Ask anyone to name their favorite paintings, and they’ll probably name a handful of well-known works by some of the world’s most famous artists. And there’s a fairly good chance that, whatever they name, it’s at least half a century old—if not more. 

How do these incredible works of art stay so pristine after all this time? It’s all thanks to the work of art restorers.

If your love for history and art has you thinking about a career in conservation and restoration work, we’re here to talk you through exactly what an art restorer does, how to be an art restorer, and what this fascinating job looks like day-to-day.

What Is an Art Restorer?

Before we dig into the details of what an art restorer does, it’s important to determine the difference between this type of job and that of an art conservator. 

While both professions involve the care and preservation of different types of art, a conservator is more focused on preventing the work from degrading in the future as a result of damage or environmental changes. Essentially, their job is to keep the art as it is in its current state for as long as possible. If any changes are made to the artwork, they’re often temporary to account for more advanced conservation practices in the future.

Art restoration is about fixing issues with existing artwork and returning it to its original form.

A restorer, on the other hand, fixes something that’s been damaged by using techniques that are original to the artwork’s time period and style. The goal is to make the art look as close as possible to how it would have looked when it was finished. Art restorers often specialize in particular materials, like paintings, ceramics, textiles, or paper, as well as artistic methods from certain eras, to ensure that viewers of the piece would never know that any changes or fixes had been made.

What Does an Art Restorer Do?

How you spend your days as an art restorer will depend on where you work and the type of restoration that you specialize in. 

For example, a fine art restorer who focuses on paintings may find themselves repairing any obvious damage to a canvas, brightening up paint colors that have faded, or cleaning dirt or discoloration that’s been left on the surface over the years.

But no matter what kind of work you do, most art restorer job descriptions will include:

  • Assessing the physical condition of artwork to determine what might need repairing
  • Doing hands-on treatment to restore the art back to its original form
  • Developing and maintaining standards for storing, handling, and transporting artwork between museums or private collections
  • Advising curators on issues relating to the storage and display of artwork for the public or collectors
  • Collaborating with other conservators to preserve important works of art and develop new techniques for conservation

You may even be able to publish and present research on art restoration techniques, along with helping to train the next generation of art restorers.

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How to Become an Art Restorer

Learning to become an art restorer usually involves working with different materials.

There are several different paths that you can take when you’re figuring out how to be an art restorer. While formal education isn’t always necessary, it can certainly help you to get ahead and find work more quickly. 

But there’s truly nothing like getting hands-on art restoration work, and apprenticeships are still highly valued training experiences in this industry.

Art Restoration Degree and Education Requirements

You certainly can pursue an art restoration and conservation studies degree if you know that’s definitely the job for you. But just as many restorers come into the profession with art degrees or even chemistry degrees with a dual major or minor in art or history. Anthropology or archaeology degrees can also be helpful when thinking about this type of career.

Generally speaking, the skills that you learn in any humanities or science degree will put you in a great position when looking for additional qualifications once you graduate. Having real experience with the materials that you would like to work with as a restoration expert will be crucial, so developing your own art portfolio to demonstrate your abilities will be necessary at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

The most common pathway to art restorer jobs is a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s degree in restoration or conservation, with an internship built into the program. If you’re serious about becoming a top art restorer, there are fellowships and PhD opportunities available in specialist fields and with funding from the world’s biggest museums like the Smithsonian and the Getty Foundation.

Art Restoration Apprenticeship

For many jobs that involve hands-on work, apprenticeships have been the standard route into the profession for hundreds of years. Everything from carpentry to welding to, yes, art restoration requires students to learn from an expert in a one-on-one setting.

Apprenticeships are the best way for trainee art restorers to learn the different skills needed in the profession.

These days, apprenticeships are still commonly used to train new art restorers, either as part of their degree program or as a standalone training program. The apprentice will work with an expert or master art restorer, assisting them on real projects and learning how to work with different materials and techniques. 

In many cases, apprenticeships can last several years before the student is seen as qualified and ready to take on their own work away from the master restorer. Some students may continue to work with the master restorer in an employed role, while others will look for a position elsewhere.

How Much Does an Art Restorer Make?

While most art restorers work in full-time positions within a museum, archive, or private company, many also work as freelancers.

The average fine art restorer salary is around $51,784, according to Glassdoor. You’ll usually find that metropolitan areas will pay higher wages, as this is typically where you’ll find major museums.

Of course, how much you can command will be based on your skill level and specialty. As a freelancer, you can charge anywhere from around $15 an hour as a junior restorer all the way up to hundreds per hour as an expert who specializes in a particular style or technique. 

Finding Art Restorer Jobs

A museum or gallery might be the first (or perhaps even only) place that comes to mind when thinking about where you could work as an art restorer. However, there are several other places that frequently hire people to restore artwork. 

Museum and Archive Work

Before art is displayed in a museum, it’s often assessed and cleaned up by the conservation and restoration team.

Working as an art restorer in a museum or storage facility like an archive is one of the most common career choices for people in this industry.

In a museum or archive environment, you’ll often be working with some of the world’s most famous artworks that are worth millions of dollars. This is a great career choice if you like to work in a team—you’ll likely be one of several art restoration specialists and work closely with conservationists and curators to preserve all kinds of artwork.

Antiques Stores

Art that comes through antique stores can vary greatly but often needs just as much care and attention to detail when it comes to the restoration.

If you love the idea of working with historic paintings or objects but prefer a slower pace and more independent work, a position in an antiques store could be the one for you. You may not be handling works by Monet or sculptures that date back to the Roman era, but you’ll certainly have your share of incredible pieces to restore.

Antiques stores will typically only have one or two restoration experts on staff, which makes this a good choice if you have skills in several different materials. You can also offer your services and expertise as a freelancer on a project-by-project basis with antiques stores in your area if you’d like some extra variety in your work and a more flexible schedule.

Private Art Restoration Companies

Private art collections are just as important to restore as those that end up in museums or archives.

Museums and archives often have their own teams internally that work on restorations, but where does that leave private art collectors? That’s where art restoration companies come in. 

Just like with any other industry, you’ll find businesses that specialize in restoring art that’s owned by individuals rather than organizations like museums or historical sites. The work you do will be much the same, but instead of preparing art to be displayed for the wider public, you’ll be restoring it to live in someone’s home or be sold at auction to a new collector.

Many famous paintings actually belong to private collectors, so there’s a good chance that you could work on something well-known. But the next day, you could be fixing something more modern like a painting or sculpture that was lovingly crafted by someone in your client’s family. Regardless of what it is that you’re restoring, you’ll be handling pieces that are priceless and meaningful to their owners, which always makes for a satisfying day at work.

Preserve the Past for Future Generations

Keeping our cultural gems in tip-top condition is one of the best ways to contribute to conserving our heritage for future art-lovers to enjoy. 

If you have a passion for art and history, working as an art restorer can be a career that’s equal parts interesting and rewarding. 

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Written by:

Holly Landis