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To Preserve and Protect

Caring for Art Can Be a Calling as Well as a Profession

September 28, 2003|EMILY YOUNG

Ask Brian Considine what it means to be conservator of decorative arts and sculpture at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and his reply is deceptively succinct: "I'm responsible for all of the museum's three-dimensional objects except antiquities." Only when you prod him to elaborate does the enormity of his statement become clear.

Considine supervises the authentication, display, handling, cleaning, restoration, transport and storage of thousands of priceless treasures. He and his seven-member staff are experts on gilded wood chairs, mosaic tables, porcelain vases and silver bowls, as well as wool carpets, silk tapestries and stained glass. They also possess an encyclopedic knowledge of bronze, terracotta, marble and alabaster sculpture.

Controlling the indoor environment is among Considine's highest priorities since ultraviolet radiation (which leads to fading and deterioration), fluctuations in heat and humidity (warping and corrosion) and insect infestation (holes and missing parts) can damage artifacts. "We keep light levels low and temperature and relative humidity fairly constant," he says. "And we're always checking for signs of insects."

In safeguarding against earthquakes, Considine takes "a 24-7 approach, not just in the galleries but in the labs, storage areas and photo studio." Many artworks have been stabilized with custom base isolators, which are display tables or cases containing ball bearings and springs to absorb ground movement. Other artworks are secured or supported with discreetly placed microcrystalline wax, monofilament (fishing line), brackets or rods.

If it seems Considine's job demands an impossibly broad range of skills, the 54-year-old New Jersey native has been preparing for it his whole life. Born to parents and grandparents who collected antiques, he grew up passionate about fine furniture. "I loved its sculptural quality and the differences in woods and textures"--so much so that he abandoned plans to become an architect, learned to build Shaker reproductions from master craftsmen and opened his own cabinetmaking shop.

By 1980, Considine's interest had shifted from creating furniture to conserving it. "I wanted to work on the finest antiques, and that led me to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston." There he received on-the-job training with one of the premier collections of American decorative arts. After three years, he went to Paris to study the ancient French techniques of water gilding, or gold leafing, and marquetry. In 1986, he returned to the States well-versed in European furniture and took his position at the Getty, then in Malibu.

Today, Considine--who recently was named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, one of France's highest civilian honors--derives the most satisfaction from technical analysis. He loves nothing more than sleuthing out ancient materials and arcane methods of construction. But he never loses sight of the magic of the masterpieces in his care, whether it's an entire 18th century French paneled room or a small bronze by Dutch sculptor Adriaen de Vries. "Working with your hands on some of the greatest works of art is very spiritual," he says. "You feel like you're in the presence of genius."

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