From the windows of the Balboa Art Conservation Center, one can see a continuous flow of public life, at times restful, at times raucous, but ever exposed. Inside, the Balboa Park center feels like a private enclave, a sanctuary for sophisticated work blending highly disparate talents.
Part canny detectives, part efficient lab technicians and part sensitive artists, the art conservators within apply their healing skills to paintings, manuscripts, drawings and other aging and ailing artworks.
“Becoming an art conservator is a combination of studying a medical specialty and taking the veil,” said Wynn Lee, the center’s new director.
Work done in the 4,500-square-foot facility in the park’s Casa de Balboa is exacting, demanding and isolating, but it is not as private as it seems. Besides helping many Southern California art organizations maintain the health of their permanent collections, the nonprofit center has an educational mission and a public function. One of Lee’s goals since becoming the 16-year-old center’s director in October is to enhance its visibility and the public’s awareness of its purpose.
“It’s an institution that has kept its light hidden under a barrel--not consciously, but there’s been
no consciousness of trying to get the word out. It’s built itself up very solidly on word of mouth, but if the center is to grow, I’d have to enhance consciousness of what’s going on here on all levels,” Lee said recently in his spare, lab-like office.
Growth naturally plays a part in the BACC’s game plan, but maintaining the center’s own precious financial stability is as continuous a concern as protecting the physical stability of the works in its care. The BACC’s annual budget of roughly $500,000 supports a staff of 11--three administrators, four painting conservators and four paper conservators, as well as several student interns.
Most of that budget comes from earned income, fees paid for services the BACC provides to its 13 member institutions, art museums and historical societies in the Southwest, as well as to non-members that pay higher rates for the center’s work. The balance comes from grants and contributions.
The center’s prized self-sufficiency is getting harder to maintain, however, especially during competitive, recessionary times. Though he has no specific background in conservation--"I can’t use a Q-tip,” the smooth and self-assured Lee confessed--he has dealt previously with many of the problems that affect a conservation lab. His experience directing and raising funds for the Nantucket Historical Assn. in Massachusetts and the Mark Twain Memorial in Connecticut will, he hopes, help shift the BACC “toward a more public posture” that will bear fruit in terms of awareness and support.
“It’s a delicate balance. We have a relatively small staff. We’d like to open the doors and let people see the lab--all you have to do is see it and you’re interested in it--but it interrupts the flow of work,” he said. “Conservation requires a great deal of extended time and concentration. It’s less glamorous and more intense” than recent media attention has made it out to be.
In the movie “Ghostbusters II,” for instance, Sigourney Weaver plays a flighty art conservator who merely dabbles at her work, Lee said. And even the magazine and television coverage of the conservation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling encourages distorted views of the field, he believes. While the media coverage does help raise public consciousness of conservation issues, it has presented the project in such condensed form that the true intensity of conservation work does not come across.
Even the briefest visit to the Balboa Art Conservation Center would affirm the high level of that intensity. In the paper lab recently, one conservator patched a tear in an old drawing with ground paper pulp, then painstakingly toned the repaired area with pastel to match the rest of the yellowed sheet.
Meanwhile, in the paintings lab, chief conservator of paintings Elizabeth Court scrutinized a floral study presumed to have been painted in France in 1889 by American expatriate Mary Cassatt. Pigment samples will be taken to help establish the actual date of the painting, but Court is already suspicious. The canvas, she has detected, is mounted on a style of stretcher bars that was patented in the United States in 1886. How likely would it have been, she questioned, for such a new process to have been exported and used so quickly a century ago?
The authenticity of artworks comes into question often in the course of the BACC’s examinations and consultations, including its free monthly clinics open to the public. But the center stops short of appraising works, leaving that to specialists in a separate arena. What the center does provide its clients (member and non-member institutions, as well as private collectors who belong to a member museum or historical society) is detailed assessment of a work’s condition, a proposal for treatment and recommendations toward creating a stable environment for the work.
“We do not make aesthetic judgments,” Lee said. “Someone can bring us a (Leonardo) Da Vinci or their cousin’s portrait of Great-Aunt Mabel and they’ll get the same kind of treatment. If they’re willing to invest in the piece, we’re willing to do the work.”
The BACC’s member institutions include the San Diego Museum of Art and the Timken Museum of Art (formerly the Timken Art Gallery), both of which helped fund the center when it was established on the Museum of Art’s premises in 1975, before it moved across the Prado to the Casa de Balboa in 1981. The Laguna Art Museum, the California Capitol Historic Preservation Society and the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities are also members.
Donald Anderle, assistant director of resource collections for the Getty Center and a trustee of the BACC, said the Getty Center uses the BACC primarily to help maintain the condition of its collection of more than 3 million works on paper.
“We have lots of conservation issues to think about,” he said by telephone from his Santa Monica office. We need outside agencies to help us with this since the problems are too large for us to handle in-house.”
Local institutions such as the Museum of Art and the Timken rely in part on the BACC, but not exclusively. The SDMA’s prints and drawings department uses the BACC extensively, according to museum director Steven Brezzo, but curators of each department seek conservators appropriate to each task at hand, which often means sending a work out of town to a private consultant.
For the Timken, the BACC provides collection inspection, frame repair, icon conservation and various “household things that need to be done from time to time,” director Nancy Ames Petersen said. For its most important work, however, the museum contracts with David Bull, an independent conservator who also serves as chairman of painting conservation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
The BACC can’t be all things to all clients, but as one of the country’s 12 cooperative, regional art conservation centers, it does provide many institutions with an affordable alternative to maintaining their own, on-site laboratories. Lee hopes to attract more institutions to become members during his tenure at the BACC, especially smaller organizations that may have only a single paid staff member but are “sitting on riches.” They have a great need of the services the BACC can provide, Lee said.
Spurred on by the recession as well as high prices in the art market, most museums have had to trim their spending on new acquisitions, Lee noted. That has made them even more conscious of what their permanent collections already hold, and that, in turn, is good news for the BACC.
“There’s been more attention to the inherent and not just the monetary, value of currently held collections,” he said. “As a result, people are realizing that the money invested in conservation is money well spent.”