University of Delaware
National Endowment for the Humanities Fellows (from left) Leah Bright, Samantha Owens and Madeline Corona.

NEH grant

Federal agency supports graduate art conservation program, students

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10:28 a.m., Jan. 21, 2016--A new federal grant to the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) will supply critical support to graduate students preparing for careers in preserving the world’s cultural and artistic heritage.

The three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) provides $150,000 in direct support for the graduate art conservation program, with an additional challenge grant of $25,000 to be given if the program raises that amount in matching funds.

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WUDPAC, internationally known and highly competitive, is one of only five graduate programs in art conservation in North America and one of only two jointly sponsored between a university and a museum. Its alumni lead conservation initiatives in museums and cultural institutions around the world.

The program has benefited from NEH support for decades, most recently using the funding to offer up to five student stipends and to help bring in expert speakers, said Debra Hess Norris, Unidel Henry Francis du Pont Chair in Fine Arts and chair of UD’s Department of Art Conservation. 

“NEH funding has allowed us to strengthen our curriculum in objects, preventive, photographic and textile conservation and, in partnership with other funders, to increase our stipend levels by more than 15 percent,” Norris said. “The support has been instrumental to our program and our students, allowing us to ensure that there will be professionals to protect our cultural heritage.”

WUDPAC students complete three years of classwork, laboratory training and fieldwork in various institutions. Many spend years after earning bachelor’s degrees — often taking chemistry, studio art and other classes and completing 2,000-plus hours of conservation internships or work — to prepare for entering the master’s degree program. Once accepted, they rely on stipends to focus on their coursework and field experience.

“Without the NEH support, it would be impossible to offer the stipends we do, and we might even have to reduce our enrollment,” Norris said. “The impact of this funding is significant to our entire program.”

The new grant will help support two third-year students, who spend the entire year working with conservation professionals in host institutions, and three second-year students. Those three, who all have chosen to specialize in working with objects, will each complete seven projects in the Winterthur laboratories between now and May.

Here is a brief look at their work.

Leah Bright

Bright studied art history and Spanish as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon. Her focus is in general objects conservation, with a particular interest in world cultures, folk art and examining how objects fit within people’s lives.

“I was always interested in art, and I always knew I wanted to do something with my hands” rather than academic research or teaching, she said. 

After graduating in 2010, she spent four years taking the necessary chemistry classes and working in various museums and arts organizations, including in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and in her native Alaska.

She recently was working on a teapot that is the only example in Winterthur’s collection of Measham Ware, a type of glazed pottery associated with English canal areas in the late 1800s. When small decorative pieces started to come loose from the teapot, the curator asked students to repair it.

Bright’s other treatment projects include a knife with a bone handle that was excavated from an old farm site near Odessa, Delaware.

Madeline Corona

Corona, whose main focus is on conservation science, majored in chemistry and art history as an undergraduate at Trinity University. After attending a lecture about art conservation, she said, she was immediately attracted to the field.

“I’ve always loved art and chemistry, so I see this field as a perfect fit for my interests,” Corona said. “This is something I’m passionate about, and it’s also something that’s always challenging.”

To prepare for applying to WUDPAC, she held internships at the National Park Service, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Alamo historic site. 

One of her current treatment projects this semester at Winterthur is an ostrich-feather fan dating from about the early 20th century. She’s been removing adhesive and masking tape from the plastic handle, left from a past display mount, and stabilizing the feathers, which have suffered insect damage.

Samantha Owens

Owens majored in art history as an undergraduate at Emory University, but she was always interested in science. When she took an art conservation class as a junior, she was hooked.

She worked at several institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., where she developed an interest in modern art. 

Her focus now on modern and contemporary objects is especially challenging, she said, because many are made from novel materials, and so there is limited research available on how to treat them if and when they deteriorate or become damaged.

“A lot of these materials that artists are using now are experimental and untested,” Owens said. “So treating them is a real challenge, and that’s what I like.”

One of her current treatment projects — all second-year students work on a range of objects, not just those in their primary area of interest — is a damaged 18th-19th century porcelain plate from Winterthur’s collection. Owens has been repairing breaks and removing a discolored residue that may have remained from a commercial cleaning material used in the past to dust the plate. 

Article by Ann Manser

Photos by Evan Krape

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