Newsletter Issue Number:
AICCM National Newsletter No 150 June 2020
Cobus van Breda

The world has certainly changed since our last edition of AICCM E-News. I hope that this E-News finds you well and adapting to the challenging circumstances we all find ourselves in. Thank you to those who have contributed to this edition.

Our profession is relatively new in Australia and, although robust, adaptable and resilient, a pandemic can certainly stress test it.

I have found myself in a reflective mood lately (something of an understatement) and taking refuge in reading. I especially enjoyed Volume 40.2 of the AICCM Bulletin (available to members online, hard copy arriving soon) and Tom Dixon’s review of Sabine Cotte’s book on Mirka Mora in particular caught my eye. A great achievement by Sabine and Tom’s review rightly brings it to the attention of our membership, highlighting just how significant a conservator’s contribution can be to understanding an artist’s oeuvre. I also reread Tom’s obituary for James Mollison, former Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, in our last AICCM E-News.

I first met Tom in 1988 when during a visit to Melbourne, prior to applying for the Conservation of Cultural Materials degree course at the University of Canberra, I arranged to visit the Conservation Department of the NGV. To my surprise, Tom generously spent an hour with me showing me his bustling and impressive department. After graduating, I was one of the fortunate recipients of an Art Foundation of Victoria Development Conservator position. As Tom mentioned in his obituary for James Mollison, this was an astounding initiative, channelling sufficient funds from the Art Foundation’s acquisitions budget to appoint four recently graduated conservators for a tenure of three years each. It is hard to imagine an institution today using acquisitions money for this purpose. Tom modestly neglected to mention his own pivotal role in that initiative. The Development positions afforded an invaluable opportunity to be mentored by gifted conservators and curators, and to work on one of the finest collections in the world.

Tom retired from the NGV in 2005. Given the challenging circumstances of the last couple of months and now that he has had some time to reflect on his career in conservation and the profession’s development, I asked him to contribute something to this E-News about what brought him to conservation, some of the challenges he faced, and what advice he would give a young conservator. He has generously obliged with the following. Thank you, Tom.

At university in the USA in the 1960s I did a double degree in art and art history. My university offered comprehensive art training and we did everything from pottery to painting in oil, hand lettering to intaglio printmaking. I eventually took the advanced class, Materials and Techniques of Painting, where we worked in egg tempera, encaustic and oil paintings with paints we made. Then I did a unit entitled Introduction to Art Conservation. I loved both and wound up as a teaching assistant in the Methods and Materials classes. I had found what I wanted to do in life.

There were few conservators at public institutions at that time and many worked gratis at their museum two or three days a week on the collection; then, using the contacts and prestige of the institution, they did private work to support themselves.

Conservators were mostly people with a trust fund or well-paid partner. A small training course at New York University took three or four of their own graduate students per year. The alternative path to become an art conservator was to complete a Master’s degree in art history and then, literally, throw yourself at the feet of a practising conservator and serve a two- or three-year unpaid internship with them. I embarked on that path, wondering how I would support myself during the internship, let alone after that. I was told by Marilyn Kemp Widener, later my paper conservation teacher, that it was then impossible for a paper conservator to make a living so most conservators worked on whatever came their way. Durer prints, now worth tens of thousands of dollars, sold for $600. It wasn’t economically viable to restore one.

Caroline and Sheldon Keck, respectively former MOMA and Brooklyn Museum conservators, were opening a course in Cooperstown New York and taking 10 students. I contacted them and drove through bitter cold and snow for 16 hours in December to meet them and show them my work. They accepted me in February for the opening of the course in September. I later learned there were 275 applicants.

In April, Sheldon broke his leg. I was asked to come and help them, urgently, to set up equipment, order supplies and ready things for the course. I abandoned my MA and went to Cooperstown in May of 1970, spending the next three months setting up.

The course was of two years’ duration with work experience during the summers for a Master’s degree followed by a 12-month internship for a Certificate of Advanced Study. It was a very intense course and Cooperstown, a tiny and picturesque village in upstate New York, was snowed in for most of the winter. There were actually 11 students in the first year and we were joined by 10 first-year students when we progressed to the second year. During the summers we undertook work experience. I and two others went to work for the New York State Parks Department setting up a conservation lab and doing field examinations of paintings and works on paper in a number of their historic houses.

My dream was to become a virtuoso paintings conservator and work at a large public museum. I particularly favoured the great Brooklyn Museum, where Sheldon Keck had been. I received a fellowship from the Andrew Mellon Foundation and worked for a year there in what were very difficult circumstances as the city of Brooklyn was on the edge of bankruptcy. The BM has an outstanding collection and I learned a great deal about record keeping from Sheldon’s old reports. I also visited institutions in New York City, most notably MOMA, where I saw what they were doing.

