ArtCity: Preserving the Collection at Woodstock Art Gallery – 71Bait

Conservation is an important element in maintaining a gallery’s collection of artworks.

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Conservation is an important element in maintaining a gallery’s collection of artworks. Here at Woodstock Art Gallery, conservation can take many different forms. It can be appropriate shelves and racks to store artworks, ensure the temperature and humidity are appropriate to slow down deterioration, wrap artworks in acid-free tissue to prevent dust and pollution, and more.

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What was considered an appropriate method of preserving a work of art 30 years ago may not be an appropriate method today. That was the case back in September when I was checking the condition of the artworks that were to be installed for our fall exhibitions in a few weeks.

One of the artworks is a very large mural that has been rolled up for almost 20 years. Oil, charcoal and pastel on unstretched canvas, Night and Day, You Are The One by Sheila Butler has been impressively stored. It was rolled, color side in, around a cotton-wrapped tube. Acid-free fabric was layered between the piece’s rolls, and Mylar, a polyester film, was tied around the rolled-up artwork with cotton twill tape to provide a protective layer. It was wonderful!

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However, when I unrolled the mural, six tissue papers were stuck to the innermost rolled part. The cloths stuck to oil, charcoal and pastel due to the pressure of the outer rollers. How would I remove the tissue without damaging the media? I have a background in artifact conservation, but I reached out to art conservator Wendy Crawford of Art Conservation Services Inc. for advice.

The artwork will now be on display in the Difficult exhibition until January 21, 2023.  (Joseph Hartman/Special to the Sentinel Review)
The artwork will now be on display in the Difficult exhibition until January 21, 2023. (Joseph Hartman/Special to the Sentinel Review) jpg, wd

Wendy told me to use a swab and distilled water to test if the paint is water soluble in the areas where the tissue is stuck. It turned out that the water didn’t remove the paint. Next I could use swabs with the distilled water to lightly wet the top where the tissues were stuck. This softened the tissue, which I then removed with tweezers.

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This worked beautifully for five out of six tissues, but the last piece was quite stubborn. I had Wendy come in to remove the final tissue using the same method. Conservators are constantly learning and practicing new skills. This was the first mural I had ever worked on and to the best of my knowledge I was able to safely remove most of the fabric. If a conservator is not confident in their work they should seek the help of a highly qualified conservator and Wendy has been outstanding in her support.

Now how do we keep this beautiful mural after the exhibition? For starters, rolling the artwork looser will ease the pressure on the innermost rolls of the mural. Second, it is now common practice to roll painted murals color side out, as the paint, especially when applied thickly, can wrinkle. The artwork is also rolled around a larger tube to prevent crushing and cotton is wrapped around the tube to prevent abrasion. Rather than using acid-free fabric, which can absorb moisture from the paint, a non-stick surface like Dartek — a type of nylon used to wrap artwork — is more beneficial.

It has been my pleasure to help treat this artwork and provide safer storage solutions for the future and I am delighted to continue helping with the preservation of artworks.

You can see this stunning mural by Sheila Butler in the Difficult exhibition at Woodstock Art Gallery until January 21, 2023.

Jessica Benjak-Waterous is Collections Director at Woodstock Art Gallery.

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