Magazine Preview: The Conservator
Written by Bwog Staff
While waiting for the November issue of The Blue and White to arrive you can read the entire magazine as we preview it on Bwog.
Michael Gallagher, the Sherman Fairchild Conservator in Charge of Paintings Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has spent his career breathing new life into the works of the past. After receiving his degree in studio art, he attended the Hamilton Kerr Institute at the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge, a three-year program in conservation that then accepted only two students per year. Before coming to the Met, he worked at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, and the National Galleries of Scotland. As an artist, conservator, and Briton native, Michael lends his perspective on New York, museum operations, and sustaining his passion for paintings.
Michael Gallagher: I trained in studio art in the UK and left college not really knowing what to do with a fine arts degree. It was when I was traveling in Italy that I saw a lot of exhibitions where conservation was featured, and from one in particular I came back in high dudgeon. It was the restoration of an equestrian statue.
The conservation treatment was really amazing, but I thought they over-glorified its actual role. I came back sort of complaining about it to a friend, and he said, “Have you ever thought about conservation?” And I said, “Oh, I couldn’t do that, it’s all science.” And then it sort of planted a seed–a worm, probably, would be a better description.
When I got back to the UK, I wondered how you do this, how you study it. I rang the National Gallery, which seems a little presumptuous, but I was very lucky. They put me through to someone in Paintings Conservation, and the person I spoke to was patient enough to explain that science is a really integral part of the field, but as were other aspects, and that most people had to play catchup in some area. I think one of the most sensible things she did was suggest that I get a few books, including a set of Science for Conservators. I think she thought, “Let’s see if he gets past this.” And that was how it started.
B&W: How do you think your fine arts training has impacted your work as a conservator?
MG: I’d always looked at Old Master paintings. And I think in having manipulated materials, it gives you some insight–I don’t think this necessarily has to do with my studio art training, but I feel very aware of how humbling this work is. On vacation I still paint, and I always come back with a renewed sense of humility.
B&W: What is a typical day like in the studio?
MG: It’s changed a lot over my career. When I worked in Berlin, my entire role there was to turn up and work entirely on the paintings. And that was a great experience, but one I felt was a bit one-note. I actually quite like the diversity here [at the Met] but I get very grumpy if I’m out of the studio for more than a couple weeks.
Well, take last week. On Monday, there was a connoisseurship class, which is when the curators bring in a group of students. Then the Gossart [Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance] show–I was taking part in a two-hour presentation with someone else from conservation and the curator. Then we had a visitor from Russia. This isn’t so typical, but I went down to MoMA to see the Matisse exhibition. Last week wasn’t a good week for doing practical work, because there’s e-mails coming in between. I try and block out time to work in the studio. Then today, I was working on an article in here and doing e-mail. It varies like that. Sometimes there’s just reports to be done.
However, I think compared to when I was working in a national institution in the UK, there’s much less administrative work and bureaucracy [here]. Some performance indicators are sort of meaningless targets in this field. No one can say if we work on two pictures or if we work on 25 which has been the better year. It depends what the problems are and how they’ve been resolved.
I honestly feel that we should try to capture the interest of as large an entry group as possible. But when that starts to be dragged into a political agenda, it distorts it. It changes–
B&W: It changes the meaning of your work.
MG: It’s a fine line. Some institutions manage to sail along that line really well, and others you go to and you feel like you’ve lost your way or you’ve sold your soul. It’s like when an institution starts to patronize its audience, as though no one’s ever going to come back. If you aim your labels at a smart 14-year-old, what happens when that 14-year-old grows up?
B&W: But you feel like the Met is aiming a little bit higher?
MG: Yes. When I told people I got this job–I was at the National Galleries of Scotland at the time–it was coveted more by curators, because they think the Met is like nirvana. They see that serious scholarship goes on, serious exhibitions are still being programmed here, and they think, “This is why I went into art history.”
B&W: Do you think that sense of seriousness has something to do with the intellectual culture of New York and the Met’s place in that?
MG: It probably does. I grew up in a small town. Small towns are fine, but there’s not the same intellectual ferment you get in cities like London or New York. There’s an audience here willing to take on the challenge of an exhibition that might not be so mainstream. It’s the responsibility of an institution to keep up that challenge rather than take an easier route.
I’m biased, but I do think the Met’s managed to retain its integrity. With something like the Gossart show, the curator worked on that for five years. It was a commitment on the part of the institution to the cost of doing an intellectual exhibition.
B&W: Do you ever get to integrate technical information into your exhibitions?
MG: There seems to be a move in that direction. It’s clear the public has an interest, and I believe that an institution like us should be curatorially-led. I find the most relevant role of conservation is when the understanding of the work of art is enhanced, rather than it all being about conservation. It’s not always a field that’s well understood, and it doesn’t always lend itself–
B&W: To being understood?
MG: –To sound bite. It tends to get reduced to the genius of recovery, or to some kind of vandalism, and there’s not much in between. Conservation should contribute to a sophisticated understanding, not just a shopping list of materials. The miracle of great paintings is that they’re these simple things turned into visual poetry, and in any discussion of what we do that should be central.