At the end of my internship I was newly married and my wife had finished the course at Cooperstown and had an internship at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It was arranged for me to work there treating paintings from outside on a 60:40 per cent split. I worked under Keck protégé Tony Rockwell, a wonderful teacher and great guide. I was treating incredible paintings – a Blue Period Picasso and important surrealist works as well as several Western-themed paintings for a local auction house. It was an amazing year.

My wife and I were offered jobs at University of California at Davis, about two hours from San Francisco. The lab there did contract work for the State Parks Department, which had 17 historic properties including Hearst Castle. We worked on site for two weeks at a time at Hearst Castle, which has a large collection of important polychrome sculptures as well as panel paintings. We did surveys of the collections and then took a few at a time back to UC Davis to treat. We worked with two part-time technicians who were both artists and another conservator, Denise Domergue, and did a massive quantity of work.

After two years, Ronald Reagan became Governor of California and one of his first acts was to launch a review of the university system, which had over 30 campuses and a budget growing 15 per cent a year. Our program was axed.

After working on a remote archaeological dig with sponsorship from the Smithsonian Institution, I was given a 12-month contract to move the Colorado State Historical Society collections to their new building in Denver. When that contract ended I was hired as Associate Director to establish the Rocky Mountain Regional Conservation Center, also in Denver. I set up the lab, got supplies, and drove and flew throughout Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Idaho visiting potential member museums and doing surveys. The director was a classmate from Cooperstown and I was to set up the program while she was doing other things for a year; then she took over and I began doing private work, which I never wanted to do.

In 1979, I was recruited to come to Australia to teach paintings conservation at the newly established national cultural materials conservation course at the then Canberra College of Advanced Education – now University of Canberra. The late Dr Colin Pearson was the head of the department and fellow American Robert Morrison taught paper conservation. I arrived in the second year of the program along with another American, Janet Stone, who taught objects conservation. The teaching load was heavy – at one point I had 30 contact hours a week and was expected to spend another 60 hours in preparation, writing lectures, grading papers and so forth.

One early problem we faced was an opinion held by some very influential arts people in Australia that only conservators trained in Europe could develop the competency to be trusted with treating important works of art. I was supervising the treatment of the very large Tom Roberts painting The Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia and then student Alan Byrne was undertaking the treatment as a class project. My bona fides were questioned, as was the wisdom of letting a student carry out work on such an important painting. The whole CCAE Conservation training program was brought into question at the highest level of the arts and museums community and mud was being slung.

Ironically, I was then approached by Sonia Dean, Deputy Director of the National Gallery of Victoria. The NGV had hired two Europeans, a paper conservator and a paintings conservator, who for various reasons hadn’t stayed. Our idea was to train conservators in Canberra and a few would go to work at the NGV. The question was how to develop their skills.

After five years’ teaching in Canberra, I was offered the job of Senior Conservator at the NGV with a staff of four, two of whom, Eric Archer and John Payne, were former CCAE students. The gallery was in greatest need of preventive conservation, a term I began using in 1984, long before it became a popular concept. Concentrating on this, finer skills had time to be nurtured and were.

Had I stayed in Denver, I would probably have become the conservator at the Denver Art Museum. Several years later, I visited my old friend and colleague Carl Patterson who had that job. He worked in a windowless basement of about four by four metres, had a part-time paper conservator and no budget for equipment or supplies. I had a staff of 26, a million-dollar budget and we were doing world-class work on a fantastic collection with equipment as good as anybody’s and I worked with a terrific team of people.

Possibly my proudest moment was when John Payne and Carl Villis finished the year-long treatment of Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra – one of the great art treasures of the world. Both John and Carl are products of the CCAE training program, of internships at the NGV, and of working in the atmosphere and environment we created at the conservation department there. There was not a curator at the NGV or anywhere else I am aware of who had the slightest doubt about the wisdom of that treatment being undertaken by those two at the NGV. What a turnaround from the Tom Roberts affair!

I would have liked my career to have been a lot more certain, a lot smoother. In the end, I was a person of my time and did what was needed when it could and should be done and was prepared to do what it took. And, in the end, I’m very happy with what the profession has achieved in Australia in my time here and am eternally grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to contribute to that. I’d like to think that the new people in the profession will have opportunities to achieve their dreams and contribute to their world as my generation did.

Tom Dixon
May 2020