Volume 8, Number 3, Sept. 1986, pp.8-11
Bob Aitchison and Mark Watters have a private practice in paper
conservation which they established in Los Angeles four years
ago. This Profile discusses their experience in setting up a new
BOB: Mark and I both were living in New York. I was working in paper conservation at the Metropolitan and Mark was working as a private conservator with CAROLYN HORTON.
MARK: ... we had a friend named Belinda Aberbach. Bob and I worked as interns with Mary Todd Glaser in 1978 and 1979. Belinda was working with Toddy as an apprentice at the same time. The three of us discussed forming a business together in New York in 1981. This idea fell through, but Bob and I were both ready for a change and felt that it was time for us to work on our own. We realized that once we started a private practice, we would be committed to a particular location...
MARK: We considered different parts of the country, but we decided to return to California where we were both from. Had we remained in New York, we could have based our private practice on our free-lance clientele. In Los Angeles, we were starting from scratch. Because we did not have clients in Los Angeles, we made sure we had some professional contacts before moving here. We introduced ourselves at the meetings and visited Los Angeles. Victoria Blyth Hill was particularly encouraging and helpful. Leslie Kruth had words of encouragement regarding the potential for a new private practice in Los Angeles. In general, the conservation community in Los Angeles has been most receptive.
BOB: We had considered cities other than Los Angeles, but we believed Los Angeles had a lot of potential for growth, MOCA was just starting to happen...and the weather is so great.
MARK: I went to study at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts in New York in 1976. My emphasis was on paper conservation and I studied with Antoinette King, the Senior Paper Conservator at the Museum of Modern Art. After the internship with Mary Todd Glaser, I served an apprenticeship at the Intermuseum Laboratory in Oberlin with Timothy Vitale, and then returned to New York to work as a paper conservator with Carolyn Horton in 1980.
BOB: I began studies at Winterthur in Delaware in 1976. My major was in paper conservation and I studied with Anne Clapp. I also did a minor in photography with Jose Orraca. In 1979 I joined the paper conservation staff at the Met. Then on March 10, 1982 we returned to California.
MARK: Although Bob and I had first met during interviews at Winterthur, we really got to know each other during our internship together. We worked well together during this time and later in our free-lance collaborations. Once the decision was made to move, we worked day and night our last year in New York on free-lance projects. We saved as much as we could. When you start a business you have to prepare to take two or three years to get on your feet.
BOB: We continued our jobs at the Met and at Carolyn's during the day and then we would work until nine at night and on Saturdays and Sundays.
MARK: So we had saved some money, but most of it was borrowed... Victoria offered Bob an NEA grant at LACMA to commence soon after our arrival in Los Angeles. It was a perfect arrangement because Bob was at the museum half of the time and at our studio the other half. This was one way in which Victoria helped us.
BOB: I shared the grant with Leslie Kruth, and the following year, 1983, Victoria arranged a similar grant for Mark at LACMA.
MARK: This was a great help to us our first two years when we were really struggling. ...now, four years later, the difference is that we are able to reduce our debt and support ourselves as well. After about two years we had some regular clients and we were beginning to get a foothold. We found a work location rather quickly, but early in 1985, the landlord decided to sell the property and so we decided to buy a town home in which to locate our studio.
MARK: We brought some of our furniture from New York, but we bought most of what we needed here in L.A. One of the nice things about Los Angeles is that you can find most anything you need if you look around for it, and this is not true of some other cities. In terms of equipment we now have two suction tables: a small platform to use with solvents and the other large one for aqueous treatments. Bob's father constructed these for us. He is an engineer. My own father is an electrical engineer, and has done some work for us as well.
BOB: It's helpful to have engineers in the family.
MARK: We are now purchasing a binocular microscope, a large stainless steel sink and more paper storage drawers.
BOB: Fortunately we had Mark's brother, who is an attorney, to help us incorporate and to assist in drawing up our forms, which are based on forms Carolyn Horton developed over thirty years in private practice. Among other things it stipulates the terms of our insurance because it is important for the client to understand the type of coverage we carry. We also installed security and fire detection and extinguishing systems which are in line with the requirements of our insurance broker. We have even had a couple of inspections.
