Mellon Diversifying the Field

Exploring Modern African Art

A Chrysler Museum of Art and
Hampton University Museum Partnership

Elizabeth Robson

Hi everyone! My name is Elizabeth Robson and I am the Andrew W. Mellon Conservation Fellow on this exciting joint project between Hampton University Museum and the Chrysler Museum of Art. I will be conducting a condition survey of all the African artworks donated to HUM by the Harmon Foundation, and undertaking necessary treatments on the paintings in need of improvement before the planned exhibitions in 2024. 

My path into conservation started while I was in my senior year as an undergraduate student at Colgate University. I was majoring in Art History and French, and I still didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated. I started researching careers in the art field, and came across several schools offering Master’s degrees in Art Conservation, which equally combines art history, studio art, and chemistry. I immediately knew that this was the path for me, and started working to obtain all the necessary requirements for the graduate programs. I applied to many conservation internships, and was accepted by the Colonial Williamsburg Archeological Conservation Lab for a 6-week internship. After graduation, I moved to Virginia to begin this work, and also started taking General and Organic Chemistry, most of which I completed online or at Thomas Nelson Community College. Since I was working at Colonial Williamsburg, where there were 9 different conservation labs within one building, I was introduced to other conservators and specialties, and began volunteering with some of them as well. I had also gotten in touch with the chief conservator at The Mariners Museum, Fred Wallace, who allowed me to shadow him for two half-days per week. Through him, I met Valinda Carroll, and briefly worked with her on the collection of student architectural drawings at Hampton University’s Harvey Library. Fred also put me in touch with a local private paintings conservator, Marla Curtis, who works with both individual and institutional clients out of her own home studio in Williamsburg, and I began working part-time with her as well. After about a year, I was hired part-time at Colonial Williamsburg to treat and construct frames in the Wooden Artifacts Conservation Lab. 

After two years of this pre-program conservation experience and further academic coursework, I was accepted into the SUNY Buffalo State College Art Conservation Department, which is a 3-year Master’s degree program. This involves two years of study at Buffalo, and one year at an institution, in addition to two summer internships. In the first year, my classmates and I studied elements of paintings, paper, and objects conservation together, before choosing our specialties. At first I could not decide between objects and paintings, since I had greatly enjoyed my experience working on frames at Colonial Williamsburg. I considered compromising between these specialties by focusing on painted surfaces, and spent a summer in Brussels treating polychrome sculptures, but I then realized how much I missed paintings! So in my second year I focused on the paintings track, and continued to study imaging and analysis as well as the scientific and preventive aspects of conservation.

For my second summer internship, I still wanted to increase the variety of surfaces I had worked on, and went to the Saint Louis Art Museum to treat painted wallpaper panels. I then spent my third-year internship at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, FL, which includes a fine art museum, 2 circus museums, a historic house and theater, and a glass pavilion. At the time, I was one of only 3 conservators caring for the entire collection, including paintings from the Baroque to the modern period, outdoor sculptures, and circus costume drawings. I treated a variety of fascinating paintings, participated in loan activities, conducted infrared imaging, and assisted with exhibition installations. After I graduated from Buffalo with my Master’s degree, I moved back to Southeast Virginia and began a post-graduate fellowship at Colonial Williamsburg in the Paintings Conservation Lab. For two years I worked on several 18th- and 19th-century portraits, as well as modern folk art from the American South. I still wanted to continue working on a wide range of paintings, so I was thrilled to be selected for this Hampton-Chrysler Fellowship, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This project will focus on modern African paintings, an area I have not previously been exposed to. I have already learned so much from this experience, and hope to share this knowledge and my passion for art conservation to more people through outreach events and the blog found on this site!

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