Caring for Works on Paper

Janelle Beasley, Works on Paper Preparator, Eskenazi Museum of Art

In pursuit of a new level of care for the works-on-paper collection at the Eskenazi Museum of Art, I recently attended an introductory course in paper conservation at the International Preservation Studies Center (IPSC). Located in the small town of Mount Carroll, Illinois, the IPSC offers more than 75 courses in collections care and historic preservation. Since its founding in 1980, the center has become a wonderful resource for museum professionals, archivists, librarians, and all those tasked with preserving historical artifacts.

Janelle Beasley (left) removing adhesive residue from a map with a crepe eraser

As the works-on-paper preparator at the EMA, my primary duty is to mat and frame the collection of prints, drawings, and photographs for exhibition and storage. Museum standards include using archival materials, framing the works with UV-filter glazing, and limiting their exposure to light. Given that paper degrades over time (to varying degrees depending on its quality), these preventative measures are crucial to prolonging the life of an object.

A damaged object, however, may require intervention by a conservator to improve its condition. In addition to internal degradation, paper can suffer from external sources such as poor storage conditions, exposure to light or humidity, acid migration, wear and tear, pollutants, and pest infestation. The instructors of “Care of Paper Artifacts,” Susan Russick and Tonia Grafakos of Northwestern University Libraries, provided a framework for understanding these issues as well as basic conservation treatments, including mending with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste, surface cleaning, humidification and flattening, adhesive removal, and deacidification.

A building on the International Preservation Studies Center campus

One benefit of attending the IPSC is getting to know other collections professionals. Our class of ten included representatives from a wide variety of institutions, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and the Walt Disney Archives. All of us shared the common goal of providing care to the paper artifacts in our collections. Now that I am back in Bloomington and the museum is closed for renovations, I am focusing on re-housing works, updating data, and making minor repairs for a portion of the collection. Working with the EMA’s collection of 22,000 works on paper (and counting), it is safe to say there will always be a need for care.

Please visit the IPSC website at www.preservationcenter.org to learn more.

Susan Russick demonstrates the toning of Japanese tissue using acrylic paints.

Eskenazi Museum of Art Website

 

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Lou Block: An Unexpected Slice of Life

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Image: Lou Block (American, 1895-1969). Conversation No. 1, ca. 1960. Gelatin silver print. Henry Holmes Smith Archive, Eskenazi Museum of Art 200.X.18.1

Today we bring you a look into the work of American photographer Lou Block by Nan Brewer, the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper. Block’s work, along with that of other influential photography professors, including Minor White, Allen Downs, Aaron Siskind, and Indiana University’s first photography professor, Henry Holmes Smith, will be on view in a new installation, Modern Pioneers: Professors of Photography, from November 8, 2016, through May 7, 2017, in the museum’s first floor gallery of the Art of the Western World. 

Lou Block is primarily known as a muralist, illustrator, and arts administrator, and served as a supervisor for the WPA Federal Art Project in New York City. During his tenure with the FAP he raised issues of racism and segregation within the government-sponsored organization, particularly the rejection of designs by black artists for the Harlem Hospital. Block was also involved politically with the Artists Congress and Artists’ Union, which organized an artists’ strike in 1934. Having worked with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera on his controversial Rockefeller Center murals, Block understood the power of art to move people and recognized the importance of truthfulness.

Inspired by his friend Ben Shahn, Block took up the camera as well as the brush and pen. He approached photography with the same honesty and creative passion as he did his other work. During his years in New York City he photographed numerous mural projects (many now lost), the Artists’ Union strike, and studies for a mural proposed at Riker’s Island. In 1951 Block moved to Kentucky, where he taught painting and creative photography at the University of Louisville. His later photographs include shots taken in Louisville, Mexico, New York City, and New Jersey.

Block’s photographs continued in the documentary tradition of the Farm Security Administration, while embracing the grittier, urban style of the New York Photo League. This image with its closely cropped focus on two foreground figures offers an intimate look into their private world. Never overly sentimentalizing or condescending to his subjects, Block used a 35mm camera to record as unobtrusively as possible a fleeting moment in time. While the interaction between the women is the central focus of the picture, the blurred tapestry of street life seen in the background provides the social context. Like the street photography of Robert Frank—whose book The Americans was published in the US in 1959—Block’s image relies on gesture and unexpected juxtapositions to reveal the whole story.

Nanette Esseck Brewer

The Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper

Eskenazi Museum of Art Website