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Keepers of the craft: Preserving priceless artifacts

What happens when gold leaf flakes from a medieval manuscript, a Picasso has been found languishing in an attic, or a modern pop culture treasure needs a little TLC?

An art conservationist is called, and there’s a good chance that person learned what to do in Buffalo as a graduate of the Patricia H. and Richard E. Garman Art Conservation Department at Buffalo State College. Founded in 1970, this three-year graduate program is one of only three of its kind in the country and is highly competitive, accepting only 10 students each year. They meticulously examine, research, document, and care for priceless works crafted from traditional artistic materials (paint, paper, textiles, wood, metal, ceramic) or from completely unexpected sources, like a boxed piece of President McKinley’s wedding cake.

Second-year student Becca Goodman works on a painting in her graduate program in arts conservation.

To be considered, applicants must demonstrate proficiency in chemistry (to test materials and determine appropriate preservation methods), studio art (to show a careful, controlled hand), and art history (to understand the artifacts). Each student is also required to show a portfolio of previous conservation work, usually completed during an internship before they apply to the program.

The department occupies several floors of Rockwell Hall guarded by 24-hour video surveillance, with rooms full of equipment more comprehensive than most museums. There are chambers used to age materials using heat, light, and/or humidity to predict how an epoxy or pigment will behave over time. A studio full of imaging tools includes cameras to document each phase of work, x-rays to see substructures of sculptures, and special scanners that digitally separate layers of paint based on the elements found in pigments. Chemistry labs allow students to become forensic doctors of art, testing for clues to an object’s material, origin, and age. Walls are covered with thousands of tools; sometimes, a student or professor will forge a functional replica of an ancient implement in order to accurately perform a restoration.

Dan Kaping, a second-year student in object conservation, works on an antique sofa.

The program partners with area cultural institutions to connect budding conservationists with items in need of expert attention. It’s a win-win deal: museums like the Buffalo Museum of Science, Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Buffalo History Museum can care for vast collections when staff and funds are in short supply for such tasks, and students can usually select pieces that fit their passions and skill sets.

“We’re lucky to have such a huge range of cultural institutions in Western New York, with whom we have a long history of trust,” says Director and Associate Professor Patrick Ravines.

Program graduates are scooped up by world-class institutions around the country where they are often tasked with awe-inspiring projects. One Buff State grad oversaw the conservation the Starship USS Enterprise from the original TV series at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum; another restored the 15th century marble statue Adam, one of the most important Italian Renaissance sculptures in North America, which shattered into a dozen pieces when its pedestal collapsed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s work that Ravine says isn’t likely to go away any time soon.

“There is an increased focus on preserving the objects of our heritage, culture, ethos, and way of life,” says Ravines. “Our students leave this program with the expertise needed to save pieces with incredible historic, aesthetic and economic importance.”

See it first hand

Sarah Casto is a third-year student currently interning at the Arts Institute in Chicago.

Get a rare, behind-the-scenes view of the art conservation labs and workshops, including several treasures in various stages of treatment, during the program’s annual fall open house on Friday, Oct. 27 in Buffalo State’s Rockwell Hall (Iroquois Drive entrance). This event is free and open to the public.

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