Author Archives: Christine Downie

About Christine Downie

Christine Downie has been an Objects Conservator at the Baltimore Museum of Art for the past eight years. She has a MAC, BEd and BA from Queens University, Kingston, Ontario and a B.Sc. from Guelph University, Guelph, Ontario.

BMA Voices: Louis Comfort Tiffany Window of the Baptism of Christ: the other side!

Baptism of Christ at the entrance to the BMA auditorium

Manufactured by Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company from a design by Frank Brangwyn.. Window: Baptism of Christ. c. 1897. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Herman and Rosa L. Cohen, and Ben and Zelda G. Cohen, BMA 1979.5. © Estate of Frank Brangwyn. Baptism of Christ at the entrance to the BMA auditorium.

Christine Downie, Objects Conservator

The monument Tiffany Window, Baptism of Christ, has graced the entrance to the BMA auditorium since 1982. When the time came to reinstall the piece in the American Wing, the question arose of which side should be shown. There is no correct side to a stained-glass window since it has viewers from both the inside and the outside of the building.

Looking at the window in its original installation, it became clear that the window had been shown from the exterior viewpoint. For instance, it might have struck the viewer that St. John was baptizing Jesus with his left hand, whereas in a church one might expect to see him pouring with his right hand. All the supporting rods were at the back of the piece, whereas it is traditional in a church for the stained-glass windows to have the supporting rods on the interior. Further investigation showed that the original cartoon by the artist Frank Brangwyn, which Tiffany used for the stained-glass design, has St. John pouring the water on Jesus’ head using his right hand. The decision was made by Dr. David Park Curry, Senior Curator and Dept. Head of Decorative Arts, American Painting & Sculpture, to show the Tiffany window from the other side in the reinstallation of the American Wing. Thus began one of the toughest installation challenges in the museum to date.

1979.5 Tiffany Window Baptism of Christ Aug 5, 2013 085 (Small)The piece had been completely restored in 1979 by a New York City stained-glass specialist and separated into four panels for easier handling. In the thirty years following, a few conservation issues developed, such as a brass supporting rod on an upper panel, which had separated from the frame at one end. Fortunately, we had the expertise of Tage Jakobsen of Artisan Glass Works, Inc., Baltimore, who carried out various metal repairs and gave advice on the display aspects of the piece. We were also fortunate to have local mount maker and sculptor Paul Daniel to help fabricate new supports for the window. Under the direction of Dave Verchomin, Installation Manager, the BMA installation team and an army of contract art handlers deinstalled the window and placed it in storage to await stabilization and cleaning.

The first piece I treated was the smallest, and located at the base of the window. You can see the exterior side and the interior side below.

Exterior viewof the glass.

Exterior view of the glass.

Interior view of the glass.

Interior view of the glass.

Much to my delight there was a painted Tiffany signature stamp on the bottom right hand corner of the interior view that had some old repairs and was covered in surface grime – further evidence that this was indeed the interior side.

March 27, 2014 006 (Small)

A painted Tiffany signature stamp on the bottom right hand corner of the interior view.

 

July 25th, 2014 005 (Small)

The BMA Registrars and Installation team carefully move the Tiffany Window.

The treatment of each panel was carried out over a few months, with art handling help from the BMA Registrars and Installation team. After extensive research, a new LED lighting system was selected by Lighting Designer Kel Millionie. After much planning and thought the BMA Installation crew and contract art handler army came together again to reinstall St. John Baptist window in November, 2014, just in time for the opening of the American Wing.

David Zimmerman adjusting the mount before the second panel is installed

David Zimmerman adjusting the mount before the second panel is installed.

Testing of the LED panels in the bottom right corner

Testing of the LED panels in the bottom right corner

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

BMA Voices: She’s back in the building.

