On July 30, YI Summer participants met with Heather Cox and Matt Skopek from the Whitney’s Conservation Department. It’s probably one of the most behind-the-scenes jobs that happens in a museum. How many times do you stop at a work of art and think to yourself, wow, that is some great minor retouching and cleaning the conservator did? For us, the general understanding of a conservator’s job was that they ensure the art doesn’t deteriorate, but there’s a bit more that makes their job truly interesting.
Heather Cox, the Whitney’s Conservation Coordinator, explained that paintings, sculptures, and even photographs change over time, and it’s the conservator’s job to restore art to how the artist originally wanted it to look. This includes touching up painted brushstrokes, putting sculptures back together or filling in the missing pieces, and reprinting photographs. She showed us historical instances where the conservator wasn’t always as respectful of the artist. For example, x-rays revealed that a Dutch work of art had been painted over to be more appealing.
Cox also took us to the Whitney’s conservation lab to meet Assistant Conservator, Matt Skopek. You can see the lab from a tiny window, but it’s otherwise completely hidden. We were all surprised when she showed us where it was. The lab itself is really small. Skopek was working on a large painting by Franz Kline, making the room feel even tinier. He talked to us about the materials he uses, such as his own saliva, retouching and fixing past conservation mistakes, and black-light, which he used on Kline’s painting to show us the difference in the brushstrokes by the artist, by other conservators, and by him. The YI teens and I were definitely much more interested in conservation after spending the day with the Whitney’s conservation department.
By Kristen, Youth Insights Summer participant