Volume 6, Number 3, Sept. 1984, pp.2-10

Conservation Ethics: An Informal Interview

Caroline Black, interviewer;

An informal interview with Bill Leisher, Head of Conservation, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Tatyana Thompson, Painting Conservation; and Scott Schaefer, Curator of European Paintings and Sculpture, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Interview conducted by Caroline Black, Newsletter Editor.

1) Are written proposals for treatment always necessary? How are contracts and release forms used?

THOMPSON: I always do a written proposal. The client should have a clear idea about the exact work to be done, the cost of the treatment, the type of documentation, the costs of insurance and so on. This preliminary communication avoids any later misunderstandings about the conservation treatment.

LEISHER: Ethically we are required to do proposals for any treatment. The proposal informs the person responsible for the object of the treatment goal and the treatment techniques and materials to be used. Many times at the museum there is a verbal proposal agreed upon between the curator and the conservator that eventually is written down, documented and entered into the records.

SCHAEFER: Often we have a discussion amongst ourselves which amounts to a treatment proposal and then when the work has been completed, a statement of what was done is written up for the files.

THOMPSON: In my case, as a private conservator, the word "proposal" implies approval and agreement which comes from the client who is also the owner of the object. The owner is approving the conservation treatment. In a museum, the relationship between conservator and curator is different.

SCHAEFER: It depends of course on the curator. Bill and I, and David Kolch and I work together or see each other almost every two or three hours, so at virtually any stage of a treatment we are all aware of how things are progressing. Besides it seems to me that when a conservator is working on a picture there are decisions that are made at the time of treatment which cannot be made in advance.

BLACK: I think that the discussion of the use of proposals leads in to the question about use of contracts and release forms. In the museum you have an understanding with the curator...

LEISHER: As Scott said it varies with each curator and it varies with the conservator and the relationships they have. In some museums it's a very formal situation in which the conservator writes a proposal which is presented to the curator who then sends it to the director and at certain institutions it even goes to the Board of Trustees before it is acted on. In terms of release forms or contracts, in the museum a release form is not necessary as such because the objects are all owned by the museum. As far as contracts goes...

BLACK: Wasn't there something the LACMA lab sent the Armand Hammer Foundation a while ago?

LEISHER: We use those forms when it is necessary for us to work on nonmuseum owned objects.

BLACK: So one contract is given to a client and it lasts throughout the relationship?

LEISHER: That's right. Within the museum we are all in a sense the owners of the object and so there isn't a problem with release forms, insurance, etc. But the minute we deal with someone outside the museum we are in a position more like Tatyana's.

BLACK: Tatyana do you use release forms in addition to proposals?

THOMPSON: Yes, as the Los Angeles County Museum does with its outside clients. When a client authorizes a conservation treatment, he or she signs a release which is contained in the proposal for treatment. I use release forms, but have been told by a number of attorneys that an all-encompassing release would not stand up in court. You cannot have someone sign all their rights away or your responsibility.

BLACK: But don't these forms bring to the client's attention that there is always an element of risk in any treatment?

THOMPSON: Yes, they do and there will always be some element of risk. However, this is a difficult question that would be better answered by an attorney.

LEISHER: You have to word the release forms carefully or you might literally scare the client away completely.

THOMPSON: My release forms state that the client is waiving all claims except in the case of gross and wanton negligence. This wording softens the concept a little and helps the client feel more comfortable with the release form.

SCHAEFER: I suppose it's the same way doctors have to deal with patients. This is why malpractice insurance costs so much.

2) How should the conservator's relationship with the client/curator be cultivated? What responsibility does the conservator have to educate the client/curator?

THOMPSON: It should be cultivated in the sense that you want to increase their awareness of conservation concerns. If you inform them about treatment procedures, they will hopefully have a clearer understanding of the problem and will be more apt to approve the proposal. In general, the conservator does have a responsibility to educate the client in order to promote a better popular understanding of the conservation profession.

LEISHER: If a client who has not had a great deal of experience with restoration or museums or art brings in something they want fixed, you have a responsibility to help them understand what it is you are about to do and to explain what some of the problems and risks are. In that sense you are educating them. This can take a long time with non-museum people and sometimes with museum people too, because each treatment is different and what you may be explaining is a very special circumstance. You have to make sure that they are not going to generalize from that to other objects. Such a generalization could be a potentially dangerous misunderstanding. We have to remember that terms such as lining, relining, nonpenetrating adhesive and nap bond are not household words.