Henri Matisse. Large Seated Nude. Original model 1922‑1929; this cast 1930. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.436. © 2013 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse. Large Seated Nude. Original model 1922‑1929; this cast 1930. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.436. © 2013 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Christine Downie, Objects Conservator

One of the many interesting aspects about working at a museum are the courier trips. When an artwork is approved for loan to another institution, a BMA courier will usually accompany the piece to the host institution to make sure it is properly delivered and installed. Of course, there is much more to loaning an artwork than this. The facilities report for the loan institution has to be reviewed to make sure the object will be safe and in an appropriate environment. The object usually needs to have a special crate made so it can travel without coming to any harm. Depending on the destination a variety of methods of transport may be required with special art handling and strict procedures, and the list goes on.

I have been on numerous courier trips now and what continues to intrigue me is the way other institutions display the BMA object(s). We put restrictions on the lighting levels, relative humidity, and temperature of the galleries, as well as where the object will reside. The object cannot be handled by the public and must be handled and installed by trained art handlers wearing special gloves. Only after the host museum agrees to meet these and other requirements, can they design the exhibition as they see fit, with objects from their own collections and/or other loans. The host museum’s exhibit designer selects the colors and layout with input from the host curator. The object(s) is in completely new surroundings and can look very different.

One piece I have traveled with several times is Henri Matisse’s bronze sculpture Large Seated Nude. This piece is large and heavy. At least four strong people are required to lift it. Large Seated Nude cannot be touched by the public for fear of damaging the surface. It has been interesting to see how different host museums have protected the piece. One museum had an enormous reinforced pedestal built putting the object well out of the viewers’ reach. Two other museums produced the largest Plexiglas vitrines I have ever seen. The colors of the walls and surrounding art have varied dramatically. The following installation photos are of the Large Seated Nude in the BMA traveling exhibition Matisse: Life in Color.

Installation shot at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Oct 13th, 2013- Jan 12, 2014

Installation shot at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Oct 13th, 2013- Jan 12, 2014

Installation shot at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, Feb 23, 2014 - May 18, 2014

Installation shot at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, Feb 23, 2014 – May 18, 2014

Installation shot at the San Antonio Museum of Art, June 14, 2014 - Sept 7, 2014.

Installation shot at the San Antonio Museum of Art, June 14, 2014 – Sept 7, 2014.

Recently the Large Seated Nude was reinstalled in the Cone Wing at the BMA. Katy Rothkopf (Senior Curator of European Painting and Sculpture) and Karen Nielsen (Director of Installation and Exhibition Design) have taken great care to show the piece at its best. Large Seated Nude can be found in the rotunda of the building, surrounded by smaller Matisse sculptures and paintings, under the watchful eye of the BMA Security Staff.

Large Reclining Nude Nov 19, 2014

Large Seated Nude installed at the BMA Nov 19, 2014

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

Reproduction, including downloading, of Henri Matisse works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

BMA Voices: The five artworks you can touch at the BMA!

Touching objects in a Museum can cause irreversible damage, even if you’re very careful. Because of this, most objects at the BMA cannot be handled. However, there are five works of art that you can touch: “Untitled” (Water) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Zinc-Magnesium Plain by Carl Andre, Scott Burton’s Rock Chair (located in the Levi Sculpture Garden), and Swimmer and Violetta. To the song of Gerhard Ruhm: I like to rest on aquatic corpses, both by Franz West. In each case, the artist clearly indicated that they wished these objects to be available for people to interact with physically.

Scott Burton. Rock Chair. 1986/1987. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Ryda and Robert H. Levi, Baltimore, BMA 1988.1

Scott Burton. Rock Chair. 1986/1987. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Ryda and Robert H. Levi, Baltimore, BMA 1988.1

You might expect this to be a nightmare for museum staff. How can we protect the works of art and honor the intentions of the artists? With the five pieces at the BMA it is a challenge but not as horrifying as one might think. For example, “Untitled” (Water) by Gonzalez-Torres (below) is a beaded curtain that one has to move through in order to go from one gallery to another. Occasionally one of the strings gets tangled in a stroller or pulled down by an enthusiastic child, but people are generally very gentle with it. When one of the bead strings is broken the BMA installation team replaces the string. The staff has become adept at keeping the artwork as the artist intended.*

