Volume 12, Number 3, Sept 1990, pp.28-29

Dear Xylene


Dear Xylene:

Perhaps I am ineligible to write to you as I am not a conservator but an art historian and had--thankfully--no previous exposure to you or any other solvents. I am writing to protest the outrageous prices you conservators charge for services and wish to tell you that you are pricing yourselves out of work. I have worked on a number of grant panels and have been stunned by the large fees estimated for 2-day surveys. We art historians can never "hang out a shingle" and "go private" to such excess--you must imagine the resentment we feel reading these effronteries and constant grant requests for the training of your young ones to go and do likewise. It seems to me you could all get bank loans and have no problem paying them off.


Dear "Friend":

Alas. It is clear you have not read the AIC Salary Survey (nor would we expect you to as you are unlikely to get any other of our newsletters). I suppose there are a few well-heeled conservators who charge rather much for a survey, but this probably also includes two or three days writing reports at the word processor. If they do only three surveys a year (who can afford them, right?) they're still not doing as well as most plumbers. I'm afraid your letter contains a common misconception among art historians--that we are just "raking it in" compared to the professionals in your field. Keep in mind that we must equip ourselves with pricey microscopes, climate control systems, security systems, insurance, etc., in addition to the art books, slides and research travel which our two fields have in common. And a large percentage of us work in museums. (You know how much they pay.) When we go to get loans, our profession isn't even listed--beauticians are; we are not. Both of our fields are heavily female. Is that because of low salaries? (Or our enviable tolerance for detail?) I dunno. I do know a number of talented chemist-scientist-artist types who left conservation and hurried into the lush embrace of industry after sizing up potential salaries in our world. I will avoid comparisons with thy worthy field, dear "Friend," but will note that considering the interdisciplinary academic prerequisites and years of "volunteerships," training and postgraduate internship we go through to earn $18,000 at the age of 32, I think we're vastly underpaid. (And besides, you probably get invited to more openings.)


Dear Xylene:

I recently made the mistake of attending a symposium on the East Coast. (I know, I know, it was foolish.) but it was billed as a collaborative venture between art historians and conservators. However the art historians made reference to our "barbarous" practices, or said technical examination tools didn't really show anything they couldn't see with the naked eye. I wanted to go home and cry into my Janson book. Is there no hope we can ever work together?


Dear Searching:

And I'll bet you sat next to the "Friend" who wrote the first letter. Well, we never promised you a Rosa garden. (Sorry.) Collaboration (just like the blossoming of a good marriage) requires mutual trust and nurture; (you probably couldn't marry every art historian either). Our two fields are slowly accumulating more collaborative successes--I understand there was a blooming good conference in London this June with art historians and conservators "dialoguing." Do remember that art historians may fear that you're about to announce any day that the elegant blue-gray leaves they wrote a dissertation and six articles about were really discolored smalt or faded gamboge. We must be gentle in our weeding out of aesthetic traditions (which just may involve someone's life work). Dry off your Janson and keep searching (maybe you need a paper conservator for a start).


Dear Xylene:

I work for a number of small museums who used to be able to get grants to pay for my treatments. Now there is this silly survey rule, and they all have to be surveyed before I can do any more treatment. I haven't been in private work very long, and this is hurting my business and makes the curators mad, too. Can't we band together and protest?


Dear Tired:</p>

Hmm. Tell me, why are you in this field? To make money or to save our nation's posterity? (Don't answer that.) Do you really feel good about treating one Memling in the Grand Gallery while the 800 Hawaiian spears in the basement mold and moult? (Perhaps you'd better not answer that either.) If you haven't been in private work very long, wouldn't you actually treasure the opportunity of seeing many, many objects--their appearance, condition as a result of past storage or treatment, etc.--as you refine your own philosophy and approach? From my solvent shelf, at any rate, I think the survey focus will cause us all to step back for a bit and help preserve whole collections rather than attend in a piecemeal fashion only to works needed suddenly for exhibitions or the works visible en route to the Board Room.


Dear Xylene:

A schoolmate of mine was recently interviewed for a glossy magazine. She made conservation sound like a runner-up choice if you can't make it as an artist, and she put down our school and our professors. Why do people talk to journalists if they're going to say nasty things?? Don't they realize how they will sound in print?


Dear Offended:

Based on my last issue's mail, people talk to journalists particularly when they really want to say nasty things. Do keep in mind that she may have been misquoted. Since the days of Watergate reporting, journalists have been especially reticent to show their precious text to their subjects to check accuracy--I suppose they are hoping they have that prize-winning expose. (Actually, I've been interviewed a number of times and the one reporter who did check over the whole text with me really did win some sort of a reporter-type prize...but that was pre-Watergate. But if she was not misquoted...hmm...that's a toughie. Maybe all the cold shoulders she'll get at the next reunion will cause her some well-earned discomfort. I always wonder why people don't suspect that putting down their own background--the profession, their school teachers, family, friends, etc.,--just may reflect back on them and seem a bit mean-spirited. Our field is so often misunderstood, misinterpreted and needlessly polarized by media coverage, I would hope we would all wish to work together a bit more. After the entire country has learned the principles of good collections care and management, the history of conservation and our (latest) Code of Ethics, then we can pick each other apart to get attention.



Keep those cards and letters coming! I also have informants on both coasts--you never know when a question you ask at a coffee break may show up as an inquiry here. Send in your questions, answers, or whatever bugs you. Questions will be forwarded to me anonymously; however, the sender must identify him or herself to the WAAC Newsletter Editor.


Opinions and philosophy expressed in DEAR XYLENE are those of the author, an otherwise respected conservator who wishes to remain anonymous. Xylene's "handler" is Chris Stavroudis who, it is rumored, wears fireproof gear to protect himself from Xylene's notoriously low flash point.

Write directly to me with comments about the DEAR XYLENE column or with letters to be forwarded to Xylene.

Elizabeth C.Welsh, WAAC Newsletter Editor

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