Volunteers, staff conserve smoke-damaged art at Masur MuseumJune 15, 2017 | In the Press
The smell of smoke lingers on a Clyde Connell sculpture.
Soot sticks to the piece, as it does the frames and glass and matting of two dimensional works in the Masur Museum's permanent collection.
These are the artworks that art conservator Gabriel Dunn, owner of the Western New York-based unDunn Art Services, is training staff, volunteers and interns to clean in the Masur Museum's River Gallery.
They are a small fraction of the more than 650 pieces of artwork damaged when a fire broke out in the City Hall Annex, where the Masur Museum's permanent collection was stored.
Ninety percent of the permanent collection was damaged in the fire. Most of it was smoke damage, which means that the work can be cleaned. None of the work sustained damage from fire or water. The amount of damage the art sustained depends on how close it was to the smoke.
"It’s almost like when you smoke a ham or smoke some ribs, that smoke sticks to everything because smoke is oily. You may not realize but it’s very oily and so it sticks to things, almost like an oil slick that was airborne. And so that is the situation we’re in. Everything is covered to varying degrees in a film of soot," Curator Ben Hickey said.
On the gallery's second floor, Hickey angled a light so he could study the surface of the Clyde Connell sculpture as he cleaned it Tuesday afternoon. First, he vacuumed the sculpture with a HEPA filter vacuum and brushing it slowly with a non-abrasive Hake brush as he worked. Then, he started to wipe it gently with a dry cleaning pad, working in a small spot on the back of the sculpture to test the process.
On the first floor, Masur staff, interns and volunteers work together to clean photographs, prints and drawings under Dunn's supervision. They vacuumed artwork before removing drawings and photographs from frames, cleaning the frames and glass and working together to learn how to remove soot from the artwork.
"Some pieces, like photographs we won't be touching the surface, the image at all. Other pieces, like prints and etchings, we're going to be cleaning a little but more of the paper substrate that the artwork is produced on or made on," Dunn said.
Works on paper, which includes drawings, prints and photographs, are too fragile to be conserved using water-based, or aqueous, techniques. Aqueous techniques will be required to conserve paintings.
Volunteers will conserve the works on paper and 3D pieces using dry techniques.
Hickey is working with Dunn to learn to conserve paintings and some of the more damaged pieces, which he called "problem children."
"The process is very similar to the dry cleaning but you have to be more meticulous and you have to be more in tune to changing conditions caused by the moisture," he said.
Dunn told the volunteers to keep any marginalia they came across as they worked. Marginalia includes signatures, sketches or notes the artist made on the artwork. It's part of an artwork's history and must be kept with the piece.
They are also keeping and cleaning the frames. Hickey said the frames are already proportioned for the artworks they hold and is a cost-saving measure.
Conserving the artworks is expensive. Hickey and Executive Director Evelyn Stewart estimate that costs associated with the conservation efforts are more than $20,000 at this point. The costs will increase by at least $10,000 over the next four months and probably continue to increase for the following 8 months.
Insurance will cover most of the expenses, including the cost of re-framing artwork.
Gabriel Dunn, center, trains staff, interns and volunteers to clean soot from artwork on paper as part of the Masur Museum's effort to conserve its permanent collection, which sustained smoke damage in a fire in April, in Monroe, La., Tuesday, June 13, 2017. (Photo: Hannah Baldwin/The News-Star)
That much of the conservation will be done by volunteers will also help save money.
Hickey said the dozen volunteers working on the project are people who have a connection to and interest in the museum. Staff at the museum reached out to people who had called to ask how they could help in the immediate aftermath of the fire.
"People who kind of came out of the woodwork when we were moving the collection to a safe location that was acclimatized, they were some of the first people we asked," he said.
The volunteers have a range of experience when it comes to handling art. Some have backgrounds in studio art and others have never handled artwork before. Dunn said their training starts with the basics and they learn step by step to use more complicated conservation techniques.
Hickey said the Masur will eventually open the conservation lab to the public on a limited basis. The museum has canceled it's exhibitions for the next year but still plans to host Variety and Party 318. Hickey said he is also working on AltEx, a program of public murals and pop-up exhibits that will take place in galleries around Monroe and West Monroe and in public spaces.
Dunn will be at the museum until Thursday, training volunteers, interns and staff one on one. She may return to the museum for another week in a few months.