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Subject: Private practice in institutional lab

Private practice in institutional lab

From: Tom Dixon <tom.dixon>
Date: Thursday, January 11, 2001
Anne Lane <alane [at] rhtc__net> writes

>One of the thoughts being bandied about our institution right now is
>the concept of establishing a dual-duty conservation lab as part of
>a proposed new storage facility in a renovated school building. The
>proposal is to hire a staff conservator who, in addition to caring
>for our own stuff, would take on private commissions using the same
>facility.

This is not a new or unique idea.  Many art museum labs in the U.S.
and Australia, and I'm sure elsewhere, have their beginnings in this
type of scheme.  I worked at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
in the early 1970s where this occurred, and I understand that the
Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City and I believe the labs at St Louis and
the Kimball began like this.  Likewise, the lab I now head in
Melbourne ran on this basis in the 1960s.  So, in a sense, the
scheme has a glorious past.

In the decade and a half I have been in charge of the NGV lab, it
has been suggested several times (usually after a change of
government) we should return to this model in order to increase
staff or pay for new equipment. Where I might support this approach
for a fixed period of time to get a new lab on its feet, I have
fought to the death to stop its introduction once a lab is
established.  One reason is that an institutional lab that gets any
tax funds should not be doing private work because they are at an
enormous advantage over fully private conservators--and your
institution needs a healthy private conservation community for a
whole raft of reasons, not the least of which is that objects you
will be given in the future will have benefited from good private
conservators.  If you compete with the private conservators, you
risk putting them out of business, not because they are inefficient,
but because they have to pay rent.

Another observation I have made over many years working in that
environment is that it tends to create a two tiered system where the
work atmosphere becomes difficult because of the ambivalence over
the care of the collection vs. making the money from the private
work.  Institutional conservation labs should be about risk
management and collection care, not just fixing stuff, and
concurrent private work, in my experience, tends to attract
attention away from your collection and its care. Finally, having
worked in both fields at different times and in both at once, the
nature of private conservation work in terms of legal liability,
types of records and documentation and so forth are considerably
different than institutional conservation. This makes it difficult
to be good at both at once.

I suggest you take a careful look at your long term needs.  If your
institution is big enough to need a lab and staff conservator, then
its time to get the process in train to sustainably fund that.  An
interim step might be to take the opportunity to build the lab now
and rent it out to a private conservator- that cleans up the
subsidization mess.

Then when you reach the point of needing the lab for your own
conservator, you have it established.  If you only occasionally need
good advice and treatment services, you could be looking to the AIC
referral network to begin building the relationships necessary to
sustain this.  I'd be wary of trying to establish a lab and an in
house conservator paid for from private work--I believe it raises
serious ethical questions, and may be unwise and unsustainable.

Tom Dixon
Chief Conservator National Gallery of Victoria
Melbourne Australia


                                  ***
                  Conservation DistList Instance 14:38
                Distributed: Saturday, January 13, 2001
                       Message Id: cdl-14-38-008
                                  ***
Received on Thursday, 11 January, 2001

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