News and Features

Looking Forward to 2013: The DMA’s New Conservation Studio

Mark Leonard’s current office with Emile Bernard’s Bridge at Pont-Aven, 1891.

The Hot Tickets of 2013 Series

This past week, Art&Seek has been looking at people and events in North Texas arts worth keeping an eye on this next year. Today in the last of the Hot Ticket series, KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports on the Dallas Museum of Art’s new push into art conservation.

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Right now, the DMA’s conservation department is basically … Mark Leonard. His current project involves removing the varnish from Bridge at Pont-Aven, 1891, one of two paintings the DMA has by the French post-Impressionist Emile Bernard. But Leonard’s office is too small to do the job properly. To clean the painting, he takes it out on a padded dolly, along with his cart of jars and brushes. He trundles them both around the corner and down the hall to the DMA’s boardroom with its big windows.

“So I just set myself up here,” he says, “and put the painting on this easel. Couldn’t ask for better light.”

Right now, the DMA’s conservation department is important basically because it is Mark Leonard.As a full-time conservator, he’s rare in Texas. Hiring him got art-world attention because for 12 years before he retired, Leonard had led the painting conservation department at LA’s Getty Museum. Before that, he worked at the Met in New York City.

Maxwell Anderson, director of the DMA, says hiring just this one, top-flight conservator lets collectors and other museums know their work will get the very best care in Dallas. As a result, new exchanges and acquisitions may happen. Museums will want to work with Leonard.

Leonard standing in the former Seventeen Seventeen (left) and re-touching Petrus Christus, Virgin and Child in an Archway at the Budapest Museum of  Art

“This is a big change for our museum and for our city,” says Anderson. “There will be people knocking on our door to be, in effect, apprenticing alongside him.”

But Leonard had retired, moved to Palm Springs and was pursuing a second career, working on his own paintings. He even has a show of his work currently at the Yale Center for British Art. So … what did Anderson offer Leonard that convinced him to un-retire and move here?

It’s the chance to build his own conservation department. Literally build it.

Leonard leads the way from his current office –“We’re gonna walk all the way to the other end of the building” — down the museum’s main concourse and then upstairs into what had been the DMA’s elegant restaurant, Seventeen Seventeen. It’s empty now, has been for months. Work is just starting to turn it into what may well be the envy of other conservation programs.

“This will all be public space,” Leonard says gesturing to what had been the restaurant’s main dining room. “The idea was that everywhere you look, you will see works of art.”

He’s talking about what had been the restaurant’s main room. It’ll become a sleek and open gallery, almost a cocktail lounge — with a sculpture garden just outside on the balcony.

Artist’s rendering of the DMA’s conservation department’s public gallery and outdoor sculpture garden with the lab through the glass wall (center, right).

We step through to the next room, which will be the actual, working studio. With windows on three sides, it looks out into the trees along Ross Avenue.

“It’s essentially a glass box already, but then we’re going to tear out the ceiling and put in a skylight so that the whole room will be flooded with light.” I ask him if all this doesn’t look like a penthouse apartment for him. “Exactly,” Leonard says. He wants it to be appealing, a place curators would want to hang out in, to confer with the conservator and interns. In fact, he says, it looks to be such an appealing studio, he hopes it’ll be one of the attractions for contemporary artists to set up work there — when the DMA eventually inaugurates an artist’s residency program. Most museum work spaces and studios — they’re afterthoughts. They’re not showcases.

Director Anderson has called conservation one of a museum’s central functions. It’s the vital upkeep of the collection, keeping it fresh and alive. But conservation involves painstaking research and detailed labor that’s usually done backstage. Conservation may be the very definition of watching paint dry. It certainly gets little public attention — outside of the rare, reputation-changing restoration (as with Michelangelo’s use of color on the Sistine Chapel ceiling).

Yet Anderson has raised more than a million dollars for this gamble: He’s going to turn conservation into a public exhibit. Other museums hold the occasional tour through their work rooms. But this is different. Consistent with Anderson’s other efforts in making the DMA more accessible online, he will be, more or less, turning this internal museum function inside-out and putting a spotlight on it. Imagine a hedge fund putting the accountants on display.

For his part, Leonard is eager for the challenge to make his life’s work accessible. Beyond the daily opportunity for visitors just to see the conservator at work, Leonard wants to hold lectures and tours and ‘meet the conservator’ sessions for the public. He also believes there’s an inherent drama in a conservation studio, a drama not found in the formality of a museum gallery.

Artist’s rendering of the conservation lab, with the outdoor sculpture garden through the glass doors on the left.

“There is a kind of a distance that is set up in these very formal settings,” he says. “In a conservation studio, the paintings are out of their frames, they’re lying on tables, they’re handled. There’s an accessibility which lends a whole new dimension to the way that you can relate to a work of art.”

And Leonard may be getting some serious help. Anderson says the DMA has been talking with the University of Texas at Dallas to develop a high-tech conservation lab, one of only a handful in the country.

“We’re talking gas chromatography and X-ray fluorescence,” the director says. “There is no such program here, at the Kimbell or the Meadows. And our thought is by working collectively with our peers we could do something at a major university and have a result which can benefit all the museums in our region.”

No more trundling carts into the boardroom when the sunlight is right.