Conservation and Collections Care
Prior to the pandemic we received funding from the Museums Assistance program which allowed us to choose a number of artworks from the art collection to receive conservation care.
Deciding what works to send for conservation treatment from the 15,000 + collection was no easy feat. It was also not made any easier by an impending deadline of less than 6 months, however the opportunity to provide necessary treatment to a few of our collection works was well worth the temporary stress. As caregivers to a large number of objects, you might be curious how we prioritize which objects receive treatment or not. It is our mission to provide equal care to all 15,000+ objects in our holdings, and how we do that is by providing all objects with museum quality storage and temperature controls. Everything in the collection has a specific home and also a specific storage solution in most cases. For instance, works on paper are stored in acid free solander boxes, framed paintings are wrapped in plastic and stored on shelves off the ground, ceramics often have custom boxes built from neutral materials and textiles are rolled in lightfast, neutral materials and suspended to avoid any potential damage. Preventative care is the most effective tool we have at our disposal to offer the objects in our care a long and happy life. It is part of our mission to provide access to the objects in our care and we do this by offering exhibitions, public programs and tours (you can even request to see specific works from the collection and we will accommodate this as best as we can). We are charged with balancing between providing access while also providing the proper care and treatment that allows these objects to remain in good condition even after we are long gone. Being given the opportunity to provide professional conservation treatment to a number of works in our collection was very exciting, one that required we think about which works needed the most treatment, were most widely requested or shown and considered the diversity of work that our collection holds.
To ensure that a variety of works in the collection were receiving the care they deserved, we chose a range of media including ceramic sculpture, paintings and works on paper. It was also important to us that indigenous artworks and artworks by female artists were included in our selections. The Norval Morrisseau artworks were high on our list, as these works have been shown in exhibitions before and are often used in behind the scenes tours. Indigenous art is an area of the collection we aspire to build on and we wish to continue creating opportunities to show these works to the public. Along with the Morrisseau works, artworks by Inuit artists Parr and Jessie Oonark were also chosen for conservation care. These works had similar conservation issues, in that they were all works on paper that were touching, or adhered overall, to acidic materials. Over time the acidic material will change the colour of the primary support i.e the paper the artwork is on, as well as degrade the integrity of the paper- threatening the longevity of these artworks.
Two works by Norval Morrisseau were chosen for conservation care, Sacred Buffalo and Sacred Bear Quest; both excellent representations of the artist’s work. These artworks were both created on inherently acidic primary supports. What this means is the artist chose a paper that is acidic and will degrade over time- this is a common issue in collections care. Materials change over time and it is not always realistic for artists to seek out conservation quality materials while creating their work. It does however become our job in collections to determine how to elongate the life of these works with material time limits. To put this into perspective these specific artworks were made in the 1960s making them around 60+ years old today and they came into the U of L art collections care in 1989. We have since shown and displayed these works on numerous occasions allowing for 3 decades worth of access and care. Our hope is that with the conservation provided by Conservator, Lisa Isley we can continue to offer access to these artworks for many more decades to come. Read the accompanying ULAG blog post by Intern, Jordan Hanas to understand the impact access to this artist and their artwork has had.
So what conservation did these artworks receive? Here’s a brief breakdown.
Sacred Buffalo and Sacred Bear Quest received custom conservation frames built by a local Calgary framer to suit the artworks. Framing is an important part of preserving artworks and ensuring the artist’s overall intention is maintained. On the artwork itself some brown staining was toned, and the paint layer was consolidated. Improving the overall appearance of the work and reducing the visual disruptions that have occurred over time.
Considering their age these artworks did not require a ton of conservation work, 30 years spent in an art collection has provided them with a level of care that has kept them in good condition. The small changes made by the Conservator ensures that those small stains and abrasions will not interfere over time, allowing the work to be viewed the way the artist intended for many years to come.
Top image: Lisa Isley working on Sacred Bear Quest in her Calgary studio
Bottom image: U of L art collection storage