The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 3
Oct 2001

Conservation of Our Careers

A talk given by Joyce Hill Stoner at AIC Dallas, June 1, 2001

As a member of the "baby boomer group" or demographic "pig in the python" of the population of art conservators, I had been thinking for some time about preparing a talk on conservation 'burnout': why people become unhappy and sometimes actually leave the field. Walter Henry allowed me to post a DistList survey asking "What causes you the most stress in your daily professional life?" etc., twice, once in August and again in the winter. I received more than 80 responses, from 11 countries, covering all specialties and reflecting various training backgrounds, but I hasten to add that this was not a scientific study. I followed up with a number of people who have left the field. This is a talk which I hope will further discussion of all the issues raised.

I expected that the winning stress cause would be deadlines, low pay, or treatments that backfired, but I was very surprised at the actual results. The hands-down winner for causing stress was "the people I work with," and there are a lot of unhappy conservators out there. The immediate unhappy responses came from U.K. conservators, who noted that their supervisors did not understand what they did, that their colleagues were quarrelsome, that there was no outline of career structure for advancement or sabbaticals, and that they felt the pay was not commensurate with their years of training. The lack of a defined career structure for promotion or mobility in assignments, as exists for accountants or workers, was also noted by respondents from France, Australia and US museums.

As additional food for thought I'm showing some slogans from conceptual artist Jenny Holzer.


I also asked in the questionnaire "What was missing from your original training that you've had to teach yourself?" The majority of responses for that question fell into the area of management, including interpersonal communications, and politics. I came up with the working hypothesis that the profession of conservation may attract somewhat introverted people who hope to spend their daily lives alone with objects but then find instead that much of their time must be spent with clients or curators, preparators, riggers, shippers, HVAC specialists, or unhappy co-workers.


One respondent wrote that she had been happy working alone but needed more help; when she got the co-workers she asked for she couldn't play her music anymore and now had to deal with lab politics.

One of the few situations that might provide a majority of time alone with works of art is if you are in a sort of monarchy where one autocratic conservator deals with the clients or curators and you are never even introduced. But I've heard plenty of complaints about that.


I did not ask "Are you happy?" but most respondents made it quite clear that they were or were not. One stopped in the middle and wrote, "This has become too painful to complete...sorry." About one-quarter of the respondents sounded happy.


Most of the happy respondents could probably be categorized as "people persons" and they worked in both museums and private labs; a slight majority came from private labs. Another satisfied group contained those for whom conservation is a second or third career—they have already seen other worlds. There are two admittedly happy conservators I have always admired for their serenity in the face of chaos—who meditate. I'll return to that concept later. One conservator who left the field noted that she was basically a people person and didn't mind interruptions and multi-tasking, but was worn out from dealing with the conservators who were non-people persons.


Since so many respondents mentioned multi-tasking, the slides and script of this talk were designed with that in mind; some people said they chose not to read the slides, others said they enjoyed the "multi-tasking."

There were many mentions of colleagues' lack of courtesy, negativity, and an assumption that normal rules of professional behavior did not apply to conservation.


To the question "What part of your job demands would you most like to assign to someone else?" the most repeated answer was paperwork—including condition reporting, supply ordering, taxes, and slide labeling—followed closely by going to meetings and answering the phone. (One lonely archival conservator said she loved paperwork—truly the exception that proved the rule.)
People Are Nuts if They Think They Control Their Lives

So why are we even in this sometimes unfriendly paper trail field?


Let me mention some of the reasons that came up on the questionnaire responses. The absolute majority of respondents most love doing treatments: sometimes mentioning just starting a treatment first thing in the morning, or completing a treatment and putting it on display or returning it to an owner who feels that a "miracle" has been performed.

Here are some quotes in answer to the question, "What part of your day do you most enjoy?"

"Moments, or hours, of absorption in the painting or research into its history, creation, function, or meaning. Inpainting when it resolves damages. A beautiful surface, an enlightening discussion, a discovery of an effect the artist created and how."
"I love benchwork. For example, it's amazing to find on your desk an artifact which, inside its covering of concretion, no one has seen for thousands of years."
"The unpredictable times that you get absorbed or 'lost' in what you are doing. It seems as if only minutes have passed and in reality a whole day has gone by."
"Setting down paint under the microscope. It is a world all unto its own, just you and the artist and his work. It's magic and time travel all merged into one."
And the inevitable—
"I can't believe I get paid for doing this. However, I still can't believe how little I get paid for doing this."

