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Conservation Notes: So you want to be a conservator…

July 24th, 2013

Art conservation is rewarding but challenging work. Conservators have a broad range of skills and knowledge — and a whole lot of patience! Below, read how staff members on our Conservation team made their way into their current roles, what keeps them excited about coming into work and what advice they have for those entering the field.


Sandra Webster-Cook, Conservator, Paintings

Sandra Webster-Cook

What do you do at the Gallery?
I am responsible for the preventive care and conservation or actual restoration treatment of the paintings in the AGO collection. I am responsible for the care of artworks when they are on exhibition, in storage or travelling to an outside exhibition.

What education and training got you here?
I have an honours degree in science (chemistry specialization) and studied art history and studio art before entering the art conservation program at Queen’s University, Kingston. Several years of internships in the U.S., Canada and France were critical to the development of practical manual skills, analytic interdisciplinary thinking and problem solving. The interpretation of the artists’ original intention and the process of change can be very complex.

Any tips for aspiring conservators?
The work and the formation require a lot of time and patience. Fine manual dexterity is essential, as is the ability to see subtle differences in colour, texture and finish. One must first and foremost love art and acquire a large knowledge base upon which to base decisions for treatment and/or preventive care.

What’s the best thing about being a conservator?
It is a great privilege to work so closely with beautiful objects, to see even at a microscopic level the craftsmanship and skill of the many artists’ work entrusted to our care.


Sherry Phillips, Conservator, Contemporary and Inuit Art

A-91417 Sherry Phillips alternate.jpg[1]

What do you do at the Gallery?
As a conservator I promote, advocate and actively provide for the preservation of works of art in the permanent or temporary custody of the Gallery, specifically from the contemporary and Inuit art collections.

What education and training got you here?
I have a bachelor’s degree of science in microbiology and zoology, then I went back to school for several art history and art studio courses while simultaneously volunteering with conservators, before studying conservation in the master’s program at Queen’s University.

Any tips for aspiring conservators?
Patience and perseverance. Admission to the program is competitive and finding employment afterwards can be difficult.

What’s the best thing about being a conservator?
Every day is different. It’s a privilege to work so closely with an object that represents history — to think about the person who made the object, the environment in which the object was made and how best to preserve the original intention into the future for others to appreciate and understand.


Lisa Ellis, Conservator, Sculpture and Decorative Arts

What do you do at the Gallery?
My job is to care for these collections. Essentially, I try to make sure that sculpture and decorative art objects are safe from accidents and the ravages of time — and fix them when things go wrong.

What education and training got you here?
Bachelors of arts from McGill in English literature and art history, M.A.s in art conservation (Queen’s) and art history (U of T). I also studied arts and crafts: spending a year in OCA’s (now OCAD U’s) glass program, for instance. I did internships at lots of museums in Canada and abroad: at Parks Canada, the Redpath and McCord Museum in Montreal, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Getty Museum, Historic New England, and the MFA, Boston. I spent some time with archaeological material at the Agora Excavations in Athens, Greece, and at the Institute of Nautical Archaeology labs in Bodrum, Turkey. Any and all experiences with art and artifacts help being an object conservator: we are faced with many different materials and manufactures all the time.

Any tips for aspiring conservators?
Learn lots about art and science, be interested in history and the art scene and be prepared to travel to get on the job experience.

What’s the best thing about being a conservator?
The best thing about working as a conservator is a sense of satisfaction in preserving wonderful objects. Conservators tend to be interesting and thoughtful people and make great colleagues. Museums and art galleries can be terrific places to work, surrounded by superlative art objects and artifacts, interesting and challenging projects and many committed and engaged museum professionals with whom it is fun to work.


Maria Sullivan, Manager, Conservation

A-96861 Maria Sullivan.tif

What do you do at the Gallery?
I oversee the day-to-day operation of the Conservation Department, including delivery of Conservation services, development and implementation of conservation procedures, systems and standards. I’m trained as a painting conservator. Although administration takes much of my time these days, I occasionally work with paintings more directly.

What education and training got you here?
I have an undergraduate degree in art history and a master’s degree and certificate of advanced studies in painting conservation from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. I have done a number of internships, advanced internships and fellowships at different institutions: Simonis & Buunk (The Netherlands), The Alaska State Museum, Baltimore Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Art and Andy Warhol Museum, the Intermuseum Conservation Association and here at the AGO. Working with a variety of different collections and approaches was incredibly valuable experience. In conservation, you’re always learning something new.

Any tips for aspiring conservators?

  • Learn as much as you can: paint, read, look at art, visit conservation labs and take science courses.
  • For most master’s-level programs, some experience working in the field is a prerequisite for admission.
  • Be persistent: it’s a small field and often difficult to find full time employment — but we love what we do.

What’s the best thing about being a conservator?
Working so closely with the art and with others who care about it passionately.


