Ever wondered how paintings and sculptures from hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago still look so pristine, like they were only created a few weeks ago? Well, we have art conservators to thank for that.
If you have a passion for art and history, working as an art conservator could be a rewarding career option. We’re here to give you the rundown on what the job actually involves, the type of background you need to work in the industry, and how to become an art conservator for museums and private collections around the world.
What Is an Art Conservator?
Conservation work is all about preserving pieces of our collective history and culture so that future generations can enjoy them as much as we do. When we’re thinking about what art conservation is, the primary function is to stop artwork from degrading as a result of aging, damage, or environmental changes and to keep it as close to its current state for as long as possible.
Art conservators are crucial members of a gallery or museum’s behind-the-scenes team, responsible for the maintenance, storage, handling, and display of the collection of work to ensure that no further damage impacts the pieces.
Working as an art conservator shouldn’t be confused with the role of an art restorer. While the professions are similar, restoration is considered to be a sub-field of conservation. A restorer focuses their attention on correcting flaws or bringing a piece of art back to its original form after it’s been damaged. The goal is to ensure that no one would ever know that it wasn’t in its perfect, original condition.
Conservation, on the other hand, is about preserving the existing state, protecting against damage, and delaying any inevitable aging that might happen.
What Does an Art Conservator Do?
So what do art conservators do in their day-to-day work? Most art conservator jobs are in museums, which means working with hundreds of different pieces of historically significant art, whether that’s photographs, paintings, sculptures, or ceramics. From monitoring the works that are currently on display to the public to addressing those that are being housed in storage, art conservation is an ongoing process that requires plenty of attention to detail.
Many conservationists have a particular focus in their work. Some choose to specialize in paper conservation (which can include both paintings and other types of paper sources like books, letters, or maps), while others may work with a handful of stoneware pieces like marble sculptures, pottery, or woods and metals.
While there are plenty of different tasks that conservation specialists do, most art conservator job descriptions will outline similar requirements like:
- Gathering information about how a piece of art was made, determining what could be causing any environmental damage to the work, and coming up with a plan to prevent further degradation.
- Undertaking specialized conservation techniques and practices to keep artwork in its current condition.
- Working with the rest of the restoration and conservation team to determine the appropriate conditions for storage, handling, or display—this could include things like making sure harsh lights aren’t being placed directly over a painting on display or keeping a piece of wooden art in a temperature-controlled case.
- Monitoring pest management systems to ensure that works of art aren’t exposed to damaging insects that could ruin a piece beyond repair.
- Planning and coordinating with senior team members on emergency preparedness plans and providing solutions for removing and transporting artwork in an emergency situation, without causing any unnecessary or lasting damage.
Some art conservators may also supervise other members of the conservation team, including restoration experts and trainee conservationists.
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How to Become an Art Conservator
Degree and Education Requirements
As art conservation is such a unique field, it’s almost impossible to find a job without an advanced art conservation degree.
At the undergraduate level, most art conservators complete either an art degree or go straight into the technical side of things with a chemistry degree. Combining these fields into a double major can be even more beneficial and help you to get accepted into prestigious master’s level art conservation degree programs.
Having a comprehensive understanding of physical sciences, particularly in how different materials function and operate in various environments, is a crucial part of the job.
While an interest in art is obviously helpful, knowing the science behind why materials are behaving in certain ways will be invaluable throughout your career as a conservator. Almost all advanced degrees in this field require you to have taken at least several classes in chemistry, organic chemistry, and trigonometry in order to be eligible for their master’s level classes.
Since the educational process can be quite lengthy, finding experience where you can work alongside your studies will always be helpful. Try to find volunteering or part-time work in a museum or archive. These contacts can be incredibly useful when you’re looking for full-time employment and will help you to decide which kind of work environment might be best suited to your skills.
Whether you have a background in both art and science, or choose to pursue a chemistry degree alone, you will also need a significant amount of practical experience to become an art conservator. Even if you’ve managed to work part-time in a museum during your studies, that’s not enough to get you more than a foot in the door.
As part of most art conservation degrees, you’ll work as an apprentice for an existing conservator for anywhere between 400 and 4,000 hours over the course of your program. This will give you the hands-on experience that you need in order to qualify as an art conservator.
This level of advanced training is the perfect way to test out everything you’ve been learning in the classroom, all while under the careful supervision and guidance of someone who’s been there before. You will work with them on real projects and pick up the techniques needed to have a long and successful career.
Average Art Conservator Salary
You’re probably wondering, “With such a specialized set of skills, how much does an art conservator make?”
The vast majority of conservators are employed by galleries and museums in full-time positions, so their average salary reflects the stability of their role and the specialized training that they’ve had to work in these positions.
The average salary for a conservator is around $53,208 according to Glassdoor, but can be up to $86,000 for more senior levels and at museums or galleries in major cities.
Art Conservation Jobs
Art Galleries, Museums, and Archives
The most common employment route for art conservators is in museums, art galleries, or archives. But don’t just think about places like the National Gallery, the Met, or a Smithsonian museum. Even smaller, local museums often own significant amounts of artwork that needs caring for.
Depending on the size of the museum or gallery that you work for, you may be one of a number of conservators and curators who look after both the permanent and temporary collections. In larger museums, there are usually several conservationists who all specialize in different materials.
You’ll work both individually and collaboratively, especially if an artwork is made from several types of materials—for example, a painting might be done on paper but displayed on a wooden canvas or within an ornate wooden frame that needs just as much attention as the painting itself.
If you dream of working with some of the world’s most famous paintings and sculptures, this type of work is your best opportunity to do so. But that also makes these positions very competitive. Attending a top degree program with a track record of helping graduates secure work at larger galleries and museums is key.
Museums and galleries aren’t the only places that are home to priceless and, often, very old artwork. Private art collectors often hire conservation specialists to assist them in caring for pieces of art in their own homes or offices.
This is quite common in historic buildings, even those that aren’t open to the public, and the conservator will work with the other members of the maintenance team to ensure that any artwork is being taken care of correctly.
Some private collectors may also hire art conservators on a temporary basis to help with the transportation and storage of artwork during house moves or relocations or if a new piece is being added to their collection.
Particularly if the collector is purchasing a very expensive or old piece of art, having experts on hand to ensure that it arrives safely and is preserved in the right condition is worth every penny.
Keep Our Cultural Heritage Preserved
We learn so much from those who have come before us. Working to ensure that future generations can enjoy art from centuries ago and conserve the hard work of the world’s best artists is an incredibly satisfying job.
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