Let's look into that: how are we doing regarding money? About a quarter of the respondents reported low pay and lack of job security as a major cause of stress. One respondent called conservation a "trust fund career."


Tony Rajer published an international conservation salary survey in the AIC News of January 2000. Based on 1997 dollars, conservators in the U.S. fared well compared to their international colleagues. He noted that conservators in Germany, Holland, and Denmark fare especially well because a cradle-to-grave economic security is offered that other nations cannot afford.
At the ICOM-CC meeting in Lyon in 1999, David Grattan, the head of the Conservation Committee, spoke very frankly about the international state of affairs. He said Canadians and French conservators were experiencing cutbacks and felt they could not support families. One conservator told him "It's not a post; it's an ejector seat!" However, German conservators were reporting increased opportunities.


If we compare conservators to other somewhat analogous professions (using the AAMD Salary Survey of 1999 and the Internet WAGEWEB data of 2000), the mean salary of full conservators of about $55,000 is slightly below full curators in museums, but way above librarians, registrars, visual artists, theatre actors and directors, forest conservation scientists and forest rangers. We are above computer programmers but below Webmasters; we are above associate professors but below full professors in universities. (A 1999 survey [Chronicles of Higher Education, Jan. 26, 2001] of 4,000 students with doctoral degrees indicated most wanted to become full-time tenure-track faculty members, even though in most fields no more than half will ever realize that goal). Conservators are above pharmacists but way below physicians who have "among the highest earnings of any occupation." (Note: two people who filled out the questionnaire left medical research to join conservation.) We are roughly commensurate with veterinarians and marketing directors.


We must all personally equate issues of security and job-related stress vs. satisfaction. Actors and journalists are among the professionals who die young—and they have far less job security than conservators. Tenured professors and Supreme Court justices live long. Where are we with regard to longevity? Caroline Keck at 93 and Mario Modestini at 94 are still going strong. It is possible to grow old in this profession.

I asked the question "Can you see yourself doing what you're doing now until you're 90?" Seventeen respondents said a thumping no; 18 a pretty strong yes including one who said, "if I want to eat." Another 12 said they would if their bodies allowed them to do so. Eighteen said they'd like to stay in the field writing, teaching, or consulting. Pat Reeves told Catherine McLean she wanted to die with a needle in her hand, and Richard Wolbers says that he plans to drop in place.


Caroline Keck is still actively treating paintings, and I will now take this opportunity to introduce Caroline Keck's idea of how to avoid job burnout. I mailed her a copy of the questionnaire. As many of you may know, she has strong opinions about life and is not afraid to express them. She noted "I loathe questionnaires." Here is what she wrote back in reaction to the concept of "burnout":

"I call [it] 'human-o-pause.' That strange depression which creeps over one at periods, usually coming between the ages of 40 and 60. 'Why am I doing this?' 'What have I missed?' 'Is this all there is in my life?' 'Could I, should I try something else?' It's a period in life where help could make a wonderful difference. I urge a fund to be devoted to preservation of the needs in small institutions unable to afford proper care for the rarities which they house. Figure out the AIC persons (none with less than 15-20 years working experience) who could undertake the tasks and figure costs of working materials involved, travel, etc. Have a pool of the experienced AIC members who would be interested in undertaking a pause-that-refreshes. They would receive expenses, period. The Community where the project takes place pays a good 20-30% of costs (never do things of this sort for free... they will not be valued). A colleague within the age limits of 40-60 can find him or herself working for free in a sound cause, a chance to work for and with people you may or may not specially like, but who tend to stimulate thought and actions on your part."


Besides Caroline Keck's idea, what are other approaches we can take to our job? I have spent the last year reading many books on burnout, job satisfaction and approaches to life to see if I could find any useful tips.


In the time I have left, I'll use the questionnaire responses combined with wisdom readily available through and provide some thoughts.

