Conserving Modern and Contemporary American Art

Research and conservation of paintings at the Lunder Conservation Center in Washington, DC.

Imagine that you are walking down a long, brightly lit corridor. To your right, you see columns of white light flowing out from inside an 8 ft x 32 ft wall cabinet. At the far end of the corridor, a floor-to-ceiling glass window is labeled “Paintings Conservation Studio.” It contains several unframed paintings on easels, fume-exhaust hoses extending downward from the ceiling, jars of colorful dry pigments, and a library of books. The studio is part of the Lunder Conservation Center (LCC) at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). This area is where I have been completing my training with support from a 2019–2020 Samuel H. Kress post-graduate fellowship award and a 2020–2022 Lunder Conservation Center post-graduate fellowship award. Head of Conservation / Senior Paintings Conservator Amber Kerr and Paintings Conservator Gwen Manthey served as my mentors. 

LCC opened in 2006 as the first permanently visible conservation lab inside a museum. Over the past sixteen years, it has remained an internationally recognized leader in advocacy, outreach, and education for the preservation of cultural heritage. As a SAAM appointee, I have been working to preserve and care for the museum’s permanent collections. This has been accomplished through routine gallery maintenance, conservation treatments, analytical research, and public outreach.  

The most significant challenge I faced was the pandemic-induced restrictions during my Lunder academic appointment. SAAM closed to the public the first time from 3/14/20–9/17/20 and again a second time from 11/23/20–5/13/21. Since I was working in the Conservation Department, we were permitted inside the building for routine tasks like gallery checks, dusting, performing conservation treatment, and retrieving equipment. I needed to travel between the main building and off-site storage, so coordination with other departments—such as curatorial, registration, exhibitions, and education—was essential. Although LCC staff remained active and were allowed on-site, many other museum departments were working remotely. 

Keara Teeter wears eyeglass magnifiers while inpainting one Fighters for Freedom artwork.  Martin Kotler, frames conservator

My major project was conducting a collection survey and series of conservation treatments for 28 Fighters for Freedom paintings (ca. 1944–1946) by African American artist William Henry Johnson (1901–1970). The series depicts Black history spanning from the American Revolution to World War II, and many of these paintings have not been on view since the museum acquired the collection in 1967. My survey helped identify artworks in storage that would need conservation treatment and framing prior to their travel for this loan exhibition. In addition, analytical research was jointly conducted between SAAM and the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute.  

Visual analysis research and conservation treatments were shared with museum audiences through in-person tours and digital engagement programs. This general information was provided online through a blog post on SAAM’s Eye Level site, a video interview as part of the Converse with a Conservator series, and the Smithsonian Learning Lab resource Decoding the Paintings. More specific research findings and analytical data was shared during academic lectures at the 49th American Institute for Conservation (AIC) meeting and the 2021 Microscopy and Microanalysis conference. In January 2022, the exhibition “Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice” premiered at the Gibbes Museum of Art in South Carolina. I contributed to that exhibition as a guest speaker for their virtual program Conserving the Fighters for Freedom. The paintings will continue to travel to other museums across the country over the next couple years, and they will return to SAAM in 2024 for a debut in Washington, DC.  

Since the Fighters for Freedom project concluded, my attention has shifted to caring for other modern and contemporary artworks in the Smithsonian collection. Two feature projects include the six-panel mural painting Honor Pythagoras, Per I–Per VI by Alfred Jensen (1903–1981) and the masterwork Beta Upsilon by Morris Louis (1912–1962). Both works will be part of the reinstalled third-floor Lincoln Gallery, which is scheduled to re-open to the public in September 2023. Alfred Jensen’s mural has not been on view at SAAM since 2014, and it came into the conservation lab to address several issues including the stabilization of cracked impasto, reduction of visually distracting efflorescence (a powdery substance that slowly forms on the surface), and the addition of padded backing boards (to restrict air flow and vibrations in the canvas). 

Alfred Jensen’s painting Honor Pythagoras, Per I–Per VI (2001.35A–F) is being discussed with students from the George Washington University class Preventive Conservation Concepts. Anna Nielsen, LCC Program Coordinator
The masterwork by Morris Louis has not been on view since 1988. The massive 8½-ft x 20-ft painting had been rolled on two extra-large tubes in long-term storage. For this treatment, I worked with two advanced-level summer conservation interns from Buffalo State College and Winterthur/University of Delaware. Together, our team hand-stitched an “edge lining” to the tacking margins of this canvas. The edge lining is necessary to prepare this artwork for re-stretching, as the new fabric will carry most of the tension (thus, reducing stress on the original canvas). Once the new aluminum stretcher was delivered, our paintings conservation team assembled it, covered it with a canvas “loose lining”, and re-stretched Beta Upsilon. The next step in this treatment will be for the Exhibitions Department to build a new display frame. 
Amber Kerr helps the 2022 summer interns to setupstage photography for Morris Louis Beta Upsilon (1980.5.6). Keara Teeter, paintings conservator

My Kress and Lunder academic appointments have been a wonderful learning experience for a variety of reasons. From the museum educator’s perspective, the Fighters for Freedom project has introduced histories that had been previously unfamiliar to me. From the conservation training perspective, all three projects have helped me learn to examine and conserve non-traditional artists’ materials that were used to create modern and contemporary paintings. Throughout my post-graduate appointments, I was also highly involved with the conservation profession outside of SAAM. I enrolled in the Voices in Contemporary Art (VoCA) 2022 Artist Interview Workshop, joined the Washington Conservation Guild (WCG) leadership board, and served as an Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) Professional Education and Training Officer. While volunteering with WCG, I helped organize events such as their virtual Emerging Professionals Talks and Lunchtime Lab Tour series.  While volunteering with ECPN, I contributed to digital resources such as the ECPN Retrospective of the Great Recession Survey Report and AIC News article ECPN Reflects on a Field in Flux

I look forward to applying my conservation expertise, public outreach background, and leadership experience to a new position with SAAM as the 2022–2027 Meisel Conservator of Modern American Paintings. This limited-term staff position will focus on the recent acquisition of 18 Photorealist paintings donated by the Louis K. Meisel Gallery in New York. This acquisition is comprised of work by several artists including Audrey Flack, Chuck Close, Tom Blackwell, Ralph Goings, Ron Kleemann, and Ben Schonzeit. I also look forward to spending some more time with other modern and contemporary artworks in the museum collection. Those works will include three additional William H. Johnson Fighters for Freedom paintings for the 2024 exhibition. Throughout these experiences, I look forward to reaching broader audiences both within and beyond the DMV: District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. 

Keara Teeter sitting in front of Audrey Flack Queen (2022.11.5), gift of Louis K. and Susan P. Meisel. Leah Bright, objects conservator