YI Summer: Whitney Conservation Staff
Jul 7, 2014

two students observe painting of water

YI teens Ashely and Veronica examine a work in the Whitney’s Conservation Lab, July 2014. Photograph by Zoe Schwartz

On July 7, YI met with Heather Cox from the Whitney’s Conservation department to discuss what art conservation is and the role of conservators, who are usually art historians with a strong science background. Whenever an artwork from the Whitney’s collection is going to be exhibited at the Museum, the conservator’s job is to examine and restore the piece, if necessary. They restore the work to a better condition while maintaining its appearance and integrity.

Teacher presenting to students about art

Heather Cox discusses what conservation is, July 2014. Photograph by Zoe Schwartz

To help the group gain an even better understanding of the conservation process, YI teens also met with conservator Matt Skopek, who showed everyone around the Whitney’s conservation lab. Matt explained the methods he uses to restore artwork and who he talks to before proceeding with conservation. 

conservationist in front of painting

Matt Skopek explains his work in the conservation lab, July 2014. Photograph by Zoe Schwartz

Conservators often talk with curators to get a general idea of how to handle the artworks. If the artist is alive, conservators also try to ask them for help on what they should and shouldn’t do to their work.

paint bottles lined against the wall

Some tools of the conservator’s trade, July 2014. Photograph by Zoe Schwartz

During restoration, conservators use lighting and X-rays to see what is below the surface of a painting and observe the original paint layer to find out what needs to be fixed. A big rule in conservation is: if you make changes to an artwork, it must be reversible. Conservators usually take a lot of pictures and notes during every step of the process to make sure that rule is enforced. The conservation of art is a very rigorous job. 

By Mieyoshi, Youth Insights Summer Participant