I will take three approaches to conservation of your own career:

  1. Stay where you are and adjust your expectations.
  2. Stay where you are and try to change what you have, or
  3. Go somewhere else!

Choice 1: Stay where you are.

Before I left Richmond, Virginia, where I was teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University about 25 years ago, a friend came to visit, and we decided to go on the tour of the Philip Morris cigarette factory. We rode around in a little cart. We watched a woman in a white coat whose job it was to grab and crush a handful of cigarettes periodically to make sure there were no foreign things in the tobacco. We were told all the benefits the employees received—breaks, music, decorated lunchrooms, and so forth. I thought, "Well, as long as I live I'm going to be glad that my job is not to make cigarettes, no matter how beautiful the lunch room may be." I think no matter how bad it gets watching out for works of art and culture, it's better than that! That's one of my personal bottom lines.

There was just an interview on NPR about a doctor in Cambodia who has given up his practice to devote his life to getting people to stop smoking, as 50% of the men in Cambodia smoke. He said he could never treat enough people to make the same difference. (We'll return to that concept with preventive conservation and with an UK conservator now working for international health issues.)

I found much to like in the book by Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. One of my favorite principles therein is "You cannot choose what happens to you—but you can always choose how you react to it. It's not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us." The book calls this "response-ability." Covey writes:
"Of course, things can hurt us physically or economically and can cause sorrow. But our character, our basic identity, does not have to be hurt at all. In fact, our most difficult experiences become the crucibles that forge our character and develop the internal powers, the freedom to handle difficult circumstances in the future and to inspire others to do so as well."

We have all known inspiring people in difficult situations. The Seven Habits and a number of other books I've now read use the case of Victor Frankl, in a concentration camp. The only freedom his captors could not take away was his identity and how all of this was going to affect him. Using memories and imagination, he became an inspiration to those around him, even to some of the guards.

Going back to the questionnaire and personal choices others have made:

Jane Sugarman, a paper conservator in North Carolina, once my pre-conservation intern, recounted a lesson from a famous Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh: when you are washing the dishes don't think about what you are going to do next—focus on what you are doing now. When you are washing the dishes—just wash the dishes. Or gently and methodically pick off the glue. There can be great comfort and serenity in our tasks.
Ann Shaftel, a practicing Buddhist who has spent the last 30 years fulfilling her life ambition—to treat thangkas - gave a talk at the student conference last month. She defined, with utmost respect, the advantages and disadvantages of interchanges with her four types of clients: museums, corporate collectors, Tibetan monasteries, and private collectors who may roll the thangkas in their back packs and spatter devotional candle wax on them, but with respect and love for the object. She said she is very happy in her work, but will not deal with dealers, who do not have respect for the works; she has mortgaged and re-mortgaged her house, but she is very happy in her work
Other respondents noted: "Stress is related to my personality—I don't blame my conservation practice for it."


Along with paper work, there is great dislike of interruptions: while we are methodically, gently and contentedly picking off the glue the phone will ring, the client or curator needs to talk, and the student has a question. Actually dealing with curators and clients was cited almost equally as a "most enjoyed" and "least enjoyed" activity, but interruptions are universally hated.

Back to The Seven Habits. Here is Covey's chart of The Time Management Matrix (p. 151).

Important Crises
Pressing problems
Deadline-driven projects
= stress, burnout
Relationship building
Recognizing new opportunities
Planning, self development
A personal "mission statement"
= vision, perspective
Not Important Interruptions, some calls
Some mail, reports some reports
Some meetings
Pressing matters
= feeling victimized
Trivia, busy work
Some mail
Some phone calls
Time wasters
Pleasant activities
= getting fired

The top section is what is important and the bottom is what is not important. The left column is urgent and the right, not urgent. Conservators are probably spending much time in quadrant III, with what is "urgent" but not really important, and thus they feel victimized. We should be controlling our lives so that we are spending "quality time" on what is important—finishing the treatment, yes, but also attending a conference or seminar that will enrich us—as in Quadrant II. One management book suggested that at least 5% of your income should be spent on conferences or enrichment seminars: that's $2500 annually if you make $50,000, even if your institution gives you no travel money.