Felix Gonzalez Torres. "Untitled" (Water). 1995. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Saidie A. May, BMA 1995.73. © The Felix Gonzalez Torres Foundation

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled” (Water). 1995. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Saidie A. May, BMA 1995.73. © The Felix Gonzalez Torres Foundation

The Carl Andre sculpture Zinc-Magnesium Plain (not pictured) is of more concern. Because the piece lies on the floor and people are allowed to walk on it, there is a good chance that a sharp high heel or gravel caught in a shoe will scratch the piece. Interestingly, despite the encouragement of the artist most people walk around the work.

Franz West. Violetta. To the song of Gerhard Rühm: I like to rest on aquatic corpses. 2005. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Caplan Family Contemporary Art Fund, and Frederick R. Weisman Contemporary Art Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2008.1. © Franz West

Franz West. Violetta. To the song of Gerhard Rühm: I like to rest on aquatic corpses. 2005. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Caplan Family Contemporary Art Fund, and Frederick R. Weisman Contemporary Art Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2008.1. © Franz West

The Franz West sculptures Swimmer and Violetta. To the song of Gerhard Ruhm: I like to rest on aquatic corpses (pictured above) have been bigger challenges in every sense of the word. They arrived on loan to the BMA in 2008 as part of the major Franz West retrospective To Build a House You Start with the Roof. West was known for encouraging human interaction with his art. These pieces were two of many artworks in the exhibition that the artist stipulated could be touched. They were also supposed to be displayed outside. It is hard to imagine an artwork being touched by thousands of people without it being scratched, stained or, worse still, broken. Swimmer and Violetta. To the song of Gerhard Ruhm: I like to rest on aquatic corpses are painted sculptures made of epoxy and Fiberglass and – unlike the strings of beads – cannot easily be replaced. They also look like lots of fun to climb. During the retrospective exhibition and the traveling exhibition at LACMA there were surprisingly few incidences although some of the smaller pieces were handled a great deal and damaged. Swimmer and Violetta. To the song of Gerhard Ruhm: I like to rest on aquatic corpses received lots of shoe scuffs but survived.

Franz West. Violetta. To the song of Gerhard Rühm: I like to rest on aquatic corpses. 2005. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Caplan Family Contemporary Art Fund, and Frederick R. Weisman Contemporary Art Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2008.1. © Franz West Franz West. Swimmer. 2005. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Fanny B. Thalheimer Memorial Fund; and Frederick R. Weisman Contemporary Art Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2008.16. © Franz West Both sculptures located on the BMA West lawn, 2008. You can now find them in the BMA’s Contemporary Wing.

Franz West. Violetta. To the song of Gerhard Rühm: I like to rest on aquatic corpses. 2005. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Caplan Family Contemporary Art Fund, and Frederick R. Weisman Contemporary Art Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2008.1. © Franz West
Franz West. Swimmer. 2005. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Fanny B. Thalheimer Memorial Fund; and Frederick R. Weisman Contemporary Art Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2008.16. © Franz West
Both sculptures located on the BMA West lawn, 2008. You can now find them in the BMA’s Contemporary Wing.

When the works of art arrived back at the BMA they were again displayed out on the lawn. Ironically it was not the ice, snow, animals or people that affected the pieces the most – it was the ultra violet rays from the sun. Despite UV inhibitors, the painted surface faded within a year. While the artist was apparently undisturbed by the signs of human interaction with his sculptures, he did not want uneven colors on the painted surfaces.

Detail of the fading paint on Swimmer, February 2009.

Detail of the fading paint on Swimmer, February 2009.

When the time for the reinstallation of the Contemporary Wing – where the works are now located – in 2012 it was decided by Contemporary curator Kristen Hileman and the Conservation Department to have the pieces repainted with input from Franz West. It was also decided to change to a more durable paint. The color and paint were approved by Franz West in March 2012. The treatment was carefully carried out by Chris Lidrbauch and Chick Bills of Silverback Art Services.