THOMPSON: I suppose you could draw the same analogy again as with a doctor. A doctor has to let his patient know up to a certain degree what's happening but it doesn't make sense to go into a long detailed explanation because the patient would just get lost.

SCHAEFER: The client should want to learn as much as possible, or as much as interests him. There's a responsibility too on the part of the client for educating himself, or desiring to do so.

LEISHER: I agree. In the end the owner or curator in charge of a collection has the ultimate responsibility for what happens to that object, so they have to be willing to become aware of the various issues involved. The best way to cultivate a relationship between a curator and conservator in a museum is to have the curator in the studio as much as possible to see what goes on and to discuss treatments...to have an open house policy. There have been museums though where historically the conservator went to his room and locked the door and no one saw him until the end of the day when he walked out.

BLACK: I have seen some treatments described as "secret process."

SCHAEFER: So have I. "Special fluids used..."

BLACK: Could you talk a little about the relationship you and Scott enjoy here at the museum?

LEISHER: As Scott said we see each other throughout the day. He spends a great deal of his time in the lab and so it's a very easy relationship to develop. The main thing is for both parties to be accessible to one another.

SCHAEFER: We spend a great deal of time sharing information.

LEISHER: Every treatment is a joint operation between conservator and curator. We wouldn't entertain any treatment here without full participation of the curator.

SCHAEFER: It's a combination of art historical experience and practical experience which are generally not shared by the same person.

3) Should we assume that museum laboratories are in a position to document each treatment? How does the private conservator handle the cost of documentation if the client does not want to pay?

SCHAEFER: Museums traditionally have not always documented past experiences. We have found this to be the case in a museum as young as this one and in museums on the east coast I have worked in, there has been very little documentation until relatively recently.

LEISHER: The extent of documentation may vary. This museum generally has extensive photographic documentation. Other museums are just the opposite, there is very little photographic and a great deal of written material. Of course there are others where documentation is just in someone's memory. In a museum it's a little easier to resolve these problems. However it is a problem for a private conservator like Tatyana and it can be difficult for us when we are dealing with an outside group which isn't really interested in documentation, because it's costly to do it correctly.

SCHAEFER: That's why museums in past haven't done it as well; particularly photographic documentation which is a luxury which very few museums enjoy.

THOMPSON: I guess it depends to what extent you are going to document. I always include some documentation in my treatment cost and I don't present it to the client as a separate item. Let's say the treatment cost is $150; a part of that may be for documentation, but the $150 is presented as a flat fee and the documentation costs are included.

SCHAEFER: It's probably the best way.

THOMPSON: I do both photographic and written documentation, the extent of which depends on the extent of the conservation treatment.

BLACK: There was a comment made at the AIC meeting this year about looking up information on old treatments the KECKs have done; saying how great it was to call on them thirty years later and find a complete file. My impression from our discussion this morning is that this is not generally the case.

LEISHER: It's not generally the case. In the last ten years or so greater emphasis has been placed on documentation, so you have more photographic and written material. However many times that material is inaccessible. Quite often you'll get a painting which you know has been restored, but the information stops at the dealer and the dealer may or may not tell you who has worked on it. You know that the information is out there some place, but it is difficult to get. If a museum has done it, then chances are, I think, greater of obtaining the information.

SCHAEFER: As a curator acquiring works of art at a fairly rapid rate, as this museum does, I try to find out what conservator has cleaned a picture we are considering for purchase; just as a documentation for our files. It's also handy if you can tell in which country the piece may have been treated. This information is useful for future treatments.

BLACK: Does the lab here put labels on the backs of the pieces to indicate that a treatment has been performed? Or do you do that Tatyana?

THOMPSON: I don't because I think that the labels so often get detached later on. In theory, it's a nice idea, but unfortunately this kind of documentation is usually separated from the object. If you label the back, the owner may just remove it because he doesn't want anyone to know that the object has recently been treated or who has done it.

