Conservator Suzanne Siano on NASA’s Restoration Techniques and Securely Investing in Art

Q&A with with Suzanne Siano, chief conservator and director of Modern Art Conservation.

How did Modern Art Conservation begin?

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I went to New York University for my graduate conservation degree, intending to become an old masters conservator. During my final year of school, I took an internship at the Museum of Modern Art. It was amazing to be there, especially on days when I could be alone in the galleries. The MoMA conservators were very giving of their time and expertise, and I was able to work on some true masterworks. I [was hired there and] stayed for nearly thirteen years, and I became a specialist in modern and contemporary conservation. I really enjoy the fact that there are fewer chemicals involved and a lot of unusual materials; plus, with new art being made and collections continuing to be amassed, the field is growing.

I never planned to be a private conservator, but my job at MoMA was contracted and never permanent. I also worked for two independent practices, where I learned about private conservation and how to run a studio. In 2006 I began teaching conservation at NYU and doing a few private jobs out of a shared studio. I founded Modern Art Conservation in 2007, and it grew into a business of twelve people in a 10,000-square-foot facility, with nearly 5,000 works treated so far.

What does your role entail?

We work on auction lots and private, corporate, and museum collections, and we advise contemporary artists on how to make pieces that will last. We do everything from examining works and writing condition reports to treating paintings to creating mock-ups with artists.

My team collaborates on everything, and each person brings a unique set of skills. As chief conservator and head of the studio, I meet each client, read every condition report, design each treatment, and check every artwork at all stages of the process. Conservation presents new problems and challenges every day. It can also be very frustrating, because not every artwork shows up with its provenance. The job is kind of like being a detective. We check labels on the work, search for its exhibition and ownership history, and consider every crack or mark. Doing all that research makes the job super interesting.

Portrait of Suzanne Siano.

Portrait of Suzanne Siano.

What surprises you most as a conservator?

I’m amazed that so many people never have a conservator review the artwork they buy or explain what living with it will entail. They don’t even consider things like whether a painting will fit through their front door without being taken off its stretcher bars and rolled, which risks serious damage. The conservator’s role is vital to knowing what you’re getting, what you can live with safely, and how secure your investment is. Whether you love art or simply see it as a financial asset, you still should know what you’re buying and how to care for it. I think it’s helpful to talk about conservation at conferences and webinars, so that buyers know how it fits into the insurance world, the appraisal world, the auction world, et cetera.

Have you had any particularly challenging projects?

We did a fire damage project years ago for an older couple who had a deep attachment to their art. It was a really nice collection of midcentury modern paintings and sculptures, but it had been deemed a total loss. Every piece needed multiple kinds of treatment, and we found a range of techniques—including some we learned from NASA—to restore all the works. The space agency had a process that enabled us to put smoke-damaged paintings into a sealed chamber, where oxygen atoms would attach to the carbon and turn the soot into a gas that just lifted off the surface of the work. Then we could treat the rest of the problems. The clients were so grateful to have all those works restored and displayed in their new apartment. It was an extremely satisfying project for my team.

Is there anything you want aspiring conservators to know?

There is no better job than being surrounded by art every day and being integral to its longevity. Today, there are a lot of job opportunities in museums and private studios, especially with a whole generation of conservators retiring and art preservation becoming a higher priority as collections expand. It’s important to take graduate level conservation courses and to participate in training programs. And for those worried by the science, it shouldn’t be a barrier. Conservation is very practical, and if you can get through the classes, it’s a great profession.


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