If we are "crisis managers" we are spending too much time in Quadrant I, and then probably relaxing briefly in quadrant IV, and not giving ourselves enough time in II because it is not urgent. Quadrant II is the heart of effective personal management: things that are not urgent but are important. Separate out the "urgent" that is not important and don't let that tail wag your dog, says The Seven Habits.

From the questionnaire it is clear that conservators are being bedeviled by both I and III and not doing enough II. There may be people in the world who are not conservators but like paperwork and like art or objects; let's find them and hire them as administrative assistants who can do the paperwork and channel the interruptions! William Suhr, conservator of the Frick Museum for over 40 years, dictated his condition and treatment reports to graduate students in art history—including John Walsh, who went off to become director at the Getty Museum with a unique interest in and respect for conservation.

Choice 2: Stay where you are and try to change certain things around you

The lines between this and the first option are blurry. You could hire the administrative assistant as mentioned above, and do more long-term planning—back to that in a moment.

The questionnaires revealed a great need for developing and using interpersonal communications skills. Carolyn Rose noted recently that a course at the Smithsonian in negotiations, using William Ury's book Getting Past No: Negotiating Your Way From Confrontation to Cooperation, was one of the most important she took in her life. It has great advice in it—and I recommend it highly—how to stay in control when under pressure, how to defuse anger and hostility, and how to reach agreements that satisfy the needs of both sides.

There are many such books, especially in airports. You may find another that you like. I also liked Linda Austin's What's Holding You Back: Eight Critical Choices for Women's Success, recommended by Katie Holbrow, objects conservator at Williamstown. Two-thirds of the respondents to my questionnaire were women, and there are principles here of using traditionally female skills to better advantage. This may be needed, as the world of higher management is largely male. I found useful things in this I had not read elsewhere—no time to elaborate now!


Some books recommend moving around within your institution for refreshment and happiness: a new job every 5-7 years or so. people can shift from marketing to design to management and so forth. I've now parked in the Winterthur parking lot for 25 years but have had six different job titles within two institutions: paintings conservator, head conservator, associate director and then director of the conservation program, chair of a University of Delaware department and now full professor. I think this has kept me challenged, confused, and generally quite happy. My father, who ran personnel seminars at Columbia, said that the most important element in job happiness is your immediate supervisor. I have a good one!

As in Quadrant II of The Seven Habits, the very nature of our increasing emphasis on preventive conservation principles points to increased emphasis on long-term planning. This should theoretically cut down on deadlines and pressure (unless the complete storage re-design plan is due tomorrow!). However, the collaborative nature of preventive conservation may be frustrating for conservators who went into the field to treat objects but now find themselves always at meetings, advising or managing—again the importance of people skills! When the Getty Conservation Institute was sponsoring courses in Preventive Conservation, Marta de la Torre came to refer to lectures on Management as "the M-word," a subject she found was dreaded by many conservators.

Wendy Jessup is a conservator who left practical work and thoroughly enjoys storage analysis, environmental assessment, holding hands, and listening to problems. She is joined by an admittedly small number of other respondents who said that they love "convincing others" about proper approaches and holistic care, and often give lectures. Others are unhappy or left the field because of the constant need to educate, or because of meeting hostility by becoming the "conservation police" who must enforce preventive conservation concepts or are seen as the "naysayers."


Reading the results of the questionnaire has made me question whether our training programs are spending enough time on negotiation and management skills—or is this something left to a distance-learning Web course or airport reading? The other areas where training seemed to be most sought were science for apprentice-trained respondents and computer and digital technology for everyone—perhaps those are areas for formal refresher courses.

Do you want to re-tool yourself or your surroundings, or is it time to look elsewhere for satisfaction?

Choice 3. Go somewhere else

Richard Wolbers laughingly told me about this book, Who Moved My Cheese, by Spencer Johnson. I found it to be a hoot. It's maybe a thirty minute read and is apparently of use to people with very short attention spans who work at AT&T, General Motors, Xerox and the like. Its core principle is about being ready for change, "reading the writing on the wall"—when your cheese is getting smaller—and being ready to put on your running shoes to find new cheese. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I have ended up quoting it to friends and students.


