Impacts

When someone untrained attempts cleaning or other restoration, the results can be disastrous and largely irreversible. “The point of many contemporary and modern paintings is the paint itself rather than an image,” explains Siano. “Any damage or alteration can be difficult to hide. Working with trained conservators specializing in these types of works is the safest and surest way to preserve the artist’s intent and the artwork’s cultural and financial value.”

Extreme damage, such as that from fires or floods, calls for special diligence and outreach. “Damage to unvarnished paintings from fire often results in total loss,” states Siano. In an effort to save more of these works, MAC established a relationship with NASA personnel who had developed an oxygen bonding process that lifted carbon particles from damaged works.

“The results were truly amazing,” she continues. “The NASA process offered us a way to remove the black soot without touching the work with swabs or brushes. With the soot removed, we could carry out further treatments without driving the soot into the paint layers.”

Equally dramatic was MAC’s work related to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which caused flooding in and around the New York metropolitan area in 2012. “We worked with an emergency network of art-world professionals to salvage works that were either on display or stored in the flooded Chelsea art-gallery district,” recalls Siano.

“The studio became a local triage center where water-damaged works would be cataloged, assessed and treated,” she adds. “The danger of mold, which is difficult to eradicate, required urgent care. Conservators’ collective efforts paid off, and we were able to save hundreds of artworks — many by working directly with artists who have studios or exhibit in galleries in the neighborhood.”

Be Good to Your Art

Artists and collectors, notes Siano, need to think of themselves as stewards and learn best practices that ensure an artwork’s preservation well into the future. “Art changes over time and is impacted by the environment,” she explains. “Material and technique choices, temperature extremes, moisture, dust and light — all can have deleterious effects on the life of a work.”

Siano and her conservator colleagues have increasingly focused their efforts on disseminating preventive measures to makers, dealers, curators, collectors and art handlers. “More and more we are working as a technical resource for professional artists, providing materials and technique recommendations, and helping with problem-solving — while trying not to change the artist’s intent,” says Siano.

“Some artists don’t care if their work falls apart after a few years (some even intend for that to happen),” states Siano. “But those who do care need correct information about practices that will ensure the longevity of their artwork.” Likewise, collectors can take into consideration the interactive and fragile nature of art materials and then employ preventative measures in displaying and storing artworks.

Prevention is key. Do-it-yourself art conservation is not a good idea. So if there’s an issue with a cherished artwork in your possession, by all means, consult a professional.

This article, written by Michael Gormley with photography by Manuel Rodriquez, first appeared in Artists Magazine. You can subscribe here. And be sure to show off your own masterful artistry by submitting your work to Artists Magazine‘s Annual Art Competition. The deadline has been extended to May 18th, so don’t delay!

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