One of the pleasures of interviewing for an ongoing project such as the J. Paul Getty Trust Oral History Project is being able to draw connections between ideas and moments in time, and to the individuals who helped shape them. The Paintings Conservation Department at the Getty Trust is one such example. The development of this department mirrors the growth of the Getty from a small museum perched above the Malibu coast to its current iteration as a large organization with international reach. Over the last several years, I have been delighted to interview three people who not only saw this transformation and its impact on the Paintings Conservation Department, but helped build it up: Yvonne Szafran, Mark Leonard, and Joyce Hill Stoner.
Yvonne Szafran was the head of the Paintings Conservation Department from 2010 until her retirement in 2018. She joined the Getty Museum in 1976 through a work-study program in the Antiquities Conservation Department. In 1978, she became a conservator in the Paintings Conservation Department. (Yvonne Szafran: Forty Years of Paintings Conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum)
Mark Leonard was the head of the Paintings Conservation Department from 1998 until his retirement in 2010. He worked as an assistant conservator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before joining the Getty as an associate conservator of paintings in 1983. (Mark Leonard: Building New Traditions in Paintings Conservation at the Getty, 1983-2010)
Joyce Hill Stoner is a professor of material culture at the University of Delaware, Director of the University of Delaware Preservation Studies Doctoral Program, and painting conservator for the Winterthur/UD Program in Art Conservation. Dr. Stoner has a long history with the J. Paul Getty Trust, including as a visiting scholar to and traveling with the Paintings Conservation Department in the 1980s, working as the managing editor of Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts, and serving on committees with the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI). (Joyce Hill Stoner: My Life in Art Conservation and Intersections with the Getty)
Through memories that span four decades, these interviews help illuminate the passion, skill, and vision that conservators at the Getty Trust have used to treat some of the world’s finest paintings, and to grow the Paintings Conservation Department into a world-renowned operation.
The years after Mr. Getty’s 1976 passing and the subsequent money his will provided his namesake museum proved to be a heady time to be at the Getty. Szafran recalled that the new capital offered unique opportunities for conservators that they might not have found elsewhere. She explained,
“They were the times at the Getty when the money finally came, acquisitions started rolling in, shall we say. It was such an exciting time to be at the Getty because new paintings were being acquired frequently. So as the youngest member of the Department, I was given great things to work on, just because we were so busy.”
Certainly money opened doors for the Paintings Conservation Department, but in thinking about what made it unique amongst its counterparts at other museums, Szafran, Leonard, and Stoner all spoke about its philosophical approach to conservation—one which differed from the “objective” way many taught art conservation in the mid-century United States. Listen as Leonard explains this subjective approach,
This approach to art conservation started to take shape in the mid-century United States, thanks in part to the influence of European practitioners like John Brealey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—who also happened to be Leonard’s mentor. This style was also reinforced by Andrea Rothe, the former head of the Getty Paintings Conservation Department (1981-1998).
Another experience all three narrators shared was joining the Department for research trips that Rothe planned to Italy in the late 1980s. Stoner, who was already working at Winterthur, joined Rothe, Szafran, Leonard, and longtime Getty conservator Elisabeth Mention on one of these trips. Listen as Stoner recalls these trips that Rothe arranged:
Stoner and the others observed firsthand the differing conservation styles in Italy and engaged in conversation about what approach worked best for not only the Getty, but also for new students in the field. Stoner was actively teaching at Winterthur at the time, and discussed returning to the Getty for specialty training a few years later, videotaping the sessions in order to share them with her students. This willingness to invite non-staff conservators to such events indicates the importance of the Getty in fostering continuing education among its own staff and disseminating these ideas into the rest of the field.
These research trips to Italy also demonstrate that the Getty had an interest in cultivating talent, especially in the Paintings Conservation Department. This may be why a core group of four conservators—Rothe, Szafran, Leonard, and Mention—stayed together for around twenty years.
