Flint, MI—Among pastoral scenes, still lifes, and a marble statue of a dancing woman in the Johnson Galleries of the Flint Institute of Arts, Heather Jackson holds a flashlight and magnifying glass centimeters from a painting entitled “Spring Flowers” by Albert-Émile Artigue.
“I’m (using) raking light,” she says, positioning the flashlight at an angle and squinting through the magnifying glass in her other hand. “And I’m looking for any change in the surface of the painting.”
On a rolling cart to her right sit the tools of her work, called condition reporting: a yellow tape measure, a paint brush, a pencil, and a notebook scribbled with measurements and annotations. There is also a tablet opened to “Articheck,” a program into which Jackson meticulously enters the information she gathers as she inspects the piece.
“I’m looking for issues like any kind of cracking, lifting of paint, losses, and what we call accretions—which could be any substance that has attached to the surface of the paint,” she says, scanning over the peach-colored dress of one of the artwork’s six depicted women.
Jackson does this reporting every few months under her role as collections manager for the FIA.
Condition reporting is a part of the museum’s conservation efforts—efforts which help to preserve its art through observation, documentation, and treatment.
“It all kind of falls under the term of ‘conservation,’” Jackson says, squinting again at the painting’s lower corner. “But we aim for preservation.”
As Jackson moves on to the ornate gold frame surrounding “Spring Flowers,” she explains that conservation means a repair, and preservation “is more maintaining the state of the piece without any further damage.”
This means taking precautions to control certain conditions in the museum—like temperature, humidity, and light—in order to limit the potential deterioration of artworks.
Jackson says that she looks for different things depending on the type of piece she’s inspecting. “Spring Flowers” is an oil on panel, but a marble, glass, paper, or even an oil on canvas work can present different issues.
“With a canvas—that stretch—the structure maybe has kind of warped, or maybe it’s too tight, so it can potentially cause damage,” she explains.
While the FIA can limit its own contribution to artwork deterioration using climate monitoring devices and appropriate lighting, other sources of damage aren’t as easy to counteract.
The Midwest Art Conservation Center calls the 10 external factors art and cultural heritage objects are subject to “agents of deterioration.” Aside from temperature, humidity, and light, its list includes fire, water, direct physical forces, pests or mold, dissociation, pollutants, and thieves or vandals.
However, says Jackson, most of what she finds during her reporting are pre-existing conditions in the works.
“So my job is to make sure that they don’t change, they don’t get worse, or that there’s no new condition issues,” she says, bending down to get her flashlight under the shadow of the painting’s frame.
Should a piece require a closer look or conservation work, Jackson says she informs both her coworkers and the museum’s contracted conservator, Kenneth Katz, whom she calls her “angel.”
“Without him,” she smiles, “this would probably be a lot harder.”
Katz would later explain his role more humbly from his Detroit workshop. “When you own something, you want to maintain its condition and conservators are there to help maintain conditions,” he said.
If Katz is called in, he will assess artwork and perform any work determined to be in the best interest of restoring or preserving it.
“Probably the most important thing a conservator does is try to make the painting appear as if it had just been painted by the artist,” said Katz. “When paintings are dirty or covered in varnish that has yellowed, it obscures the original intent of the artist. And so people looking at these paintings don’t get a real idea of what the artist had intended.”
Back at the Flint Institute of Arts, Jackson is nearly done with her condition report for “Spring Flowers”—one of dozens of 19th century American & European artworks in the Johnson Galleries that she will document today.
Satisfied, she stands back up, turning off her flashlight and setting it back on the cart.
Like Katz, Jackson has thought a lot about why conservation work is so important, especially after her own professional milestones—handling a bronze sculpture by Rodin, a work on paper by Dürer—and building her FIA career from intern to Collections Manager over the past 11 years.
“The purpose of a museum is to house the collection that is for your community, the public,” she said, thumbing the tablet still open on an image of “Spring Flowers.”
“This is here for people to enjoy, to be educated by,” she said, gesturing toward the real-life “Spring Flowers” behind her. “We’re here to serve them. If the works aren’t properly maintained, then I think we’re doing a disservice.”
And with that, she slowly wheeled her cart over to the next painting.