Please come to the BMA, and when you need to rest, feel free to lounge on Swimmer or Violetta and observe – from a safe distance – the surrounding fragile art.

Franz West on YouTube
View the installation of The Ego and the Id and other BMA videos on the Museum’s YouTube page.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

*Minor change to the wording of this paragraph for accuracy.

BMA Voices: The treatment of the Strawberry Hill roundels

Before Treatment photos of the roundels.

Before Treatment photos of the roundels. Unknown Maker. Crucifixion with Longinus Piercing Christ’s Side. c. 1520. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Saidie A. May, BMA 1941.399.1a

Christine Downie, Objects Conservator

One responsibility of a conservator in a museum is to “condition check” artworks that are requested for loan from other institutions, to ensure that the work is stable and in good condition to travel. In May 2008, a request came from the Yale Center for British Art, The Lewis Walpole Library, and the Victoria and Albert Museum for several roundels (small, single pieces of lightly tinted glass painted with scenes using vitreous paint and colored yellow using silver stain, usually round) in the BMA collection. The institutions were organizing a major exhibition featuring objects from the collection of Horace Walpole – a well-known British historian, Member of Parliament, novelist, connoisseur and collector of decorative art pieces, including stained glass. The roundels were made in the 1500s and later collected by Walpole for his home “Strawberry Hill” in Twickenham, England. Unfortunately a number of the BMA roundels were broken in numerous pieces and precariously held together by plates of glass. They were certainly too fragile for travel overseas. Stabilizing them would require the skill of a stained glass conservator. There was not enough time and money for this to be achieved for the Walpole exhibition so I sadly had to say no to the loan.

Horace Walpole home “Strawberry Hill”, in Twickenham, England.

Horace Walpole home “Strawberry Hill”, in Twickenham, England.

I became curious how these roundels had come to the BMA from Strawberry Hill and how they ended up surrounded by odds and ends of stained glass fragments. Valuable information came from Michael Peover – an expert on the Strawberry Hill stained glass – and Sona Johnston, then Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture. It seems the roundels were sold in an estate sale in 1842 by Walpole’s heir, the Earl of Waldegrave, and passed through various hands before being acquired by an American – William Randolph Hearst. At some point they were combined together with stained glass fragments into two panels with a stained glass patterned surround. Saidie A. May later bought them at the 1941 sale of the Hearst Collection. She had the two stained glass panels separated into 4 panels and inserted in four windows. These were eventually donated and installed at the BMA along with several other medieval and renaissance stained glass pieces from her collection.

In January 2009 Johnston and Tom Primeau, Head of Conservation, organized a review of all the BMA stained glass by historian Michael Cothren, Scheuer Family Professor of Humanities at Swarthmore College. I was asked to find a stained-glass conservator that would be experienced enough to take on treating the stained glass that Cothren and the BMA curators identified as gems, including the four panels with the Strawberry Hill roundels. I was lucky to find such a person at a 2009 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Forum for the Conservation and Restoration of Stained-Glass Windows. The following January, stained glass conservator and artist Mary Clerkin-Higgins examined all the gems of the stained glass collection in the BMA conservation lab. Through the generous financial support of the The Richard C. von Hess Foundation, the pieces were carefully packed by art handler Mike Klunk and delivered to Mary’s studio in New York for treatment. Mary and her colleague Takuji Hamanaka were able to treat the roundels and surrounding glass and bring them together as two panels once again. The two panels are now being installed in the Jacobs wing with the hope that next time a loan request comes for a Walpole exhibition the answer will be yes!

Mary Clerkin-Higgins examining two of the roundels in the BMA conservation lab.

Mary Clerkin-Higgins examining two of the roundels in the BMA conservation lab.

Four of the six roundels and fragment inserted into windows.

Four of the six roundels and fragment inserted into windows.

After treatment photo of the Strawberry Hill roundels and surrounding glass, taken in the BMA conservation lab.

After treatment photo of the Strawberry Hill roundels and surrounding glass, taken in the BMA conservation lab.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.