How sustainable is Art Conservation?

On a long roadtrip to Los Angeles last weekend I began to discuss my thoughts on sustainability with my husband, the musical instrument conservator Daniel Cull.  I’ve been a member of the AIC Committee on Sustainable Conservation Practices for the past year and I am stepping down from my position this year at the annual meeting.  I am deciding how I would like to continue to emphasize sustainable practices in my conservation practice, and what my goals are to make art conservation more sustainable as a profession.

With these ideas in mind, I looked at a variety of definitions of sustainability and pulled together my thoughts and discussions over the past year to create a type of sustainability evaluation for the field.  Because sustainability is equally supported by 3 areas - environmental sustainability - economic sustainability - and social sustainability, I looked at each individually and scored each individually below.


90 = A-/B+ - Because art conservation does not require the infinite consumption of finite resources it can be considered environmentally sustainable. A conservator can use a variety of materials to increase the longevity of art materials, and because art conservators study material science, they can analyze and determine appropriate materials for the treatment of any type of artifact, especially when limited by local availability of particular materials, or the future availability of certain conservation materials.


70 = D - Because art conservation does rely on an infinite supply of free labor (internships) it cannot be considered economically sustainable.  I would be interested in seeing a study of the wages at institutions that allow free labor through internships compared to the wages at institutions that do not.  I would wager that conservators who allow free labor for a day of work from interns are paid considerably less than conservators who do not.  Unpaid internships undermine the economic structure of conservation, capping the top salaries as well as lowering the bottom salaries.  I am unsure whether Fellowships or paid internships that do not account for changes in inflation or cost of living allowances also encourage employers to pay full-time employees less as well, I am very interested in seeing more research in this area of sustainability.


78 = C - Social Equality is intrinsically connected to Economics.  Because pre-program students of art conservation are encouraged or required to accept unpaid positions it limits the pursuit of conservation as a course of study to those who are independently wealthy and can pursue conservation as a hobby.  I give social equality a higher rating than economics because there is currently a dialogue in the field about making the field more inclusive and diverse, so there is an awareness of the lack of social equality and sustainability, I do not think there is an awareness of the lack of economic equality and sustainability in the field of art conservation.

I would like to see conservators come together and  in the interest of sustainability, promise to only accept paid internships, actively seek out teaching opportunities in communities that are under-represented in the conservation field, and actively seek out communities that are under-represented in the art world: go to prisons to discuss prison art, travel the country documenting folk art the way musicologists documented folk music, talk to children about the preservation of their art.  I want the field to be so much more sustainable, more adaptable, hopefully the grade will change from a 79 = C+ to at least a B.