Educating the next generation of art conservators is part of our central mission at the Williamstown and Atlanta Art Conservation Center. The journey to becoming an art conservator is long, but incredibly rewarding for those that are passionate about preserving our shared cultural heritage.
The Center provides generous paid pre-program internships to aid the next generation of conservators in developing their practical abilities and to fulfill their conservation requirement for graduate admissions. This is unique, since it has been typical for internships to be unpaid, limiting the diversity of emerging art conservators. Hopefully this becomes the standard as our field continues to evolve.
Typically, we accept 1-2 pre-program interns per year. In Williamstown, our pre-program interns work with our head of intern training, Montserrat Le Mense, and in Atlanta interns work with the Senior Conservator, Snow Fain. Interns also benefit from the experience of working with our interdisciplinary teams of conservators. In addition to practical experience, our analytical laboratory and close relationship with Williams College ,affords our interns the opportunity to get hands-on experience with conservation science at both locations.
Stephanie Gold prepares several reconstructed panels to reintegrate lost architectural elements belonging to a mural in Vermont
Pre-program interns may choose to focus on one discipline or work on a variety of projects in our objects, paper, wood and furniture, or paintings labs. Every inch of our space is filled with stories to be discovered: pages from a 15th century book of hours, a gilt and glass chair made for royalty by Briati, a colorfield painting by Rothko, and a pair of 18th century silk shoes worn during the Revolutionary War, not to mention that these treasures are located in locations both sites and that are magnets for creative inspiration and brilliant minds
But what is it like to be a pre-program intern at the Williamstown and Atlanta Art Conservation Center? We interviewed three of our interns and Montserrat Le Mense over some coffee to let you know what they are up to, what drives them to be a conservator, and what life is like outside of the studio.
MB: Let’s start with introductions! What was your background prior to coming to the Williamstown and Atlanta Art Conservation Centers? SG: My name is Stephanie Gold and I’ve been an intern in the paintings lab at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center for over a year. I’m a recent graduate with a double major in both chemistry and the fine arts. KB: My name is Kate Breitenstein and I’m an intern in the objects lab at our Center in Williamstown. I came to the Center with a background in archaeology and the fine arts. HS: My name is Hannah Shapiro and I recently joined the team at the Atlanta Art Conservation Center in October as an intern in the paper conservation lab. Prior to pursuing a career in art conservation, I graduated with a major in biology and a double minor in art history & archaeology.
MB: What inspired you to pursue a career in art conservation?
KB: “I studied to be an archaeologist because I’m very interested in material culture. I really like solving puzzles and figuring out the answers to the why and how people make things. I enjoy problem-solving and through the process of treating things, you get a better sense of how to answer these questions and make decisions about their future preservation. I also enjoy making art and that art conservation involves the intersection of these two things.” SG: “I knew I liked science and I knew I liked art and art conservation is the intersection of these two fields. I was also interested in medical illustration for those same reasons, but I craved a hands-on experience that wasn’t present in a field dominated by virtual reality and digital design. I couldn’t see myself in a lab doing repetitive experiments or being a full-time artist either. The field of art conservation is exactly what I was looking for.” HS: “Up until the pandemic, I was sure I would go into medicine. I majored in biology on the pre-med track, conducted research for two years in an Immunology lab, and spent my summers clocking in hours of patient care. When the pandemic hit, I was worn out. I realized I had pigeonholed myself into medicine and prevented myself from exploring my other interests, such as history. Still, I was not ready to abandon science. I wanted to find a field that combined my many interests. Upon doing some research into the arts, I became interested in art conservation as a marriage between science and art. My internship in the National Gallery of Art’s Paper Conservation Lab confirmed for me that conservation is the multidisciplinary and intersectional field that I had been seeking.”
      •Prospective applicants for art conservation graduate programs are called "pre-program" or "pre-program interns" •There are only four art conservation graduate degree programs in the United States.
        •The application process is highly competitive, accepting only a few students per year!
          •Each program is longer than the typical two-year master's degree and usually takes between three-four years to complete. •A masters in art conservation takes the same amount of time it takes to earn a PhD in England! •Each graduate program has multiple requirements to ensure that every prospective student has a solid academic background in the fine arts, sciences, and art history. •Applicants have a requirement to complete a few hundred hours of supervised art conservation work.
