Volume 13, Number 1, Jan. 1991, p.10
Ben Johnson graduated from Hopewell High School in Virginia in 1956. Because of his football skills and prowess, he was awarded a scholarship to the College of William and Mary, where he earned a BA in mathematics in 1960. His artistic ability, combined with a science background, led to a scholarship at New York University's new Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center. Ben was the first graduate of the program, receiving a MA in art history in 1963 and his certificate in art conservation in 1964. From 1963 to 1965, Ben studied in Europe, first on a private grant at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, then as a Fulbright Scholar at the Institut Royal du Patrimonie Artistique, Brussels.
Ben began his professional career as a conservator of American paintings at the Freer Gallery, Washington, DC. During that time he had a private practice caring for paintings at Dumbarton Oaks, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery of Fine Arts, and other branches of the Smithsonian Institution, as well as private collections.
In 1967, Ben arrived in southern California to establish the Conservation Center at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). This was the first center west of the Mississippi to combine conservation and analytical capabilities. He remained Head Conservator until 1979, when he retired because of severe health problems. A diabetic from the age of 15, Ben suffered serious complications of the disease beginning in 1971, and ultimately he underwent four kidney transplants, amputation of both legs, loss of one eye and heart bypass surgery.
Ben's first priority was to assure the role of professional conservation on the West Coast. Establishing strong relationships with staff and trustees, he secured the importance of conservation at LACMA; then, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Conservation Center began working with museums and collectors from San Diego to San Francisco. During that period, Ben was the prime force behind the creation of the Western Association of Art Conservators, later renamed the Western Association for Art Conservation.
Ben also carried the concepts of art conservation to art historians and to collectors, among them, Norton Simon, Armand Hammer and Edwin Carter. During his tenure at LACMA, Ben gave formal lecture courses at UCLA from 1967-1979 and at USC from 1977-1979. Through the years, many of his former art history students have expressed the opinion that his course was the best they encountered. Beginning in 1968, numerous conservation apprentices and interns from the USA and abroad were given training at the Conservation Center. Many of these former students are prominent conservators today.
Ben lectured widely and published several technical papers. The 1970 film, The Art of the Conservator, continues to introduce many to art conservation. Ben was a Fellow of both the IIC and the AIC. He served on the AIC board of directors from 1977-1980. He was the executive director of FAIC from 1979-1981 and was instrumental in establishing the George Stout Memorial Fund.
After retiring from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he established Artcare, Inc. to continue consulting on paintings, conservation problems and pre-Columbian art. He had recently co-written and produced a film, Divine Hand, about the work of Leonardo da Vinci for the Program for Art on Film sponsored by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Although actively adopting and introducing new conservation technology, Ben, who painted until the day he died, was a strong believer in the primacy of an aesthetic approach to works of art. Throughout the illnesses of his last nineteen years, Ben's spirit was indomitable. He was a teacher to art lovers and a mentor to many of today's practicing conservators. As always, his courage, his graciousness, his love of life will continue to inspire all those whose lives he touched.James L Greaves