Q&A with IU Art Museum Conservator of Paintings

Margarat Contompasis has been the IU Art Museum Conservator of Paintings for 18 years. She shares with us a typical day on the job, her favorite spot on campus, and the chemistry behind her work.

ARTFROMALLANGLES: What led to your current position at IU?

MARGARET CONTOMPASIS: I was at the end of a 2 year Mellon fellowship working with the Menil Collection in Houston. I came across the job listing in the AIC (American Institute for Conservation)newsletter while I was on a courier trip in Europe returning art work that on loan for a large Magritte exhibition. While I was interested in the position the deadline had passed. In spite of the deadline I decided to take my chances and make a phone call. After a short conversation, I was offered an interview.

ARTFROMALLANGLES: What do you love most about working here?

CONTOMPASIS: I appreciate all of the support—support from the museum and from the university— especially since as a conservator, in the best interest of the art work, I may recommend against a proposal or project that may have a negative impact on art. I also love the fact that I get to work with people from across the university. I wouldn’t be able to do my job without the cooperation of crews from the physical plant and campus divisions. They have never let me down.

ARTFROMALLANGLES: Describe a typical day on the job.

CONTOMPASIS: There’s never a typical day on the job. I wear a lot of different hats. There are always ongoing projects, sometimes large-scale projects such as the Benton murals or the Calder. In addition to treatment I do a lot of research on historic artist materials, artist’s techniques, art history, and chemical analysis, and I publish. It’s hard to get bored.

ARTFROMALLANGLES: What has your position enabled you to do in terms of travel?

CONTOMPASIS: I sometimes travel with art from the IU Art Museum when it goes “on loan” to other institutions.  Recently, I have done a bit of traveling to other museums to view Braque paintings from a particular series The Rosenberg Quartet. One painting from that series is in the collection of the IU Art Museum. Because it is scheduled to be reunited with the other paintings from the series, we are considering a major treatment of our painting. My goal was to examine the other three paintings because they remain untreated. By viewing the three untreated paintings, seeing and understanding the physical characteristics of the original paint layers, helps us make an informed decision about whether or not to treat our part of the Quartet 

ARTFROMALLANGLES: What’s your favorite spot on campus and why?

CONTOMPASIS: I’ve been to many places on campus most people don’t get to see. My favorite indoor spot is the attic over the auditorium; one can run across some interesting artifacts, postmodern urban archaeology.  My favorite outdoor spot on campus would be Dunn Woods. It’s a great place to both clear your head and clear your lungs of the chemicals involved with conservation.

ARTFROMALLANGLES: What is one aspect of your job that most people might not know or expect?

M: Generally people do not think about all of the chemistry that conservators have to study. It’s fundamental to what we do. We have to understand the materials an artifact is made from, the agents of change, the rate at which materials react and the chemistry of those reactions and ultimately the chemistry to stop or slow the agents of change.

ARTFROMALLANGLES: What’s your favorite work of art at the museum?

CONTOMPASIS: Swing Landscape, La fenetre and the small Tarbell portrait of a woman. Swing Landscape is complicated because the artist treated it previously. So we have to decide — is its ethical if the painting is restored or changed? Is it sacred from artist’s hand, or can we do it again? Is it a part of history or do we decide it’s better for the painting if we restore it? I did very little removal of his restoration. His work is still there.

Stuart Davis (American, 1892–1964). Swing Landscape, 1938. Oil on canvas. IU Art Museum, 42.1
Art © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Balthus (French, 1908–2001). The Window, 1933. Oil on canvas. IU Art Museum, 70.62
© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Edmund C. Tarbell (American, 1862–1938). A Girl Mending, * 1905. Oil on canvas. Morton and Marie Bradley Memorial Collection, 75.122
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