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The latter part of last week and this weekend was the annual national conference of AIC (American Institute for Conservation) in Indianapolis, Indiana. As much as I wanted to go to the conference this year, it just wasn’t in the cards for me. Some VERY generous people offered to summarize various talks at the conference and post them on the AIC blog. For those who have never been, here is a brief idea of AIC. There are a few general sessions at the conference, as well as many sessions devoted to each of the specialties and sub-specialty groups such as book and paper, electronic media, objects, and paintings. (We also have dinner, lunches, tours, buisness meetings, and angel projects for a site in need of conservation love) Many of the talks focus on a specific, unique treatment or new research (sort of continuing education). AIC is starting to break out of their comfort zone by sponsoring debates on controversial topics in conservation (unpaid vs paid interns, treating objects in galleries, etc), as well as having moderated panels on the state of the various specialty groups.

The painting specialty group, on the whole, can be a bunch that doesn’t always respond well to change or very progressive ideas. Each group definitely has a personality and the paintings group on the whole can be rather traditional. (This is not to say that everyone is. There are certainly people who are pushing us forward! I’m talking in a generalization here.) However, this year the paintings group hosted a moderated panel on “Current Challenges and Opportunities in Paintings Conservation.” Thankfully Tasia Bulger, an emerging Canadian painting conservator, offered to summarize the talk and did a fantastic job! The panelists, Joyce Hill Stoner, Rustin (Rusty) Levinson, Rob Proctor, and Alan Phenix, with moderator Tiarna Doherty, hit a lot of the big topics that painting conservators (and wannabe painting conservators) have been discussing on a small scale. The panelists represented a variety of positions painting conservators are employed within, as well as a variety of opinions (educational- US, Conservation Science/ institution/ education- British, and 2 private practice individuals). Based on Tasia’s summary, it seems like it was an AMAZING talk and I wish I had been there to hear it in person!

I really recommend reading Tasia’s summary here, but for those who want the spark notes version, I’ll try to summarize her summary. Each of the panelists offered a 10 minute presentation about something the presenter felt was a current trend or upcoming challenge in the field of painting conservation.

1. Joyce discussed the evolution of paintings conservation training and the ongoing issue/debate of instituting a core competency exam/continuing education/ certification.

2. Rusty discussed the need for grater advocacy of conservation to prevent DIY conservation and making our presence more visible and better known. She recommended this through a MUCH greater online presence, as well as increased networking with allied and non-allied fields.

3. Rob discussed the future of conservation from the view of a private conservator (as opposed to working in a museum). He urged applying for outside funding, utilizing studio technicians, and discussed additional skills private practitioners need (ie. finance, entrepreneurship, and marketing).

4. Alan, a British conservation scientist, discussed the differences in British and American conservation schooling, where the latter focuses on general skills followed by specialization- a method he prefers. ( *gulp* he doesn’t make me feel great about my choice for a specialized education in England…) He compared the increasing rise of specialized conservators over generalists is similar to that of medical specialization issues (too many specialists and not enough generalists). His final touching point is that conservation science is becoming more driven by the technology available, rather than issues to be explored.

The discussion that followed seems to have been truly interesting and important. A question was brought up about misinformation of painting conservation- we should be better at addressing these issues on the internet. Participants and audience members voiced very mixed feelings on posting detailed treatment information on the internet- some feel this will inspire DIY-ers, while others think, with enough jargon, people will be deterred. A popular thought was echoed of further networking with curators and other allies. A need for affordable, continuing education opportunities (also good for pre-program or program individuals) was pushed. Other fields such as paper and textiles sponsor great 3 day workshops for continuing education and paintings needs to find a way to harness this as well. We have SO much information to know and things are constantly changing, so we need refresher or introductory courses so that we can stay up to date with new ideas and best practices. Personally, I’d LOVE to see a Modular Cleaning Program (MCP) course available for emerging conservators (I learned the system within an institution I worked for, but I’d really like to take the workshop to cement the knowledge).

Finally, my favorite topic was addressed…. the lack of pre-program opportunities in paintings and the fact that it is generally unpaid, while post-program fellowships are underpaid. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had an unheard amount of pre-program opportunities in paintings. (Part of the reason I am 100% certain I wish to be a paintings conservator) Very, very few people enter programs with the amount of experience I have in paintings. Painting conservators are very reticent to take pre-programers as they lack “handskills,” among other reasons. Fortunately my mentor Lou at the NPG took a HUGE chance on me and, through her contacts and support, I was able to find other paintings conservators to take me on. Very few people are so fortunate; I’m so blessed that I was one of the lucky few. At the talk a big thanks was extended to private conservators for taking pre-programmers on, with many of them being paid! The issue of funding was brought up and many suggested tapping into the scientific community for funding- this is how one of my opportunities was funded. Joyce suggested that funding is difficult because our field does not have as much internal funding and high pay like other fields (medical and law), so funding the bottom tier is difficult (I think this is what was said… but I’ll admit I’m confused about Joyce’s comment in Tasia’s summary, so I apologize Joyce or Tasia if I am getting this wrong!).

This talk seems so amazing and reiterates so many conversations I’ve had with other emerging conservators and other painting conservators. I hope this conversation continues past AIC and our community acts upon these ideas. Here’s to hoping the painting conservation community continues this type of positive growth. I’m so thrilled to be a member of this community during this exciting time!