Conservation Studio and History
From the very start, the founders of the Kimbell Art Museum envisioned a conservation program to “preserve for future generations what has been entrusted to its care.” The pre-architectural program, dated 1966, called for a conservation studio with an “open studio work area” with the caveat: “must face north, with entire wall glazed; it is impossible to get enough light in this room!” The paintings conservation studio that grew out of this imperative became one of the first purpose-built museum conservation studios in the United States. It is the only space in the Kimbell, along with the lower level of the auditorium, that Louis I. Kahn designed with a double-height vault. With its expansive glass wall facing north, the studio is bathed in natural light. It has become one of the most sought-after destinations of architectural tours of the building by the international community of architects and students of Kahn’s work who come to Fort Worth to see the museum. The beauty of the space is matched by the suitability of its design as an ideal environment to examine, clean, and restore works of art. It has served as a model for many museum conservation laboratories that have followed.
Astutely planned to be adjacent to photography, storage, and the files in the registrar’s office, the conservation studio is within easy access to the curators’ and director’s offices, as well. This was due to the vision of the first director Rick Brown, who considered that conservation needed to be embedded within the total museum program as it was at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, where he had trained. In the planning of the design of the museum, Brown wanted the conservation studio to be near his office so that he could conveniently wander in whenever he saw fit. He specified that it needed to be close to the curatorial offices to encourage an active interplay between curators and conservators. With its open space and the diffuse northern light traditionally preferred by artists and restorers alike for its constancy, the studio is a natural gathering point for discussions involving works of art, where they can be viewed under optimal conditions.
When it opened in 1972, the Kimbell became the first museum in the southwestern United States to establish an active paintings conservation program. Following the arrival of Edmund (Ted) Pillsbury, the museum’s second director, in December 1980, conservation began to play a pivotal role in the Kimbell’s acquisition program, as the rate of acquisition of European paintings quickly accelerated under his leadership. As he had done as director of the Yale Center for British Art, Pillsbury frequently sought the advice of John Brealey, the renowned English paintings restorer who directed the paintings conservation department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he served from 1975 to 1989. At the Met, Brealey trained a number of European and American conservators with the goal of raising standards throughout the profession. His teaching followed a humanistic approach, grounded in the philosophy that effective conservation training required both exposure to great works of art and a collaborative approach that united the talents of conservators, art historians, and conservation scientists.
In 1984, Claire Barry, a Brealey protégé for several years, was appointed as the Kimbell’s first full-time paintings conservator, and the Kimbell studio was furnished with state-of-the-art equipment that rivaled that of the Met’s esteemed conservation studio. Respect for preserving an artist’s original intent, including preferences regarding varnishing and framing, remains the overriding principal guiding conservation practices. Research into an artist’s use of materials and techniques informs conservation treatments, with the aim of keeping intervention to a minimum.
In 1992, Barry was named chief conservator, and the paintings conservation department expanded from one to two full-time conservators as it initiated a collaboration with the neighboring Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth to assume care for its collection of American masterwork paintings. In addition to examining and treating paintings, the conservators also published research on artists’ materials and techniques in exhibition catalogues that accompanied a series of scholarly exhibitions organized by the Kimbell and Amon Carter museums as well as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Meadows Museum.
The appointment of Timothy Potts as the Kimbell’s third director in 1998 initiated a new period of conservation activity as he strengthened the Kimbell’s sculpture collection with a wide range of examples dating from antiquity, with the Greek Red-Figure Cup by Douris, c. 480 BC, and the Gianlorenzo Bernini terracotta Modello for The Moor, c. 1653. Increasingly, the paintings conservation department became involved in the care of three-dimensional acquisitions, usually not through hands-on treatment but rather through examination and research and by serving as a conduit to specialists in the field of objects conservation when treatment was required.
Since Eric M. Lee became director of the Kimbell in 2009, the Kimbell has focused its acquisitions program, with a few notable exceptions, on paintings, such as Michelangelo’s Torment of Saint Anthony, 1487; Poussin’s Sacrament of Ordination, c. 1636–40; and Bonnard’s Landscape at Le Cannet, 1928. During this time, the close examination and cleaning of paintings in the conservation department has often afforded the added benefit of revealing crucial evidence for resolving issues of iconography, dating, or even the authenticity of works. The conservation department has also expanded its engagement with public outreach, with frequent lectures to university students, docents, and the general public.
With the addition of a new building by Renzo Piano in 2013, the conservation department contributes to ongoing discussions about conservation needs for the new facility dedicated primarily to the Kimbell’s active exhibition program. Encompassing works from several cultures and media spanning the periods of antiquity through the mid-twentieth century, the exhibition program requires the participation of the conservation department to monitor the special needs of the wide range of loans. The conservators focus on issues of preservation and the environment, as well as the safe handling and transport of works of art. Maintaining a controlled environment to enable the Kimbell to preserve the works of art entrusted to its care while allowing for optimal viewing under natural light are primary concerns, just as they were from the start when the plans for the museum’s paintings conservation department were first conceived.