Newsletter Issue Number:
AICCM National Newsletter No 156 December 2021
Paula Dredge

Malgorzata, Basia and Sandra in the Frame conservation lab at the Art Gallery NSW, 2012.

After 35 years at the Art Gallery of NSW, Dr Malgorzata Sawicki has retired as Head of Frame Conservation. Malgorzata has had an exceptional career in which she has contributed enormous skills, experience and direction to the Art Gallery of NSW and to the national and international field of conservation.

In 1986, Malgorzata established the first frame conservation studio in Australia at the Art Gallery of NSW. Working for 35 years along with David Butler and later Tom Langlands in reproduction frame making, and Basia Dabrowa, who also joined her team, they have made an enormous impact on the look and presentation of the artworks on the walls of the Gallery. This can be seen not only in the fine and lavish Australian and European gilded frames of the Grand Courts, which had for decades been treated with bronze paint sprayed over original gold leaf finishes, but also in subtle and significant care of modern 20th century frames. Their work has transformed the presentation of art works at the Gallery.

Malgorzata trained in gilded and polychrome objects conservation at the State Enterprise for Heritage Preservation (PKZ) in Warsaw, and studied Preservation of Architectural Heritage at the Nicolaus Copernicus University, Torun, Poland, before migrating to Australia in the 1980s.

She first entered the Art Gallery of NSW as a workshop trainee where she demonstrated her exceptional skill as a frame conservator on a damaged and overpainted frame. Her work so impressed the then director Edmund Capon, that he immediately employed her to work on the collection.

Most critically, Malgorzata successfully challenged and shifted the attitude that had existed within Australian galleries and museums for decades, that picture frames were incidental to the painting and could be changed arbitrarily according to the taste of the time. On many occasions I witnessed Malgorzata standing firm for the case of conserving and retaining an original frame over the cheaper and quicker option of replacement.

Malgorzata always demonstrated a strong case for historical and artist-centric thinking and care and backed her advocacy with research and technical finesse. She was willing to compromise, recognising the exhibition imperative, while retaining a longer-term goal. The reinstatement of the first frame for Arthur Streeton’s Fire’s on 1894, was one such long-held ambition, finally realised, and now a celebrated success.

Always in pursuit of further knowledge, in mid-career Malgorzata took on a PhD study that established a treatment protocol for reversible in-gilding. This technique has been recognised internationally as a breakthrough for the field as it allowed, for the first time, the separation between original and new gilding. Thus, gilding conservation was brought into the ethical framework of the other conservation specialties.

Malgorzata Sawicki, 2008.

Malgorzata also pioneered the research and the use of lasers for cleaning gilded surfaces. She undertook surveys of the historical frame collection at the Art Gallery of NSW and published articles on previously little-known Australian frame makers. She undertook research on the historical use of metallic paints, soaps forming in metallic paint layers and, more recently, she has been developing the use of gelled materials over free solvents for removal of overpainted gilded frames.

Perhaps Malgorzata’s most significant contribution to the field is, however, her commitment to training and providing experience to conservators, offering many their first working opportunities after qualifying including (with apologies to those inevitably missed): Eric Bray, Lisette Burgess, Victoria Bramwell-Davis, MaryJo Lelyveld, Sandra Hodgen, Stephanie Limoges, Bronwyn Dunn, Lucy Tedder, Emma Rouse, Sophia Lo Bianco, Grace Barrand and Genevieve Tobin. Malgorzata also offered internships to over 13 international conservators (too many to name) from the UK, Finland, Germany, Switzerland and the USA. More recently, Malgorzata has written a paper in the AICCM Bulletin on training conservators, contributing to the important debate on pedagogy in conservation.

Malgorzata’s commitment to the development of the Australian conservation profession saw her take on the role as secretary of the AICCM NSW Division from 1993 to 1996. In 1996 she founded the AICCM Gilded Objects Conservation Special Interest Group and was its convenor until 2000. In 1999 Malgorzata was honoured by AICCM with the Conservator of the Year award. In 2009 Malgorzata received the AICCM Certificate of Appreciation for Outstanding Research in the Field of Materials Conservation for her PhD research and development work and in 2018 she was awarded the AICCM Medal in recognition of her lifelong contribution to the profession.

Malgorzata was always a strong believer in cross-disciplinary practice. She followed this approach while cooperating with International Committee of Conservation of the International Council of Museums (ICOM-CC) Working Groups coordinators and organising joint interim conferences representing the Wood, Furniture, and Lacquer Working Group. She was Assistant Coordinator of the Working Group from 2005 to 2008, where she was involved in organising the conference ‘Upholstery +’ in Krakow in 2007. She then became Coordinator from 2008 to 2014, where she oversaw important conferences: ‘Multidisciplinary Conservation: a Holistic View for Historic Interiors’ in Rome in 2010, ‘The Artifact, its Context and their Narrative: Multidisciplinary Conservation in Historic House Museums’ in Los Angeles in 2012 and ‘Heritage Wood: Research and Conservation in the 21st Century’ in Warsaw in 2013.  Malgorzata was actively involved in publishing the proceedings from these conferences and encouraging international research collaborations and contributions between members. Malgorzata is an AICCM Professional Member, Fellow of the International Institute for Conservation and a member of ICOM.

In 2018, recognising Malgorzata’s significant experience in the area, she was invited to the international experts meeting on the cleaning of wooden gilded surfaces hosted by the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles for roundtable discussions. From this meeting the Getty formed a new project area for research to address the challenges of cleaning sensitive gilded surfaces and provide training and tested techniques to address technical difficulties.

Malgorzata’s exuberance and joyful engagement will no doubt continue in her retirement as she maintains her involvement with professional conferences, meetings and publications. We are all hopeful that we will see a book emerge from her ‘retirement’ to share her exceptional knowledge and skill with us all.