LEISHER: I agree that this is probably what happens, but there should be some way of making sure that some basic information could stay with the art object. For paintings it would be nice to know what kind of surface coating if any has been applied. This is what you most often want to know because it tells you how you can proceed when removing grime or a scratch. Occasionally you'll find that information on a backing. The longest lasting information is written directly onto the stretcher

THOMPSON: James Lebron writes the conservator's name on the stretcher in pencil, so at least that information stays with the painting. Hopefully a future conservator would then know who to contact for the pertinent conservation information.

SCHAEFER: 19th century artists, especially Impressionist artists, wrote on the backs of the canvases what treatment they wanted done, if ever it should be necessary. There is a Pissarro in Boston that is unvarnished and on the back in Pissarro's hand in French it says, 'This painting is never to be varnished.' The contract with Monet for the great waterlily cycle he did for the L'Orangerie stated that the paintings were never to be varnished.

LEISHER: However it is not advisable for painters to write directly on the backs of the work. In time it could disfigure the design surface.

4) Are there times when it is acceptable to use less costly materials for treatment if they are safe and reversible, but may not last as long as some other commonly accepted materials?

LEISHER: The AIC Code of Ethics says something interesting about this question, "Single Standard. With every historic or artistic work he undertakes to conserve regardless of his opinion of its value or quality, the conservator should adhere to the highest and most exacting standard of treatment. Although circumstances may limit the extent of treatment, the quality of treatment should never be governed by the quality or value of the object. While special techniques may be required during treatment of large groups of objects, such as archival and natural history material, these procedures should be consistent with the conservator's respect for the integrity of the objects."

SCHAEFER: I would find that very difficult...

LEISHER: It's very difficult...

SCHAEFER: ...if the conservator does not think about the worth of the object.

LEISHER: Especially if you have a family's keepsake primitive painting that is not worth very much, but requires heroic efforts which would cost far more than it's worth. My feeling is that you should be guided by the principle that the materials you use should be safe and reversible, but within those boundaries you have a great deal of latitude as to how far you go, what kind of backing materials you use and so on, in order to cut down the cost for someone. It would be a shame to let something go and self-destruct simply because the client will not (or cannot) pay for heroic treatment and because you cannot violate an unbending rule which says you should not pay attention to the quality of a work of art.

5) Treatment, how far should it go? Is the conservator obliged to perform a complete treatment or nothing at all? What if the cost of the treatment exceeds the value of the object? What if the client cannot afford the full cost? What if the client can afford the full cost but does not wish to have the full recommended treatment performed? To what extent may the conservator ethically accommodate unusual requests for treatment which he may receive from a curator or client?

LEISHER: On the last question, my feeling is that you can accommodate unusual requests keeping two guidelines in mind (1) endangerment of the work of art and (2) misrepresentation of the original intent or appearance. As long as you do not violate these two, you can do just about anything which is requested, or else refuse to do the treatment.

THOMPSON: Unusual does not have to mean unethical.


BLACK: What about a situation in which the client cannot afford or does not wish to pursue a complete treatment?

THOMPSON: Well, I can't twist his arm.

BLACK: But you can come up with a compromise solution?

LEISHER: Again, as long as it does not endanger the work of art...There are degrees of treatment. You might decide to consolidate, but you aren't going to worry about inpainting and filling, so you just leave it, in a sense, like an archaeological object.

SCHAEFER: I suppose it's like going to a county health clinic as opposed to visiting a doctor in Beverly Hills. It's obviously a very complicated ethical problem. It occurs in medicine and the parallels in medicine are more exact than anything else I can think of. It's very complicated. In some respects I suppose benign neglect is better than any kind of stop gap measure.

BLACK: What if a client brings you a painting which has both cosmetic and structural problems and he only wants it to look pretty. Do you refuse to treat it?

THOMPSON: Yes, the client would probably only request this type of treatment out of a basic ignorance of conservation principles. I would attempt to explain to him why this would be an inappropriate approach. I believe one should always do structural work before cosmetic. If you are doing only cosmetic work, it is because there are no structural problems. However, the concept of "full recommended treatment" changes from year to year. Twenty years ago lining was a very common procedure and now we are trying to line as little as possible.

LEISHER: Even further back everything was transferred. We are influenced by whatever the most recent technological trend is, in terms of what conservation does and how to treat objects. Tatyana is right, what we might recommend now might be quite different a year from now.

