The Department of Art History recently caught up with alumna Merin Duke (BA ‘18) about her career as a technician with Richmond Conservation Studio, where she previously interned as an undergraduate Art History major.
Hi Merin! Where do you work, and what is your title?
I work at Richmond Conservation Studio where I am a full-time technician. The studio primarily works on oil paintings.
Describe your current job and what a day to day may entail.
We all work together and do a little bit of everything. I do most of the photography that we do to document the paintings before, during, and after treatment. Photographs are taken in natural, raking, UV, and infrared light. I also help with a lot of structural tasks such as removing canvases from stretcher bars, cleaning and encapsulating inscriptions on stretcher bars, local and overall flattening treatments on canvases, consolidation of flaking paint, removing old linings and adhesives from canvases, lining paintings, and reattaching lined paintings to their stretcher bars. We also build structural reinforcements such as G-10 panels that support lined paintings, inserts for unlined paintings, and backings for all the paintings. Once treatment on the paintings is complete, I help with reframing it. I also help with client pick-ups and drop-offs. When a client brings in a painting, I take notes as the conservators examine the piece, register it in our system, and make a receipt for the client. When the client picks up their art, I accept payment and help pack the painting so it is safe for travel.
How did your experience as an Art History student prepare you for this career path?
A large part of providing our services to private individuals includes research. It’s very common for clients to have little or no information about the painting or artist. Any inscriptions, signatures, or other information we find during the conservation process is reported to the client to help provide a more cohesive idea of their piece. We even sometimes are able to connect paintings from different clients with the research we do.
What sparked your interest in this job and how did you become connected with the organization/business?
I had an interest in art conservation going into my undergrad at VCU, but it was a conversation with a now retired Art History professor who told me about RCS. I was able to intern at the studio all of my senior year and that was a fundamental influence on my career path moving forward.
What project or experience has been a highlight of your job so far?
Working on a painting and seeing it transform from something that is dirty, overpainted, with tears and losses, and out of plane into what the artist really intended is the best part of this job. Also, having the opportunity to work on multiple paintings by the same artist and help to preserve their body of work is wonderful.
What should current Art History students know if they are interested in pursuing a similar career path?
Find people that are in the field and talk to them. Richmond is unique that it has so many museums and historical houses as well as conservation practices. RCS handles oil paintings, but there are paper conservators and frame conservators also in town. There aren’t really any undergrad programs in the United States for art conservation, so people have to get formal training on the masters level. I’d recommend looking at the requirements for masters programs and working with your advisor to shape your undergrad course selection based on that. Art conservation requires art history, studio art, and chemistry. If you find that any of those disciplines intimidate you, don’t let it! So many people get discouraged by the amount of skills required, but it is doable and worth it!