Guide to creating a volunteer program for art conservation and maintenance
In this article we explain how volunteers can be properly incorporated into your art maintenance program. We also sort out the pros and cons of using volunteers, explain how conservators fit into your process, and give you the basic steps and tips for starting your volunteer program for art conservation and maintenance.
"I can do that."
Whether out loud to friends or in our head to ourselves, at some point in our lives we've all made this claim about something. Maybe it was when we watched someone flip a house on HGTV, when we saw a YouTube video of someone doing a backflip, or heard about a friend taking a week-long backpacking trip. Upon seeing or hearing these things, our minds quickly evaluated our strengths, intelligence, life circumstances, finances, and weaknesses to reassure us that if we wanted to, we could certainly do that.
If you've ever watched someone conserving a sculpture (or any other piece of art or artifact), you may have thought to yourself, "I could do that." Upon first glance at a conservator cleaning a sculpture, you might think it looks just like when you were cleaning your pots and pans after dinner last night. Or perhaps when a conservator casts a replacement piece for furniture, you remember doing something that looked quite similar with Play-Doh as a kid. In reality however, these tasks take much more training and skill than what is used with a bottle of Dawn and a Play-Doh Fun Factory.
Why art conservators are important
Conservators posses a unique set of skills and qualities that make them fit for the job, besides the fact that they go through many years of training. When it comes to conservation, the tasks performed go beyond the actual ability to do them. Conservation is part art history, part science, and part detective. Conservators are well-educated in the history of art, artifacts, cultures, and objects. Their goal is to maintain as much historical integrity as possible when treating an object. To do this they are like a scientist, having an in-depth knowledge about a variety of materials, chemicals, and how different combinations will or will not react to one another. Then, they also are trained in proper research techniques to assess why a particular situation is being caused with an object - is it from the environment, storage, handling, age, weather, or something else? Conservators take all of these things into account when assessing, treating, and recommending maintenance. This is the benefit of using a conservator vs. a volunteer for maintenance of your art collection.
Why using volunteers can be beneficial
However, that does not mean that volunteers cannot or should not ever be utilized for your maintenance program. There are certain basic cleaning techniques that can relatively easily be taught to someone who does not have a conservation background; it is stressed however, that only conservators should be teaching these techniques to volunteers in order to maintain the integrity of the training. Volunteers can be a great way to boost interest in your organization's cause, bring in more financial support, and gain publicity. When someone is able to feel part of something, they are more apt to take pride in it and be an advocate. It boosts community morale and builds camaraderie. How great would it be if all of these positive things would be to your organization's credit?
In summary, if you are going to have a maintenance program that relies on volunteers, it is suggested that conservators still be involved for the planning of the program. Without a solid foundation, you risk damaging your collection down the road. With proper planning and training, volunteers are able to honestly say, “I can do that.”
The best of both worlds
You can have the best of both worlds! Maintenance training provides the perfect opportunity for volunteers to learn from conservators. Conservators come equipped with years of training, knowledge, and scientific skill. Volunteers are eager to help, ready to learn, and can even help cut costs in some cases. Providing your volunteers with a proper maintenance training session will start your program off on the right foot by ensuring that all treatments completed by volunteers are done properly as trained by a professional conservator.
Pros and cons of a volunteer art conservation and maintenance program
Can reduce budget
Can create camaraderie and community around art collection
Depending on the project and amount of volunteers, a project could get completed relatively quickly
Some conservation work can be better than none (as long as it is properly executed!)
Must be very closely supervised
Time involved with training and producing training program
Volunteers are typically limited in proper conservation skill and knowledge
If there is not a conservator involved in developing the training program, artifacts/sculptures/etc can become damaged from improper cleaning techniques
Tips for starting a volunteer art conservation and maintenance program
Make sure that your organization is aware of the pros/cons of using volunteers vs conservators
Get financial support for your program from leadership/board (there will still be material costs, etc)
Create a training program with the assistance of a conservator (a solid training plan and assessment will help prevent damaging artwork)
Don't let volunteers train new or replacement volunteers - make sure the lead of conservation, or a professional conservator, trains all volunteers to maintain integrity of procedure and expectation
Have yearly refresher training and information workshops
Provide resources to volunteers - like guides, videos, or website pages - that they can reference for instruction and clarification at any time
Steps to creating an art conservation and maintenance volunteer program
Take an inventory of your art collection. You'll want to make sure you have a thorough documented list of all your pieces including details of its location, material, age, and any obvious concerns (breaks, cracks, mold, etc).
Consult with a conservator to:
Determine which pieces could be treated by non-professionals
Decide which pieces should be priority
Create a calendar for how frequently each piece should be treated
Develop a plan for how each piece should be treated and what materials to use
Help estimate costs for maintenance
Find your volunteers! Whether you will be utilizing staff from your organization or finding volunteers, you'll need to start gathering your crew. Make sure you find out how often they would be available and how much time they would be willing to commit. Also find out if they have any previous experience, training, or knowledge that would be an asset to your team (art history degree, construction experience, etc).
Have your volunteer orientation day. Once you choose a conservator to work with for your training program, schedule a time for an orientation for the whole team to learn the proper techniques for maintaining your collection. If possible, it would be great to make videos of these training sessions for future reference.
At this point, you have your priority list, plan for treatment, volunteers gathered, and volunteers trained. Now you just need to implement! Decide when you're going to complete your first project and get going.
When to always use a professional conservator
When you run into something new - if you have a volunteer program for regular maintenance, but you notice something different about one of your pieces that you've never seen before, be sure to contact your conservator.
Severe damage - if there are major breaks, areas of loss, or damage from fire/mold/etc, it is best to consult a conservator
Assessments - because of their in-depth training, conservators are able to take into account a piece's material, environment, and current condition to predict possible future issues and recommend proper treatment for preservation
When budget is available - if possible, it is always wise to work with a professional conservator for conservation treatment.
Ready to complete an assessment of your collection or schedule a training for your team?