There are many books on seeking alternative careers which may be one way to find your "new cheese." One that I liked especially suggested that you form your own "personal advisory committee" which must not include people from your own workplace. Meet with these people singly, for a lunch, etc., or in a group as you debate life decisions.

One respondent had actually found conservation through What Color is Your Parachute, a traditional resource for career change decisions that helps you assess your skills and proclivities. At least two respondents left biomedical research to come to conservation, and still prefer it to the worlds they left behind.


I asked in the questionnaires both "Have you thought about an alternative career?" and "Do you know someone who left?" Top choices of alternative career fantasies include painting, music, and gardening—followed by "but I have to pay the bills." One respondent said she had seriously considered becoming a commercial airline pilot but then decided it would be the same combination of tremendous responsibility and near absolute lack of authority she found so frustrating in museum work. Another conservator who used to fly her own plane noted that piloting, like conservation, involves hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. The Kill Artist is a novel about a paintings conservator who becomes a hired assassin. The author notes that both professions require a good memory and attention to detail.

The most popular career changes for former conservators include: curators, museum or heritage administrators, Webmasters, and Ph.D's in science. Others have become teachers, librarians, and journalists. A former conservator who is now an investment manager, Paula Volent, said she benefited from her ability to work with her conservation clients. One respondent said she'd like to make shifts but she feels that conservation is a "deep and non-transferable rut"—where else could she use her arcane knowledge of the properties of adhesives and varnishes?

But Sherry Blank, an objects conservator who now works part time as an insurance adjustor, said that FBI agents were highly impressed with her diagnostic skills: she could tell how something was made, what it was made of, and what has happened to it. She also said that she loved the interruptions and variety of life in a museum and that this taught her people skills that she hadn't known she had!

Barbara Ramsay has continued her private practice as a paintings conservator while establishing a new division within Artex, a highly successful art handling firm which can manage conservation projects, undertake treatments, and subcontract or refer treatments to other conservators in the private sector.

Monona Rossol said she needs more people to go into university art studios and theatres to teach Right to Know and safe habits. No conservators that I know of have transferred in that direction, but there our skills could be uniquely suited.

Carole Milner of the UK left conservation for international heritage management. She wrote:

"I knew I would miss those lovely quiet days, working away at a painting, but above all, I wanted to make a bigger difference for the objects in our care. I am a people person and love working with others when there is a common goal and something worthwhile to be aimed for. I decided to keep my eyes open and to do some international heritage consultancy work. Doing that made me realize what a lot I had learnt by osmosis about museums and heritage in general—conservation, preservation, but also marketing and education, multi-cultural diversity, customer expectations, policy planning, budgeting, and resource management—all turned out to be eminently transferable skills.
"I am now dealing with international development issues, skills—sharing, fair trade and tourism, looking after human beings, identifying and attempting to meet their basic needs, whether in India, China, Africa or Eastern Europe. What I have loved is discovering how much these two worlds have in common. Preserving cultural heritage means preserving identity. In a developing, perhaps war-stricken country, holding on to one's cultural and spiritual identity—knowing where you come from, who you are, and where you are going—is almost as basic a need as food, shelter, and medication. I can now put conservation fair and square into that fundamental context and that brings me full circle and puts everything into perspective. If one day I ever find another role in conservation I shall know very clearly and tangibly why I am here."

The Seven Habits also suggests that in writing your personal mission statement and deciding where you want to go, you should write your own eulogy and then work backwards. What do you want said about you in your Conservation DistList obituary? That you were a memorable teacher and wrote about important concepts, like Gerry Hedley or Anne Clapp? That you founded centers or labs like George Stout or Richard Buck? Or training programs, like Sheldon Keck or Paolo Mora? Or that you made a great difference to the welfare of many objects through treatments or publications, like John Gettens, Norman Brommelle, Joyce Plesters or Harold Plenderleith? It is your quest and your choice. I'm out of time—thank you.


This talk appeared initially in the August 4 issue of IIC Bulletin 2001 and is reprinted here with the permission of the author and the IIC Bulletin.

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