          Kate Breitenstein surface cleans an outdoor sculpture
          Hannah Shapiro works in our paper conservation lab in Atlanta
          MB: Stephanie, you like to paint in your spare time and Kate, you enjoy archaeology and recreating woodblocks by Helen Frankenthaler--- did your interests outside of conservation influence your decision to work within a specific discipline? KB: Yes, very much so. I enjoy woodworking and printmaking. The processual nature of making a print or building a piece of furniture is a lot like the conservation process, so the skills translate fairly well. SG: I’m the most familiar and comfortable with a paint brush in my hand. It’s a level of comfort. The way I use watercolors in my spare time is very controlled. That practice has informed my retouching and vice-versa. HS: I like paper conservation because of the opportunity to work with many different objects and materials, spanning across cultures and historical periods. I most enjoy doing delicate work or skills that test my manual dexterity. I like removing adhesive from works on paper because it requires a steady hand. It can be challenging, but it’s so satisfying when done safely and successfully.
          MB: You have had some on-site experiences this year and have worked together on the University of Kingston Rhode Island Mural Project— What do you think is unique about the challenge of working on-site?
          KB: The lack of resources and the problem solving that you have to do in order to adjust for that. SG: Flexibility both physically and mentally. You need to think on your feet and work with the resources you have in an unfamiliar environment. KB: And with bad lighting. SG: It’s also an opportunity to explain conservation to the public and bring awareness to the art in their community.
          FUN FACTS
              •For a small town, Williamstown may have the highest density of museum professionals per square foot in America! Active and retired alike, the Berkshires are surrounded by art museum professionals and renowned art historians. •The renowned collections of the Clark Institute of Art, Williams College Museum of Art, and Mass MoCA are all located in the Northern Berkshires. •Our Center located in the culturally vibrant city of Atlanta, works closely with the High Museum of Art and the distinguished members of our Southeast consortium. •The Southeast is a hotbed for the Self-Taught Artist movement and recent collaboration between the High Museum and our Center resulted in ground breaking discoveries about the work of self-taught artist, Thornton Dial.
              MB: Why did you want to come to the WACC for your pre-program experience? SG: I knew I wanted to do art conservation relatively early on in my college career and so I was very intentional about the ways I went about selecting my courses. I knew the next step would be to have a hands-on practical internship. The way that I found WACC was looking through the bios of recent graduates from the Art Conservation Graduate programs. As I looked through their lists of experiences, WACC kept popping up. KB: I’ve been trying to get up here for a while. When I first started this journey in 2017, several of the interns I was living with recommended I go to New England because there are a lot of opportunities here. They mentioned WACC and said you will learn a TON and they pay. You get a lot of experience actually doing the work, and it's not just for a month or two.
              HS: After the summer, I wanted to find a pre-program position that was more long-term and that allowed me to see art conservation outside of a museum system. As a pre-program intern at AACC, I get to see and work with a wide range of objects coming from all over the Southeast.
              MB: Montserrat, what advice would you like to share with those aspiring to enter the field of art conservation?
              ML: I don’t think anyone goes into art conservation that isn’t already determined to do it—it won’t make a lot of money and it’s about wanting to be around art all of the time. Don’t be discouraged—it’s a marathon not a sprint, you’ll get there.
              Montserrat Le Mense and Stephanie Gold are on scaffolding to retouch a mural in Vermont that has wide-spread losses.
              Kate Breitenstein prepares a cross-section for SEM-EDS (a type of inorganic analysis) at the Williams College Chemistry Department.
              The WACC team helps conserve two murals that are a pivotal part of the University of Rhode Island Kingston Community. Left to Right: Kate Bretenstein, Stephanie Gold, Matt Hamilton, Mrs. Arthur Sherman (the artist's wife, depicted in a bathing suit above her head), and Maggie Barkovic.