SCHAEFER: I think when you are discussing treatment with a client whether he be a curator or a private client, you lay out the guidelines which you think should be followed. Then it is up to him to make the decision, as he is making the payment, on how far to go. At that point a decision is made by the person doing the work.

LEISHER: And you lay out the priority items first. Then you can allow the client to go as far as he wants. If he decides that he doesn't want to do anything, then sometimes you can simply suggest a safe environmental storage. If there is flaking paint then the piece should be laid flat until which time he chooses to treat it. Help him to understand that if appropriate storage is not provided then all the paint might wind up on the floor.

SCHAEFER: Do private conservators do charity work? If a great painting were brought to you by someone who couldn't afford treatment, but the piece was in immediate danger, would you take it on as a charity case?

THOMPSON: If it were a great picture, yes.

LEISHER: I think most conservators would.

SCHAEFER: Because of the excitement of working on a great picture... especially since private conservators don't necessarily get as many great pictures as a museum might.

THOMPSON: In general, that is probably true.

6) Does the client/curator bear a joint responsibility with the conservator on the feasibility of a treatment or its outcome?

ALL: Yes.

BLACK: Although the client does of course rely on the advice of the conservator.

LEISHER: In a sense, if it's a private situation where a client has the ownership, it's really their say. They have full control. In this museum the responsibility is shared between the conservator and the curator. In other museums the responsibility may not be as jointly allotted.

7) Professional respect. Is it ethical for a conservator, curator or Mrs. Miller to make known an unfavorable judgment on the work of a conservator? If so, under what circumstances?

LEISHER: You hear flip remarks and off hand statements about conservators ruining works of art all the time and my feeling is that people who say these things are not aware of what a serious charge they are making. You really can't make that kind of statement unless you have seen the work prior to, during and after treatment; as well as having examined the documentation and so on. Just walking up to a painting on the wall, without any knowledge of what it looked like before or judging solely from memory, is very dangerous. What one might describe as ruin to a work of art might have been done by an earlier conservation treatment or it may have been part of the original work of art and was not quite apparent when it was covered with a coat of yellow varnish, or whatever. Evidently this has been a problem because there is a statement in the AIC Code of Ethics. What they attempt here to do is to set guidelines for times when you criticize the work of another conservator. "Comment on qualifications of another conservator. It is unethical for a conservator to volunteer adverse judgment on the qualifications of, or procedures rendered by another conservator except as such comment shall be to the mutual benefit to all concerned. In expressing an opinion about another practitioner, either voluntarily or at the request of someone outside the profession, the conservator must always consider the inequity of slander and must scrupulously base his statement on facts of which he or she has personal knowledge." I think that's what is really important. If you have personal knowledge of a painting before, during and after treatment and then in your opinion you feel that a conservator has ruined it; I think it is ethical to say that. But unless you have that knowledge, it is not an ethical statement but rather a slanderous statement.

BLACK: This touches on another question about how one recommends a conservator for possible employment.

LEISHER: In the Conservation Center, we won't refer any work to a conservator unless we personally know that conservator's work. Our criteria is that they belong to the AIC and that we know their work, that we have a number of meetings with them over a period of time and have knowledge of the range of their abilities. Referrals vary with the kind of work requiring treatment.

SCHAEFER: The same is true for myself as a curator. I don't need to know the conservator personally, but I need to know their work.

BLACK: I think that it is difficult for the public to know how to find a qualified conservator. I imagine the best thing to do would be to call the local museum.

LEISHER: That's a safe place to start. Here in Los Angeles you can also call the auction houses.

8) Authentication. Is a conservator in a position to authenticate the authorship of a painting?

THOMPSON: Not alone; it should always be a joint decision between the curator/art historian and the conservator/ conservation scientist. Unless of course the painting is a flagrant reproduction; for example, a print that is supposed to be a painting.

BLACK: Although I imagine a conservator can present convincing data such as a cross section from a painting which shows the build up of ground and paint layers which might be characteristic of an artist.

LEISHER: Yes, but even when you have a lot of convincing evidence, the conservator is safer in making that judgment along with a curator or art historian. You want the technical evidence as well as the art historical and aesthetic evidence all to be consistent.

SCHAEFER: A conservator can more often tell you if it isn't of the period, than if it is.

