Choosing a Conservator

by Kenneth Katz

A painting that received smoke damage from a fire, during grime and varnish removal.

Last week, my wife and I invited some friends over at the last minute for dessert. We really didn't have any and I volunteered to get some kinds of cake. I found myself going to the local family owned market, rather than the chain which is closer and less expensive. As I entered, I was struck by the number of people that were shopping there.

I questioned myself as to why I had chosen this place over others and quickly related my questions to the questions potential conservation clients might ask. The reason why I shopped at this local market was the quality and variety of goods. This quality and variety were a direct result of the owner's commitment to his clients. The results of his presentations and goods made me feel comfortable and brought me in, despite the fact that the prices are generally much higher.

A conservator in private practice, at least presently, does not have to deal with chains, but does have to provide his clients with an environment of comfort. This means trust and great service. This is not taught at Graduate School. The success of a private conservator depends on his/her ability to relate to his client base, whether it is the educated museum professional or the autoworker with a "picher" (sic) of his Dad, painted by his mother. There is no compromise to quality, of course, and we have been successful because we treat every object and client with the same respect and consideration. We are also committed to service, which means that all proposals for treatments are sent within two weeks of our first meeting and that the average treatment time does not take longer than three months.  Updates are sometimes sent by e-mail or letter after 3 weeks or so to keep clients informed, and we have now begun to send digital photos of works in progress. All these measures tend to make the client feel good about the expense and helps to educate them in the process. They feel that they are taking part in the treatment and this can only help the cause of Conservation.

Over the last 25 years, I have witnessed gifted conservators
practically close institutions by themselves due to actions that have alienated patrons and clients. I have been in places where treatment times were measured in years rather than months. Conservators in private practice must be attuned to their client base and consistently deliver a high quality service in order to stay in business. Little by little, the small things, like holiday cards, partial payments, free lectures to schools and classes, and returning telephone calls grow into a network that extends far beyond the local area. If Conservators want to be part of the agenda for the preservation of historic and artistic works, they must start on the grass roots level and build upward. With larger and larger client bases, it is inevitable that one or more of those clients will be able to begin influencing the people with the power to affect the art world. One only has to look at the history of conservation today, to see that the Conservators that have truly influenced the field were successful in Private practice and were able to influence their influential clients; Sheldon and Caroline Keck a prime example among many others.

So to the client, I would suggest that choosing a conservator is like choosing any other professional. Comfort and quality should be your guide. To Conservators, I would remind us that service and respect go a long way in improving the field and can only expand the horizon of opportunities for having an impact.

Conservation and Museum Services
905 Henry Street
Detroit, MI 48201
Telephone 313 963 5262
Fax 313 963 5226