Williamstown Art Conservation Center attracts crowds to restoration tours

Angular concrete slabs jut out into the gravel and grass. Minimalist architecture and nature combine gracefully at the Stone Hill Center, presenting a sunlit expanse that Tadao Ando, the principal designer of Stone Hill along with the landscape architects Reed Hilderbrand Associates, has innovatively woven. The Stone Hill Center houses the Williamstown Art Conservation Center (WACC) along with a classroom and two intimate galleries.

The WACC is the largest regional conservation center in the U.S. and serves over 55 member institutions which range from fine art museums to historic sites, as well as private clients. The Center is a full-service facility that conserves paintings, works on paper, photographs, furniture, frames, sculpture, ethnographic and decorative arts objects and archaeological and historic artifacts.

Public tours began on July 17, and their popularity has grown over time until they have been reserved to capacity. The last tour, on Oct. 9, has been booked with advanced reservation for over three weeks.

When I arrived, Tomas J. Branchick, the director of the WACC, stood facing a group of 30 attendees composed of mostly local Berkshire retirees. We began our tour in the outdoor entrance pergola which overlooks the entrance hall and is in between the two sectors of the Center, one being the galleries and the other WACC. This particular tour – one of three that have occurred after the school year began – was led by Branchick, who took us through each department of the Center starting with Paintings Conservation.

Branchick said that in the original conservation center paintings had been “in the back-seat of artifacts that were conserved” with a smaller and crowded space for equipment and conservator work space. However, the large metal doors opened onto an expansive space with wall-sized windows letting in the natural light and opening into the landscape around.

He showed us a painting by Walter Launt Palmer that was taken out of its frame and was resting flat on the table. It was a landscape painting of a winter forest with the white snow in a light blue light. “This artist is known to paint winter landscapes in blue snow, but believe it or not, when this painting first arrived it was tobacco brown,” Branchick said.

Branchick continued to describe the painting, emphasizing that the Center’s techniques involved in-painting, which paints within the missing sections of the deteriorated work, rather than over-painting, which is a technique that involves painting over the original work.

He then took us to the canvases that faced the window explaining that they specifically received northern light, the best type of light for paintings as it is more neutral as the sun passes throughout the day. Plus, because the windows also have solar protectors, the northern light will not damage the painting.

When an object is brought to WACC for treatment it is first examined to determine its condition along with the techniques and materials used by its creator. Then a conservator will prepare a treatment proposal and cost estimate which are presented to the owner. Once a specific course of treatment has been approved, the work is undertaken and frequent written reports and photographs are documented in each step in the process.

Branchick then walked us across the hall to the Paper Lab, which conserves prints, drawings, watercolors and even works on parchment. The Paper Lab receives eastern light due to its strongpoint during the day and its low lights in the early and late times of the day. Paper works are sometimes treated in de-ionized water baths that extract the solvents that have over time discolored the paper.

Outside of the Paper Lab is the industrial freight elevator, which carries works up to fifteen feet in length. After going downstairs we entered the Furniture and Wooden Objects Lab. Inside was an Indian sculpture of an elephant made of ivory, a “box sculpture” made by a German artist named Mary Bauermeister and six historical gloves from baseball Hall of Famers.

The Stone Hill Center is a beautiful facility and I encourage everyone to visit the building behind the Clark Art Institute to not only see the special exhibitions in its gallery spaces but also to peer through the wall-sized glass windows into the conservation labs, where conservators will be restoring important works of art from around the world.