How to Choose Between an Art Conservator and a Restorer

Artwork Archive | February 2, 2016

Both Art Conservation and Restoration Requires Years of Hands-On Experience

When we spoke to Laura Goodman, owner of Paper Care Studio in Atlanta, GA, she was working with an apprentice in her studio on a print by John James Audubon. “Do you have any more questions?” she asked her apprentice, before she stepped away to chat with us about her day-to-day.

Goodman also started as an apprentice while still working full-time in another career, just like the apprentice that she is now mentoring.

“All of the programs for conservators in [the U.S.] have strict prerequisites,” Goodman explains. “One is to apprentice for 400 to 4,000 hours with a conservator or in a conservation studio.”

Other prerequisites include chemistry, organic chemistry, and trigonometry.

Similarly, art restorers also go through an apprenticeship.

Susan Minassian, owner of Atlanta Art Restoration, travelled to England to apprentice and learn the craft side of her trade. Minassian is an expert in restoring paintings made by the old masters. She learned about the techniques of cleaning paintings, the safest way to make solvents, and how to mix paints that mirror those that the old masters used in the 1800s.

Conservators restore, repair, and preserve works of art. A knowledge of chemistry—to understand and make materials—as well as art skills are required. An art restorer also restores and repairs works of art with a detailed understanding of recreating materials.

Goodman tells us that a lot of the methods are the same, so what’s the difference?

1. Conservators and Restorers Have Different Training Requirements

“A restorer doesn’t usually have the same education,” Goodman explains.

Restorers learn from experience, and can go on to teach classes in conservation master’s programs, although they may not have completed a master’s program themselves. “Truly, these days a conservator is someone that generally has had advanced training,” Goodman says. She earned her Master’s in Conservation at the Northumbria University in Newcastle, England.

The amount of education does not suggest that a conservator is more qualified than a restorer. A conservator, however, uses a different approach that is taught at a university. The techniques taught in conservation programs are established by the The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, which are designed to be removed in the case of future repairs.

2. Conservators and Restorers Work Under Different Principles of Practice

Restorers focus on repairing the piece so that it looks as similar as possible to the original artist’s intent. Conservators, on the other hand, focus on stabilizing the piece and halting any further degradation.

“It’s not always just about how the piece looks,” Goodman adds. “It’s about how it’s going to be used in the future.”

Conservators operate on the notion that reparation technology will change, and their repairs may need to be reversed and updated. “We try and do things that are reversible because we know going into the future that technology will change,” Goodman confirms.

Goodman offered this example to compare conservator and restorer methodology: 

Goodman repairs tears in paper with wheat starch paste and Japanese tissue. Although this technique will hold over many years, it is removable with water. An art restorer, on the other hand, may use a more permanent technique, so the tear will never be revisited again.

Another example when an art conservator revives a piece without attempting to bring it back to its original state can be found when an old clay pot breaks, and you can see places put back together with new pieces. In this case, the pot was not repaired to look exactly as it did originally. This decision could be based on the piece's value or an owner’s preference.

When we spoke with Minassian, she mentioned that, especially after catastrophic damage, she prefers to have an original image of the work to use as a guide. With damage such as large holes or paint falling off the artwork, photographs provide helpful insight for restorers as they try to bring it back to its original state. As an Artwork Archive member, you can store photos that can be used as a references for a restorer making repairs.

3. Conservators and Restorers Generally Have a Medium of Focus

Goodman focuses on paper conservation. “Paper is everywhere.” she says, fervently. “It’s not just artwork, you get really fascinating documents and old maps.” With a background in traditional advertising and professional printing, she has no plans of expanding her practice to paintings.

Minassian, unlike Goodman, focuses on paintings. She started as a recreational painter with a focus on the old masters’ style. During her apprenticeship, she learned the craftsmanship of restoration with a focus in this era.

Minassian mentioned, for instance, that she prefers working with canvases from the 1800s and before, because the canvases were hand stretched. Hand-stretched canvases are much easier to repair, and Minassian is an expert in this field. When a client comes in with a project on a machine-stretched canvas, she generally refers it out to her local museum.

It’s important to work with professionals that understand their craft and their specialties. When qualified professionals agree to complete a project, you know they will complete it with both care and expertise.

4. Conservators and Restorers Should Have the Appropriate Experience for the Job

Every professional should have a portfolio of before-and-after photos. Hire a conservator or restorer based on their portfolio and experience. You can also ask to see examples of projects that mirror, or have strong similarities, to your project. With an expertise in paintings, Minassian might refer a project on paper to Goodman, for example.

The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works has a guide to finding a conservator to work with. You can search by state, by specialty, or through their advanced search which includes options like specific materials that need to be used.

Both Conservators and Restorers and Qualified Professionals

Terminology in the art world is constantly changing. Definitions vary by day. The distinction between a restorer and a conservator is unique because it comes down to an academic degree, which is something concrete.

However, a degree does not automatically make one person more qualified than the next.

The most important qualifier is a portfolio of experience that exemplifies their skills and proves that they have the experience to complete your unique repair.

Find more in-depth discussion about various art professionals who can help preserve and protect your art collection in our free e-book, Essential Guide to Collecting Art.

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