So we set up our studio, bought the equipment, sent out announcements to collectors and people in the art community and then we waited for the phone to ring.
BOB: We talked to friends, we went through the yellow pages, we went through gallery guides, a friend gave us a list of people involved with graphic art groups...
MARK: We actually got some response ...enough to pay for the printing.
BOB: We also visited galleries giving them our card and informing them of our services. Listing in guides and directories were not helpful in developing a clientele.
MARK: But what the announcements did was to make our name more familiar to someone who had possibly heard about us from someone else. It has really been by word of mouth.
BOB: Conservators in the area have referred clients to us and more recently regular clients have referred other collectors to us. A little more than four years later, we have a self- supporting practice. Knock on wood someone.
MARK: One specialization for Bob is in photographs.
BOB: The difficulty is that this area of conservation is so young the treatments have not been established over a long period of time. The medium can be very complicated chemically and structurally, limiting what you can do. Furthermore you can't be sure whether a photograph was processed properly. Mark has worked with vellum and with Persian miniatures.
MARK: I work on vellum or parchment because most other conservators in this area don't. There is very little you can do with it aside from mending, flattening and consolidating. There are some more aggressive treatments, but I think that most people in this country are taught to take a conservative approach. Most of my training and experience with vellum and parchment was at Carolyn's. The techniques are slightly different than those used for paper. Since being in California I have worked on only one or two a year.
BOB: On the East Coast you tend to run into more historical documents, old antiphonal manuscripts, or some European pieces on vellum or parchment.
MARK: Well, Near Eastern and Middle Eastern miniatures in general...after a certain period the techniques used in surrounding areas pretty nearly related to those used by the Persians. I did my major qualifying paper at the Institute on the techniques and materials of Persian miniature painting. By Victoria's arrangement once again, I worked with her intern, NANCY PURINTON, at LACMA on some miniature paintings earlier this year. There are some fairly specific techniques which are especially applicable to the conservation of these miniatures.
BOB: Yes, conservators in Los Angeles get along quite well. They share information.
MARK: Also I think that the paper conservators here can handle most of the problems they come across. However, sometimes you run into a difficult problem and you may want to call another conservator who may have had more experience with that type of problem, to ask his or her opinion.
BOB: It goes through the whole spectrum. Some clients are very knowledgeable and know what they are looking for. They know what an art object should look like, they know what the damages are, and they even have an idea about how treatment should proceed. We have been able to educate other clients...
MARK: They were sensitive enough to certain problems with the artwork to come in the first place and they have learned from experience.
BOB: On the other hand we have had a few clients who do not understand the problem with their piece or the treatment being proposed even after lengthy explanation. These can be difficult people to work with.
BOB: You have to look at things a little differently. At a museum you can work on something, put it away for a time and bring it out again according to the activities of the lab. When you work privately you have to complete the piece not only because the client wants to have the piece back, but because you have to pay the bills. At a museum you are working with curators who make a variety of demands, and there are also the changing exhibitions to keep up with. An advantage to being in private practice is that you do not have to perform a treatment that you do not fully support. As well, both Mark and I like being able to set up our own schedules.
MARK: We do for a particular piece...and if he or she is still living we might contact the artist. We treated a photograph by Ansel Adams in need of remounting. He was still living and so we wrote for his permission and his recommendations for remounting which he gave. Then he signed and stamped the new mount.
BOB: He was glad to do it. He was one photographer who was very interested in correct processing and handling. His prints tend to stay in very good condition. The problem with this print had to do with the way it was stored.
MARK: So research here is not done for the sake of research per se, but rather it is dictated by the projects in the studio.
MARK: We like it and the insurance company likes it. There is somebody here almost 24 hours a day. It's a convenient arrangement because if something is in the press that needs to be changed, we can do that later at night.
BOB: But we usually don't work at night because the light isn't very good. Being in Los Angeles, it's nice not to have a commute. I just get up, come downstairs and I'm at work.