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Conserving Works on Paper

Hans Kleiber
Hans Kleiber (German/American, 1887-1967), Little Tongue River Canyon and The Valleys Beyond, watercolor on paper, 7-7/8 x 11-3/8 inches, gift of Union Pacific Foundation, 1983.8.

The UW Art Museum maintains its extensive collection of works on paper through careful conservation.

By Nicole M. Crawford

The University of Wyoming Art Museum has a permanent collection of more than 8,000 objects, more than half of which are works on paper that include prints, drawings and watercolors. Works on paper are typically the largest part of academic art museum collections due to the fact they are more affordable and easy to transport. This does not reduce the significance and importance of works on paper, however. For many museums, the most important works are those on paper.

Some of these artworks are hundreds of years old and have most likely been exposed to changes in temperature and humidity, pests, direct sunlight and general wear and tear from handling before coming to the museum. How does a museum overcome the impact of the past to works on paper? The UW Art Museum received a Conservation Assessment Program grant to create a written conservation plan in consultation with a specialized conservator from Denver in 1996.

Since then, the museum has completed four grant-funded surveys of the works on paper in the collection that identified and ranked artworks—from highest priority that require immediate conservation treatment to those that do not require any treatment. The 375 artworks that have been identified as “needs treatment as soon as possible” cannot be used for research, in the classroom or for exhibitions and must be stored in a secure limited-access storage area separate from other objects in the collection until conservation work can be completed.

These surveys were completed by paper conservators who are responsible for the long-term preservation of artistic and cultural artifacts. Conservation education and training is highly competitive and rigorous, requiring graduate coursework in both studio art and chemistry. Because conservation is an extremely specialized field, the costs associated with the actual conservation and preservation work are significant, and the process can be time consuming.

Works on paper are increasingly used for teaching, research and exhibition, and so Bob Inge, a paper conservator in Colorado, has been working on their treatment. The process involves shipping 30 to 40 artworks at a time to his studio where he repairs tears, holes and missing or faded pigment and removes any non-archival materials that were not created by the artists, such as old tape or marks and old inventory numbers from previous collectors.

The treated artworks are returned to the museum, and the next small batch is sent to the conservator. The process is then repeated. In the past year, he has completed treatment on approximately 100 works on paper, some of which will be highlighted in an exhibition of prints by Wyoming artist Hans Kleiber next summer when it premieres at the UW Art Museum and travels across the state. This is great opportunity to not only exhibit work that hasn’t been exhibited before but also to highlight the importance of conservation and the process by which the museum cares and preserves its collection for future generations.

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