But if these paintings, sculptures or photographs could talk, they would tell a very different story.
What exactly happens to a work of art when it is not on display is generally unknown to the public. But the folks at the Dayton Art Institute came up with a great idea: Why not show visitors exactly what goes into preserving art so it can be enjoyed for generations to come?
Art for the Ages: Conservation at the DAI will be on display until September 11 and offers a whole new way of looking at art. If you’re looking for an unusual outing for family or friends this summer, this unique exhibit is a great way to have fun and learn.
“It’s really no different than taking care of our bodies,” says Peter Dobler, the museum’s Kettering Curator of Asian Art, who serves as lead curator for the exhibit. He says that over the years, art is susceptible to aging, wear and tear, and accidents, just like us.
The various fixes are described and illustrated in the galleries. You will see a wide variety of works of art from the museum’s permanent collection – 50 pieces in total, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, ceramics, furniture, even mask and lace. They come from a wide variety of cultures and time periods.
Many of the items have not been seen for years due to their fragile condition.
But thanks to generous donors and grants, a number of different conservation projects have been completed in recent years, including a large Korean screen that was sent to South Korea for conservation. Other examples? The Joy of Water, one of DAI’s most famous sculptures, and a Japanese scroll that was rolled up and had folds.
These “fixes” became the inspiration for this special exhibition.
Each of the objects in this show is analyzed – not by the art movement it represents – but by the materials that were used to create it and the ways in which it can best be preserved. You’ll see this demonstrated through videos, photos and gallery demos. The museum also plans a number of special programs.
Dobler says it’s important to distinguish between “restoration” and “conservation.” When a piece of art is “restored,” the idea is to make it look like new again. In contrast, “conservation” art is designed to alter it as little as possible to stabilize damage and deterioration and at the same time make it visually presentable. The process used for preservation must be reversible in the future, which is why materials other than the original are usually used. The emphasis in the art world these days, says Dobler, is definitely more on conservation than restoration.
As you can imagine, the repair of each type of artwork requires different training and specialization. Although larger museums—such as those in Cincinnati and Cleveland—often have conservators or conservation labs on the premises, DAI consults and hires experts from around the world to work on its treasures. A conservator may focus on paintings, for example, or on textiles, stone, ceramics or wood. Each specialty requires training and knowledge of traditional as well as newer technologies—microscopes, ultraviolet and X-ray fluorescence, even computed tomography. The object may require treatment with anything from adhesives to fillers and varnishes. Along the way, the entire process is documented and photographed for future reference.
How is art damaged?
You can probably guess some of the ways a piece of art can be damaged, even inadvertently. Perhaps a visitor comes too close; perhaps light or temperature affects it; insects can also be responsible or it can be damaged when moved. It could be moldy or it could have originally been mounted on something that wasn’t so good for it.
I can relate. After many years of putting our family photos in boxes, I was determined to organize them and put them into scrapbooks. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that the sticky scrapbook pages ruined the photos and that they would be much better off in their shoe boxes. The same things can happen with works of art.
That is why we are asked not to eat or drink in the galleries. Wherever I start to take notes with a pen in a museum, a guard or curator immediately reminds me that only pencils can be used.
Step by Step
It’s worth taking the time to read the wall text that walks you through the conservation process of each item on display. A good example is “Dayton From Steel’s Hill. ” This is one of Dayton’s earliest known paintings and was painted in 1844. You will learn about the damage the poor painting has suffered over the years and the magic required to bring it back to life. A termite infestation has damaged 19th century chest donated by Virginia Kettering, much of the wood eaten away; now looking beautiful.
You may recall how astonishing it was when DAI’s painting of an old man’s head, dating from around 1612, was examined under UV light, revealing a second head beneath the paint! The theory is that it was painted much later by someone other than the artist to turn it into a portrait and make it more marketable. DAI decided to return the painting to the artist’s original composition.
Serena Erie, Chief Conservator at the Cincinnati Art Museum, will speak at DAI on July 24. Since taking over in 2012, she has conserved a number of paintings for Dayton, many of which are in the exhibition. “It was a real pleasure to work so closely with some of DAI’s great paintings,” she says. “It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of my job, being able to spend quality time with a painting and helping each work look its best for museum visitors.”
While Uri congratulates the DAI for organizing such an interesting exhibition, she admits that it is a strange experience to see her work on display like this. “Painting conservators usually work so hard,” she says, “to make sure our efforts aren’t so visible!”
HOW TO GO:
What: “Art for the Ages: Conservation at DAI”
Where: The Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park, N. Dayton
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Until September 11, 2022
Admission: $15 for adults; $10 for adults, active duty military and groups of 10 or more; $5 for students and youth, free for children 6 and under and members
Parking: Free of charge
For more information: www. daytonartinstitute.org (937) 223-4278