Artworks either hang on the wall or sit on the shelf, so by and large, you wouldn’t think that they would require much in the line of maintenance aside from the occasional cleaning. Not so. Art pieces can be made from a wide variety of materials, each one with its own set of potential care and maintenance issues. But even a well meaning cleaning job can ruin an object or devalue it. Countless episodes of Antiques Roadshow bear witness to that catastrophe. The value of bronzes and Tiffany lamps are decimated once an overzealous polishing job removes the original surface quality of the work.
While garments come with tags that instruct you on how to launder your clothes and tech companies offer help desks for when your gadgets malfunction, but rarely does an artwork come with an instruction manual for how it should be maintained. This kind of knowledge belongs to the pros, like those at the Lunder Conservation Center, whose counsel I sought recently.
A recent purchase of a vintage poster on eBay from the 1950 Judy Garland/Gene Kelly musical Summer Stock arrived in my mailbox with more than its share of issues. The gauzy photos used in the auction listing hid a lot of the stains, the severe creases, and on taking the poster out of its grungy wood frame, I discovered packing tape patches on the back that had me feeling a little ill at ease. While still the perfect pop of color to brighten the living room wall, this poster was one sick puppy. It was time to contact Lunder.
Kate Maynor, who has been a conservator at the American Art Museum since 1986, greeted me at the Lunder Conservation Center’s paper lab. As I laid my poster on a table for examination, Maynor began by explaining the nature of the beast.
“Paper,” she said, “is a very open and porous. It makes works on paper very vulnerable to agents of deterioration.” She began by examining the back of the poster, and immediately pointed to the packing tape patches. It turns out that they were much worse than a merely inelegant repair job. Maynor explained that adhesives can cause an alarming amount of deterioration because the adhesive can migrate into the paper, causing it to stain or turn transparent. The other problem was surface grime—and the poster had plenty of that—which can also migrate and effect the aesthetic quality on the reverse side of the artwork.
Turning the poster over, Maynor brought over a halogen lamp and illuminated the poster from the side. While not a lighting choice for standard display purposes, it revealed tears and silverfish damage I never noticed when examining the piece at home. She then pointed brown acid stains caused by a bad frame job, explaining that, before the advent of acid-free and archival-grade materials, framers would use whatever was on hand to prepare an artwork for presentation. She had even seen cases where wood roofing shingles were used to back paper pieces, and over time, imparted wood grain-patterned acid stains onto an artwork.
Now that I had seen the poster, warts and all, it was time to brace myself for Maynor’ diagnosis. “What I try to do in order to discuss this is ascertain which of these conditions are contributing to the deterioration of the artwork and which conditions are stable,” she said. “And we have to weigh the effect of those condition problems. Some kinds of disfiguring stains might not be as important in an archival piece as opposed to an artwork where aesthetics are important. We have to be mindful of the original characteristics: is it glossy, is it matte, etc. All those characteristics need to be noted and maintained during treatment.”
Thankfully, the poster’s condition is unlikely to get worse, she assured me. The tape should be removed sooner than later and the piece should be surface cleaned. When re-framing, I should make sure that I use a mat board, so that the paper can breathe, and consider having a professional framer do the job since tapes are usually used to affix an artwork to the mat board in a DIY frame job. Before leaving, she wrote down a list of conservators in the area I could contact, and I was able to leave the museum with a game plan for how to ensure that Judy and Gene can beautify my walls for years to come.