Conservator illuminates art at Mulvane

Jackson Woods

The Washburn University community received a lesson in professional fine art conservation and restoration thanks to the Mulvane Art Museum as part of its Endangered Art exhibition.

Peggy Van Witt, chief conservator at Van Witt Fine Art Conservation, and professional associate with the American Institute for Conservation, gave a presentation in the Rita Blitt Gallery Nov. 14. She spoke about her years of work in art conservation and restoration and the experience she’s collected.

Van Witt is a respected conservator in her field and has worked out of the Kansas City area since 2003. She has worked on pieces that were insured for $500,000, and pieces from as early as the 16th century. With all that time invested, she’s formed some dislikes.

“Two worst colors to restore: black and blue, and they really do beat you up black and blue,” said Van Witt.

She has seen a huge variety of damages to paintings including: water, smoke, mold, fire and insect damage. In addition to physical restoration, her studio has conducted digital restorations.

Conservation is focused on preventing damage to an art piece through stabilization. Restoration is bringing back the artist’s intent.

Van Witt’s speech enraptured members of the crowd, who were pulled into her stories and listened intently to her advice for art preservation. One story she told was about a piece from the Capitol that was carefully packaged in a wooden crate for transport.

It was safely moved to the studio – but the audience gasped when they heard that the painting was sliced when taking the plastic off.

Van Witt started working in art conservation when she was 15 years old, after her mother moved to Germany after World War II. She’s worked on over 10,000 pieces of art over the course of her career, eight of which were pieces from the Mulvane Art Museum’s permanent collection.

The Mulvane Art Museum wanted to bring Van Witt to speak on campus since the first Endangered Art exhibition held in February 2018. The current exhibit started in July 2019, and features many pieces before and after restoration as well as a video recording of a restoration done by Van Witt for a piece on display.

The Mulvane has 5,000 works in the permanent collection, most of which are stored in the basement of the building. Cleaning, frame repair, or simply a frame is needed for many of the pieces.

One of the pieces that Van Witt has conserved for the Mulvane is an oil on canvas by Albert Bierstadt, titled “Lander’s Peak,” from 1863. It had experienced some damage from the wax lining seeping through the canvas.

Rebecca Manning is the collections manager at the Mulvane and was excited about the unique aspects this exhibition provided insight to.

“As a curator of this exhibition, what I really try to underscore is first, this is why this work is important here; and second here’s what needs to be done, and for us that’s been a really successful way to approach the project. It’s also unusual to be this transparent. These are works that we have. They’re prized pieces, and they’re in need of treatment,” said Manning.

Van Witt Fine Art Conservation can be followed at VannWittFineArt on Facebook, and vanwittartconservator on Instagram.

“Endangered Art A Reprise” runs until Jan. 11 in the upstairs art gallery of the Mulvane Art Museum. Admission is free and the gallery is open to the public.

Van Witt shared tips with the audience on how they can conserve their own art pieces to keep them lasting as long as possible.

“Don’t wash your paintings ever, water is the enemy,” said Van Witt.

This includes keeping humidity consistent, as fluctuations lead to wrinkling of the canvas. Additional advice she gave was to install a backing board to help reduce humidity changes, and be careful to have any lighting wash over the painting to avoid excess heat from bulbs causing burning.

If your painting is looking yellow, it is likely due to aged varnish that needs to be removed and replaced (usually every 10 years). The best way to dust your piece is with a new, very lightly dampened microfiber cloth – gently moving it across the surface.

Edited by Jason Morrison, Adam White, Wesley Tabor