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Chicago Conservation Center

The Largest Private Art Conservation Lab in North America

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“Conservation labs usually focus on one or two disciplines, but it’s quite unusual to have 12 disciplines and so many experts under one roof.”
—Heather Becker, Chicago Conservation Center CEO

Being a conservator is a lesser-known artistic career. It takes at least 10 years, probably a lifetime, to master a single discipline. Historically, conservators have worked in isolation, but one woman broke the norms with her pioneering vision.

In 1989, when Heather Becker was a young, newly graduated art student, she started working for The Conservation Center in Chicago. She grew the business by 12% in her first year. In the three decades that followed, Becker not only bought the company but developed it into the country’s largest, most comprehensive private art conservation laboratory.

Becker has spearheaded many innovative approaches in the cautious, slow-changing conservation industry. In this interview with Magnifissance, she shares secrets of her success and some of her unforgettable experiences at The Conservation Center.

Heather Becker, owner of The Conservation Center in Chicago, the largest private art conservation lab in North America.

Most people confuse the terms restoration and conservation. What is the difference?
Restorers use techniques to make an item look new so that it can be sold. Conservators learn to respect the original materials, and their techniques must be reversible. They won’t permanently alter the work or change its historical value, such as removing the patina on a piece.

What drew you to The Conservation Center?
When I first started, I told Barry Bauman, the founder of The Conservation Center, that I wanted to do business development so I could go home and work on my own paintings without feeling fatigued.

I first worked as an administrator. As I learned more about the business, I presented a business plan to grow the company. Eventually, I became vice president, and Barry later sold the company to me. He allowed me to grow under his mentorship.

From a private collection, Portrait of a Man is a photograph mounted onto a board. It was conserved by the Paper Department, addressing the fractures, fragments and losses. Left: Original photograph with fragments. Right: The conserved work.

How did you expand The Conservation Center so quickly?
When I joined the company, Barry ran the painting conservation and had others to help him with paper and textiles. It was a team of 10 people. But for us to treat an entire collection, whether it was for a museum, a private, or a corporate entity, I realized we’d need experts in each of these disciplines.

A conservator can’t say, “I can treat everything.” That’s usually a sign that someone isn’t well-qualified. To become an expert or master at any of these disciplines takes decades and hard work. You build respect in our industry if you’ve focused on one discipline (such as painting or sculpture) for your entire career.

Conservation labs usually focus on one or two disciplines, but it’s quite unusual to have 12 disciplines and so many experts under one roof. The average in the industry is three to four conservators.

At The Conservation Center, we spent ten years adding other disciplines. We found additional experts so that we could treat an entire collection of diverse materials and mediums under one roof.

These days, we have a staff of 32 with 25 conservators trained in the treatment of paintings, works of art on paper, photographs, textiles, murals, antiques and fine furniture, decorative objects, rare books, frames and gilding, objects, and sculptures.

I wanted to tell the market that we have experts in these different areas and they all work together. You don’t have to send your furniture to one place and your paintings to another.

Close-up image of a painting conservator surface cleaning an oil painting.

Once you found the vision, what was your biggest obstacle?
The hardest part was finding excellent conservators to join the team. This business model hadn’t been done to this scale in the United States in a private lab, only in institutional facilities like the Getty Museum. We’re proud that we’ve been able to accomplish it.

We have such a talented team working together under one roof. That’s what makes our company so strong. Over half of the staff have been with us for more than 15 years. So, we have a stable group. We’re like a family.

Order the Magnifissance print edition to read the full story.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 114

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