One thing that became apparent in the course of these interviews is that not all museums have in-house paintings conservation departments. And the fact that the Getty has supported this department from the beginning points to a dedication to succeeding in the field and to support the growing paintings collection in the Getty Museum.
During his tenure as head of the Department (1998-2010), Leonard continued to think about how to build public support for this work and expand international partnerships, especially in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the new access to museums and art collections to the West. His solution was to establish the Paintings Conservation Council. Listen as Leonard discusses his decision to create the Council,
Before joining the Getty Trust Oral History Project, my understanding of art conservation was limited. But in the course of interviewing Szafran, Leonard, and Stoner, I learned not only about treatment and techniques, but also about the important role the Paintings Conservation Department plays in the Getty Trust. Further, an in-depth look at this department underscores the transformation of the Getty into an international arts organization, as well as the people, talent, and innovation that pushed it forward.
The Getty Oral History Project includes interviews with individuals across the spectrum of the Getty Trust, including the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), which does international work to advance the field of art conservation. Of the four programs in the Getty Trust, the GCI stands out both for its scientific collaboration with other Getty entities, and its dedication to sharing conservation information worldwide. Kathleen Dardes’ lengthy career working in various GCI training programs is emblematic of this mission.
Kathleen Dardes is the head of Collections at the Getty Conservation Institute. She studied art history and classics at Temple University in the 1970s, and then went on to study art conservation at the Courtauld Institute of Art in the 1980s, specializing in textile conservation. Dardes then worked as a conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She joined the GCI in 1988 as the senior coordinator for the Training Program.
When Dardes joined the GCI in 1988, this Getty program was only three years old and trying to establish itself in the field. Dardes recalls working to build credibility as an international art conservation organization, and struggling against “skepticism” about this new Getty entity:
“I think part of it had to do with the fact that we were so darn rich, and we could buy pretty much anything we wanted and could do anything we wanted, and we weren’t beholden to anyone except our trustees. That gave us a certain freedom, which I think was sometimes resented in the broader field. So we had to prove ourselves.”
Part of the way the GCI proved itself was investing heavily in the international training programs Dardes helped create to share conservation best practices worldwide. These included the idea of preventive conservation, or delaying the deterioration of objects through procedures like managing collections environments. Dardes explained the need for this training, saying,
“In the field, you’d hear these funny stories about people making all sorts of elaborate measures to control environments in a gallery space or storage area, but the roof was leaking [laughs] or there was a pest issue or something. So we were looking at the small details, and not the larger system that the museum is.”
In recent years, the GCI has undertaken a project called MEPPI or Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative. Dardes explained that the GCI and several partners worked hard to establish much-needed photograph preservation courses throughout the Middle East to help institutions protect these collections. This project included many challenges, not the least of which is political instability. In her interview Dardes shared the inspirational story of one MEPPI participant’s dedication to conservation, even in the midst of the Syrian Civil War:
“When we arranged a follow-up course in Lebanon, which was open to people from throughout the region, one of the participants in Syria, at great personal risk, got on a bus with her father, who was there to protect her, and took a bus from Syria to Beirut. Took her two days to do that, a trip that normally takes half a day. Couldn’t fly because it was too difficult to go to the airport, too risky, but came to Beirut to be with her old colleagues and take a course—which we all found absolutely stunning. But that’s how committed she was, not only to the course itself, to the collections she was in charge of, but also to the network that was forming. She wanted to see her old colleagues and be involved in this thing called MEPPI. So it sounds very pollyannaish, but it was a wonderful thing. People who don’t often have the opportunity to be involved in projects like this don’t take them for granted. It was something that we all thought was remarkable.”
Though she has not explicitly used her skills as a textile conservator while at the GCI, Dardes has found opportunities to engage with the larger implications of cultural heritage around the world. Indeed, being a part of the Getty Trust has opened global opportunities for her—and the GCI—to share and teach conservation best practices on an incredible scale.
To learn more about her work with the Getty Conservation Institute, check out Kathleen Dardes’ oral history!