B&W: One of the biggest controversies in the profession is between reconstruction and preservation. How do you balance those two concerns?
MG: I worked on a very large picture once in the National Gallery of Scotland, and the public came in during the entire process. I’m not sure I’d ever do that again. But it was really revelatory to listen–because I had no choice but to listen–to what comments were being made. It’s like you’re on television so people think you can’t hear. You’re working and they talk about you as a disembodied thing. The understanding of what was happening–what was cleaning, what was retouching, and what we do in retouching, which is that we retouch damages–whereas people felt we were brightening, as though we were wholesale repainting. It’s because it’s a slow process, but the impact can be enormous, so it’s difficult to grasp.
In terms of retouching, I always tell people it’s like cancelling out white noise. If it were for a piece of music, it would be so you could hear the original. It isn’t digitally remastering, it’s just getting rid of that hiss of damage. It’s surprising how dominant, especially with a great painting, the remaining original is. Great pictures do rise from the dead!
And fortunately, not every picture that comes through the studio is in a particularly damaged state. Many things come up here to be examined to see if they’re stable to go on loan, or to be examined and researched for questions that may come from curators and art historians in the building.
B&W: But when you do have to retouch an image, it seems that developing technology–infared spectroscopy, for instance, which allows conservators to analyze pigment composition, or x-ray technology, which allows conservators to see underlying layers of paint–could significantly improve the process.
MG: Conservation is a young field. The sense of a shared agreement about the sets of skills required for the conservator in terms of an understanding of painting technique, an understanding of factors that might cause deterioration–whether it’s the effect of light, or changes in humidity, the solvent action, deterioration of varnishes–that’s all almost postwar.
That being said, it isn’t as though mistakes haven’t been made in the past fifty years. Paintings are not rocket ships. If you’re using really sophisticated technology to ask the wrong questions of a work of art, you can start to go into a manic preservationist mode that is inappropriate for works that have survived many centuries. How you use technology requires sensitivity and intelligence to ask the right questions and use the right tools. The potential is definitely there to do good, but it doesn’t mean that the potential to do harm has gone away.
B&W: How would you characterize the sensitivity that makes a good conservator?
MG: I have always thought that if someone came through and thought, “I don’t think he likes pictures,” that would be the most crushing criticism that anyone could level. It sounds really superficial, but when I see people come through who are interested in studying conservation, if they’re more interested in the problems than they are in the works of art, that sets off an alarm bell to me. You want to resolve a problem because you love the work of art and you respect it. You don’t want to just fall in love with solving problems and being clever.
I love my job, and I wouldn’t have been sucked into it if I didn’t find it an exciting field. But I know that one day when conservation isn’t there for me, the pictures will be.
B&W: Do you have any favorite projects?
MG: It’s been really exciting working on a group of pictures associated with Velasquez. I was in on Sunday, and I was going up the stairs, and I looked down and I saw the Velasquez and Rubens and Del Sarto and I thought, “You know, life isn’t so bad.” I always get mother love for the next thing. Working on the Velazquez from the Frick and the rediscovery of the Velasquez portrait last year have been exciting, but you get sucked into whatever you’re working on.
B&W: Like the Velasquez portrait?
MG: It was a picture that had come into the collection in the ‘20s. It had come in as a Velasquez, but we learned that it had been radically distorted before it was sold by a restoration that attempted to turn what was a life sketch into a finished portrait and was “Old Masterfied”–it killed the picture, really. As the materials that had been used to tone it back aged, it just got more and more dull until it really didn’t register on the wall. Keith Christiansen [Chairman of European Paintings] was always intrigued by the picture, and when I worked on the Frick’s Velazquez, he said it might be a good time to look at this portrait. I did a cleaning test and was really shocked by the level of distortion. I carried on cleaning, and a couple hours later I rang Keith and said he had to come up. That was a very exciting thing to happen. It doesn’t happen very often, and probably will never happen again. Velasquez is such a wonderfully painterly artist that it’s very exciting to be involved in something like that.
B&W: Do you feel like you’ve come to any new understanding of Velasquez, or any other artists, through working so closely with these pieces?
MG: You get some insights. It’s very tempting to think you get insight into the person, but with any art form you have to be really careful about thinking you understand or know the artist. You can start to project who they were, and again and again you’re proven totally wrong. Sometimes a body of literature that has been amassed about–well, an old master–can start to resonate with things you see in the work, and you do feel like there’s some connection. Certainly, if you work on a number of related things, aspects of technique start to become familiar. But again, I always think you need to approach that with a degree of humility.
When I first came to New York, I was very naïve. When you’d say you needed something, everyone said, “Oh, I’ve got the best”–the best cobbler, the best dentist. Gradually it dawned on me that everyone’s choice was the best. And they want you to be the best: to swing in with your silver-tipped cane and say, “It couldn’t possibly be a Titian!” I think you have to avoid that–the comic, absurd side of it. When it comes to complex issues, they are just that. They need reflection, they need discussion. Sometimes a gut instinct is good, but then you have to analyze what’s creating that instinct.
B&W: Your life isn’t The Da Vinci Code, basically.
MG: Yes. But I think often people would like it to be.