9) Treatment Technique. How far should inpainting go? Is it OK to tone or glaze to restore a color balance? Are there times when it is acceptable to overpaint a problem area? Is there such a thing as "deceptive inpainting?"

SCHAEFER: I suppose the goal of all inpainting is to deceive.

LEISHER: That's my opinion. All inpainting is deceptive to some degree. The minute you put color on the canvas even to soften, it's deceptive.

BLACK: Isn't there a term "Deceptive inpainting" which is intended to be derogatory?

LEISHER: Some people use that term to describe inpainting which is thought to be so slick that it deceives the viewer into thinking that the entire painted surface is original. At a given distance most inpainting appears original. That's the goal. In this day and age with ultraviolet and all of the equipment we have, in addition to the documentation, inpainting which is invisible is not deceptive in a derogatory sense because you can always find it.

SCHAEFER: The problem with it in terms of treatment for a curator is that one wants the work to be brought back to what is assumed to have been the original appearance. This is guess work of course on the part of the curator or conservator. The real question to ask is at what point does it become a faking, or a misrepresentation to such a degree that it ends up being a travesty of what it was originally.

LEISHER: That's the key. You are allowed a great deal of latitude as long as you don't disfigure the original intent or appearance.

BLACK: Would that apply as well to glazing or toning in order to restore a color balance?

LEISHER: Technically I think it would. There is a great deal of thought that toning and glazing is somehow not inpainting. It's going over the original material and therefore can be thought of as distorting whatever was original. The problem comes with the idea that when the varnish and restorations are removed that what remains is original. But this does not take into account the various changes that time makes.

SCHAEFER: The aging process quite often produces changes that are quite injurious to the look of the work of art. The disfigurement can be minimized, sometimes by toning or glazing. But action should be taken with much consultation.

LEISHER: The Code of Ethics also speaks to this point (AIC Code of Ethics), "In compensating for losses or damage a conservator can be expected to carry out little or much restoration according to a firm previous understanding with the owner, custodian or artist, if living; however he cannot ethically carry out compensation to a point of modifying the known character of the original." To my mind then, in special circumstance, glazing or toning may be acceptable.

SCHAEFER: We did it with a picture here. It was a difficult decision and we thought we would try and experiment knowing that it could be removed in the next moment or in fifty years. The shadowing which covered a considerable number of square inches on a large canvas, had gone out of balance and it was deceptive to look at the painting. In the end we thought that the treatment was quite successful, but it was not irreversible. It a curator at a later date decides to change it, this can easily be done.

LEISHER: There is no question that toning or glazing would be unethical if it were irreversible. The next guideline is not to misrepresent the original intent. In the case Scott was referring to there was no question that the dark shaded area of this fold was not meant to be the color that it currently was. There had been a color change in the pigment. So we glazed over it and modified it to bring the color back into balance.

BLACK: Are there times when it is acceptable to overpaint a problem area?

ALL: It depends on the problem area. What do you mean by problem area?

BLACK: I am thinking of a painting in which there was one element which could not be identified as being by the artist's hand, because it was out of harmony with the rest of the composition. It was decided in the end to cover the element rather than to remove it.

LEISHER: That is a very serious step to take and one would not do that without a number of curatorial and conservation opinions. If the consensus is that the element is not a part of the original work, and in that case that was the general opinion, then it is allowable to paint over it. I don't think it would be acceptable to scrape it off, because that is an irreversible step. By painting it over with reversible materials, in years to come if new evidence comes to light, then the paint could be removed.

BLACK: Are there circumstances under which you would remove a later addition?

LEISHER: That happens sometimes with sculpture. A great deal of ancient sculpture, for instance, at the Getty, has had a lot of the 19th century restoration removed.

THOMPSON: Could you clarify?

BLACK: I am thinking either of additions to the canvas or of an extra angel painted into the sky.

ALL: Alterations we would remove.

LEISHER: Later additions to the canvas might be kept as long as they could be conveniently covered. As for painted alterations such as are found on 19th century paintings when cloaks or veils have been added to cover nude areas of the body; we would remove those and document the change.

THOMPSON: Often polychrome sculpture which has many layers of paint may be taken down to the original layer.

10) Contemporary Art. Is the conservator obliged to contact a living artist? What if the artist's intent runs contrary to the preservation of the object?