Katharine Whitman, Conservator, Photographs

Katharine Whitman

What do you do at the Gallery?
As a photograph conservator, I assess condition and treat damaged photographs when necessary, whether it’s for loan to another institution, for exhibition in the AGO or for accession into the AGO’s collection. I work with all kinds of photographs, such as photographs on metal, paper, plastic and glass.

What education and training got you here?
Bachelor’s of Science in biology, a bachelor’s of fine art in fine art photography (both a science and fine art background is necessary), a master’s in Art Conservation from Queens University and a two-year residency at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

Any tips for aspiring conservators?
While in a conservation program take courses that are outside your discipline — as a conservator you are bound to encounter many materials that may seem to be outside your field. Make sure you love what you are specializing in: the field is constantly changing and as a conservator one needs to keep up on the latest developments.

What’s the best thing about being a conservator?
Taking a work of art and being responsible for its preservation and seeing a treatment that you have done prolonging the life of the work.


Bo Kyung Brandy Shin, Assistant Conservator, Painting, OPT

Bo Kyung Shin

What do you do at the Gallery?
I preserve and conserve paintings in the AGO collection or paintings coming into/ going out of AGO for loans, in house exhibition and acquisitions.

What education and training got you here?
I have a bachelor’s in fine art, a diploma in collections conservation and management and a master’s in art conservation.

Any tips for aspiring conservators?
Try to broaden your knowledge and experience, even though you know what specialty you want to go into. A good conservator must have a curious mind, persistence and patience. Also, one has to be able to function well in collaborative work environments.

What’s the best thing about being a conservator?
Each work brings completely different challenges, most every time, and you are surrounded by art every day of your work.


Joan Weir, Conservator, Works on Paper

What do you do at the Gallery?
I conserve both historical and contemporary artworks such as prints, drawings, watercolours and installation works as well as archival documents and books. I really enjoy caring for such a wide variety of materials and techniques which can be quite challenging at times and always so interesting.

DSCN2776a

What education and training got you here?
I have an undergraduate degree in fine art (studio). As an art student I studied printmaking, photography and sculpture. After graduating from NSCAD, I returned to school to study the necessary chemistry that is required for admission to art conservation programs. I received a master’s of Art Conservation from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., with a specialty in the conservation of paper objects.

Any tips for aspiring conservators?
My advice would be to take some courses to learn more about materials and techniques of whatever area of conservation you are interested in, such as painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, bookmaking, metal work, stone work, textiles or architectural materials, to mention a few. Conservators work is slow, thoughtful work that requires steady, focused hand skills and a lot of patience. Be prepared to travel to study and to gain needed experience to be competitive in a small job market.

What’s the best thing about being a conservator?
I feel fortunate to be next to art every day and to be able to examine works in great detail. It’s a continuing source of intrigue and delight. The sharing of information, skills and research among colleagues means a job with lifelong learning built in, and it’s a great feeling to be preserving art now for future generations!


Margaret Haupt, Deputy Director, Collections Management and Conservation

What do you do at the Gallery?
I am a senior manager responsible for several departments, but we’re all focused on stewardship of the AGO art collections. I was hired 23 years ago as a paper conservator. Circumstances have changed with time. To the extent that I still have an active conservation practice, I work on “preventive conservation” or preservation management.

What education and training got you here?
One of my most formative experiences was working for a number of years just with contemporary art here at the AGO, at a time when there was a lot less professional information available on how to do that. It taught me always to think about the broader context of my work. It was a great thing!

Any tips for aspiring conservators?
I don’t know of a single conservator who doesn’t love what they do and who doesn’t largely define themselves in terms of their work. There are some people don’t keep with it for a variety of reasons. Do your homework before you apply for one or more of the training programs, especially about employment prospects.

What’s the best thing about being a conservator?
It’s interesting, it’s fun and I believe that it matters.


Christine Fillion, Conservator, Paintings OPT (occasional part-time)

What do you do at the Gallery?
My role involves the examination and treatment of paintings in the collection of the AGO for in-house exhibitions and loans to other Canadian and international institutions (museums and art galleries).

What education and training got you here?
A bachelor of fine arts degree with a major in visual arts and minor in art history; bachelor of science with major in chemistry and minor in geology; a master’s degree in art conservation Queen’s University: conservation of works of art on paper and conservation of paintings; internships in paintings conservation and museology in the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium and Italy.

Any tips for aspiring conservators?

  • Get a university undergraduate honours degree in either the natural sciences and/or fine arts, which includes studio art and history of art.
  • Try to do a three- to six-month internship at a museum prior to advanced studies in conservation at the master’s level to see if you really like this kind of work.
  • Receive a master’s degree in conservation from a recognized institution in Canada, the United States or abroad.
  • Do internships for a few years before applying for an assistant position in conservation in a museum where highly qualified conservators are employed.

What’s the best thing about being a conservator?
It’s a stimulating area to work in with an interdisciplinary approach where art, science and working “hands-on” with artworks/artifacts are all important components. Also those interested in writing texts and speaking to the public will be happy in this profession. Also don’t forget studying other languages: this is useful for communicating with other professionals and for reading conservation literature.


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


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