The Art Doctors
Buffalo State’s Conservation Program
By Linda Levine
Photography by Jessica Kourkounis

The Buffalo State program, famous in North America and also internationally, is nearly unknown in its own city. Institutions which depend on its wisdom and skill know, academicians know, a great benefactor like Ross Kenzie knows, but few local citizens know what Buffalo State has created.

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The Portrait of Alice Kidder Moore
undergoes analysis.
Among the skills of art scholars, the conservator’s are perhaps the least appreciated. The conservator, unlike the painter, printmaker, sculptor, or photographer, is anonymous, and anonymity doesn’t tend to draw attention to itself. Yet I’ve sometimes wondered whether there’s anything nobler than saving a piece of our cultural heritage.

Dr. Christopher Tahk, through his twenty-nine-year association with the Art Conservation Program at Buffalo State College, first as a student, then faculty member, and now Director, has watched the program grow significantly in the depth and breadth of its offerings and the size and richness of its facilities. Annually, these are showcased for the public by faculty and students at the department’s open house. This year the event will take place on October 26, when the community can visit the Rockwell Hall setting and meet the conservators. They’ll explain and illustrate with displays the work carried out in their particular labs.

Indeed, both for its complexity and comprehensiveness, the program requires explaining. It embraces not only the conservation of paintings, but also of works on paper, such as drawings, manuscripts, and books; sculpture and other three-dimensional objects; and textiles and photography. Without an up-close visit it would be hard to imagine the size of the high-powered instruments, which in some labs hang from the ceiling, and in others project from the walls. These assist the conservators in analyzing the ills of deterioration and finding the remedies.

It seems a paradoxical fact that the conservation of art is both a science and an art. As an art, it requires intuition; as a science, it involves laboratory-style technological knowledge and experience. All objects are treated on an individual basis. Conservation is not a craft, Tahk is keen to note, but a profession.

His own discipline, the one he taught after earning his Ph.D. at the University of Rochester, is pure chemistry. But he wasn’t sorry to give it up as an exclusive practice when, because of his intense interest in beautiful objects, he thought about combining science with art. So he came to the program—when it was located in Cooperstown, as a department of SUNY at Oneonta—and earned a master’s degree in conservation in 1974.

In the 1980s, Buffalo State’s president at the time, D. Bruce Johnstone, foresaw a marvelous chance for the college to develop one of the premier conservation departments in America. In 1987, he brought the conservation program to the college from Oneonta. In contrast to Cooperstown’s rural location, the city of Buffalo had well-established institutions of art, history, and science. Furthermore, Buffalo State was well-known as a leader in related areas of study—art history, applied art, industrial design—and it could now utilize and enhance those resources.

When the program joined Buffalo State, Tahk became its director. He was essential in supervising the key years of its growth—the varieties of course offerings, the numbers of workshops given by lecturers coming from out of town, and the reflection of technical advances in the field.

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Conservation professors Dan Kushel and Christopher Tahk with some recently completed projects, including a 19th century silver and ebony jewel box, shown during its repair process, opposite.
The Buffalo State program, famous in North America and also internationally, is nearly unknown in its own city. Institutions which depend on its wisdom and skill know, academicians know, a great benefactor like Ross Kenzie knows, but few local citizens know what Buffalo State has created. The program has periodically benefited from large grants by national organizations, which have added student fellowships, and enhanced the environmentally-controlled and superbly equipped facilities (each room of the multidimensional program is devoted to a separate aim). The program also manages its own library.

Art conservation has existed for as long as there’s been culture, that’s to say, since time immemorial. During a recent trip to Milan, Bologna, and Venice, I was again reminded how minor a task it seems conservation in our own young country should be, compared with the massive job of conserving the artistic culture of Italy, so notably eroded in the watery city of Venice. Venice suffered a particular setback in 1966, when it had its worst flood in a century. This was the same year as the overflow of the Arno River in Florence, when the American college and university community flew to the rescue of many historic churches. In fact, Tahk points out that the highly visible floods of Florence and the restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the Vatican were wonderful for preservation, suddenly bringing a new field to the attention of students who wanted to combine science and art.

He also notes that in early times artists served as their own conservators. The modern, professionalized field only began to develop in the 1950s. Since then, the field has grown so rapidly and abundantly that academic programs now have an average of six qualified applicants for every available space.

Despite the popularity of conservation studies, there are today only four master’s degree programs in North America, including New York University (the first), the University of Delaware, and Buffalo State’s. Course material for Buffalo’s three-year program covers almost every kind of expertise—from old master prints to ancient baskets to Victorian jewelry chests. Almost the only area of cultural property that the program doesn’t much cover is architecture, though students can go on to study architectural conservation elsewhere.

Courses in art conservation include the identification of materials and fabrication techniques; assessment and documentation of the physical condition of the artifact; measures to take to prevent damage during storage; display; and shipping. Upon satisfying the rigorous requirements of the curriculum, which include one-year internships at art or history institutions, students are prepared to practice professionally as conservators in their choice of specialties, and to go out into America, Europe, and anywhere else in the world.

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Highly selective admission standards to colleges offering graduate art conservation programs have yielded a remarkably strong employment record on the part of Buffalo State students. These include internships at all of the finest art museums in the country, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and J. Pierpont Morgan Library, which have their own conservation departments. Such internships often lead to jobs upon graduation in those institutions, where Buffalo State graduates frequently assume leadership positions. Moreover, of the 270-plus graduates of the Buffalo State program, some of whom set up shop on their own, nearly all remain professional conservators.

The Buffalo State Art Conservation program has given distinguished service to this community, including objects from area museums and private collectors. And since there are so few master’s programs, work to be restored comes to Buffalo from all over the country. The genial Tahk, now Distinguished Service Professor of SUNY, is fond of saying “We don’t accept only great work. We accept work that presents a problem to solve.”

The first challenge for the conservator, like the role of the physician, is to detect the problem, and make a plan to cure it. Examples of problems are the severe cupping and cracking of a painting’s surface, or the extreme yellowing of a painting’s varnish. The second challenge is not to risk going beyond the cure. “Do No Harm,” the parallel Hippocratic Oath, could be considered the model for the conservator’s ethic. This establishes a fine line between employing methods that will work and not destroy, between doing enough for an artifact but not too much. The line is different with every work of art, as you might surmise in the labs by looking at shelves upon shelves of resins and paint thinners, often concocted by the conservators themselves.

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“We do 100 treatments a year,” said Tahk. “Every treatment is done between a student and a faculty member. There are no ultimate answers, but instead different options. A responsible conservator doesn’t regard her or his option as the only one. To determine the options, you often reproduce an artist’s original materials and look into how the mechanisms of deterioration relate to the artist’s intent.” Noting that the goal is to preserve the artist’s meaning, he also says that “intent” is a dangerous word.” For most works, it’s an imponderable.

“You look at conservation from many dimensions, Tahk adds. “You decide whether the corrosion is destructive or not. We’re reluctant to leave in place what might cause further deterioration.”

With all this to consider, the chance to see the works presently under examination in the lab and the changes they are going through is a fascinating one.

Mark the date: Friday, October 26, 2-4 and 6-8 p.m., the Art Conservation Department, 2nd floor, Rockwell Hall, 1300 Elmwood Avenue.

Linda Levine writes on the arts and historic preservation.


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