THOMPSON: It depends on the magnitude of the project. You don't want to hound the artist if you are just going to surface clean a painting. If it's a major project, you should always try to contact the artist. However if every conservator contacted every artist every time work was being considered, then artists might become somewhat negative towards conservators.

BLACK: Too, artists don't necessarily understand conservation techniques. They can tell you what their intent was when they made the piece...

THOMPSON: However, they often change their minds when they look at it again.

LEISHER: Sometimes it's not so much a matter of lack of understanding, as they are not sympathetic to it. Some artists don't really care about restoration. The attitude is that they can make another one. So there is a disregard for restoration. Other artists are very much involved in the conservation of their pieces. Some of them can be quite restrictive in what they will or will not allow in terms of exhibitions.

BLACK: Some contemporary art may self-destruct and this may be the original intent, but that goes against the grain of the conservator.

LEISHER: My feeling is that if you have a work by an artist which is meant to self-destruct, then the museum shouldn't really buy it. Maybe the museum should just borrow it to show. The minute a museum owns it there is a conflict because museums are institutions whose goal is to preserve; on the other hand we want to acknowledge the true artistic intent.

BLACK: Say you have loan objects coming in for exhibition and one is flaking terribly...

LEISHER: In a situation like that you really have got to get in touch with the artist to ask them whether they really meant for the flaking to take place. For example, we had a work on exhibit here that was meant to flake during the exhibition. In another case, this may not be the artist's intent.

BLACK: So the artist's intent is the bottom line.

LEISHER: Sure, and if the artist is living we have the luxury of being able to talk to him. For all the rest we have to make assumptions which are based on, hopefully, intelligent studies of the time, the period and the artist.

11) Conservation Profession. Are the ethics of the profession compromised by a lack of standardization of treatment procedures? Do you think that from the point of view of advancing the ethical standards of the profession that accreditation is a good idea? Should conservators be viewed as scientists, artists, technicians...

LEISHER: Conservators should be viewed as conservators. Most are not really scientists. They are a mixture of a number of disciplines. It's a bad idea to label them as one thing or another.

SCHAEFER: And they certainly aren't gods.

LEISHER: Neither are they magicians.

SCHAEFER: As with doctors, we tend to believe that there are certain human beings capable of doing things that no one else is capable of doing. I think that one has to realize that there are limitations to anyone's capabilities.

THOMPSON: It would be convenient if there were a standardization of treatment procedures, but because every work of art and its problems are unique, it is probably impossible. Even though similar techniques were used during various art historical periods; all works of art and their respective histories vary so much that treatment standardization would be very difficult.

SCHAEFER: And places where art exists are different.

LEISHER: That's right. Their surroundings, environment, the way they age...The rule of thumb is basically that each work of art dictates its own treatment.

BLACK: When I was in Moscow this spring, I spoke with the painting conservator at the museum where we exhibited and he told me that Soviet conservators are licensed or certified and that their treatments are determined by a board. They carry out the treatment as handed down to them.

LEISHER: Their treatments are determined by a central laboratory in Moscow and that laboratory is run by a group of scientists and so every treatment, no matter what it is, comes from this central laboratory.

SCHAEFER: Does that mean that any treatment performed in the Soviet Union is referred to a central board?

LEISHER: Possibly.

SCHAEFER: The board may not have seen the object or the location of the object?

LEISHER: In theory, but in practice that's not what happens; the further away from Moscow, the more independent the conservators are. One thing that happens is that there is a standardization of materials and procedures used, so that there is not a great deal of variance. Supposedly, the materials are all tested at the central laboratory and then there is a recipe book you use. I don't think that approach would be successful here.

BLACK: It sounds cumbersome.

LEISHER: Well it just doesn't acknowledge the uniqueness of art as we were just discussing.

THOMPSON: Or the uniqueness of a conservator to come up with an unusual solution to a problem.

LEISHER: As for accreditation, that's something which is still being discussed in AIC and still has a number of varying opinions. It will probably be under discussion for the next four or five years before anything comes out of it. The goal is to guarantee the public a minimum standard, with the idea that this will somehow eliminate hacks or bad conservation. I don't know that it will eliminate bad conservation or conservators, but it is possible that over time the minimum level of expertise could be raised through such standardization.

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