              MB: How has your conservation experience changed the way you see cultural heritage objects? HS: Conservation has taught me to consider objects in a similar way to how I think about my own health and wellbeing. Artworks are also living objects that are susceptible to deterioration, disease, and change. Without the right care and treatment of art—made possible by conservation science research and materials research—we risk losing many masterpieces and the physical art history stored in them. MB: Do you have any favorite Williamstown or Atlanta experiences? What do you like about living in the Berkshires or Atlanta? SG: I moved to the Berkshires in the midst of COVID. Now that it’s opened up again, I’ve enjoyed my walks around the area. It’s beautiful here. KB: There are so many things to do outdoors. There’s generally always something going on, whether at Mass MoCA, the Clark, or the public library. There are really interesting collections to go see and I really want to go to the Fresh Grass bluegrass festival. HS: My favorite part about living in Atlanta is having access to green spaces. There are so many things to do and see in the city, but if you want to get into nature, there are great hiking trails and parks close by.
              MB: How do you decompress? SG: The Bachelorette is on every Monday and Tuesday now. (Stephanie introduced us to reality tv shows while we were working on the Lost Mural in Burlington, VT). I also do paintings, exercise, and go on walks. KB: There are lots of nice walking paths around here. There’s a path right outside my front door.
              MB: What aspects about learning at the WACC do you think set our pre-program experience apart from others? ML: I think it’s the variety of projects that the Center treats and the hands-on opportunities. Depth, breadth, and variety. Not just the diversity of objects themselves, but the type and degree of damage they have. The treatments can go from very light surface cleanings to very intense structural work that even people who are second year graduate students don’t get experience with. You don’t ever get a chance to lose a skill. Once you get a skill it comes up again and again, building confidence. KB: The variety and duration of the internship is what sets you all apart. You don't just get to work on one neat project, you potentially get to work on several. Because you're here for such a long time, you can really hone skills to expand your knowledge base and learn how to really look at objects. ML: Especially the variety of conservation materials. You will use and become familiar with a wide variety of conservation materials every day. KB: Reading academic articles also helps give scientific context for things, but watching someone do the work and actually doing it myself is how I learn best. I can read that nonpolar solvents aren’t going to swell leather, but it’s not until I actually clean a piece of leather that the information makes sense. SG: One of my favorite projects that I’ve worked on involved collaborating between two different experiences. I worked on both the painting and the frame together. That’s part of the full WACC experience: collaboration between different disciplines.
              “It’s such a benefit for WACC. We have a constant refresh of new conservators in the field. We all become tied to institutions across the US and internationally. It’s such a pleasure to have generations of conservators that we become tied to.” — Montserrat Le Mense, Senior Conservator in Charge of Intern Training
              MB: As you are getting experience with various aspects of examination and treatment, what has posed the greatest challenge for you? ML: Teaching makes you rethink how you approach things when you have to talk about it to students. It makes you think, ‘Am I communicating this well’? Interns soak up materials like sponges. And we always end up learning something from interns—it’s a two-way exchange. KB: Knowing when to draw the line on a treatment is the challenge. The project I'm working on is a collection of historically important used objects, so you want to keep some of that use-wear. I'm figuring out how to combine structural stability and visual aesthetics while keeping the historical integrity of the object without pushing too far in either direction—and it is hard sometimes. HS: My greatest challenge with any skill is knowing when to stop fiddling with something. As a perfectionist, I find inpainting challenging because it tests your tolerance for imperfection. You want the fill to be as close to a match as possible but overworking the loss can be detrimental or look worse. Since I’ve been at AACC for less than a month, I haven’t had the opportunity to see a project from start to finish. I am, however, looking forward to an upcoming project at the University of Alabama. I’ll be assisting Senior Paper Conservator Snow Fain with restoring thirteen woodblock printed wallcoverings displayed in the University Club house. SG: At first, I found it challenging transitioning between spending time working on large-scale projects onsite and working on small scale projects in the lab. Once you are in the zone it can be difficult to step away from the work. In reality, being able to pause and take a step back really helped me gain perspective. But really, managing our instagram account has been my biggest learning curve.
              Stephanie Gold applies an isolating layer of varnish on an area of a complex mural prior to filling and retouching
              Pre-program interns stay at the Center for six months-two years before they apply to graduate school. In the last five years, four of our interns have gotten accepted into a program after one year. We are lucky to have a very talented group of interns! Stephanie Gold will apply to graduate school this December and Kate Breitenstein will apply the following year. If you are interested in learning more about the pre-program experience, see our website or send a letter of inquiry to Montserrat Le Mense. Both our staff and interns would be happy to talk to you about their experience and the steps to becoming an art conservator.
              Maggie Barkovic.