DAI exhibit shows how fine art is preserved

Visitors take a look behind the scenes.

Walk into an art museum gallery and you may get the impression that the beautiful objects on display are static and never change.

But if those paintings or sculptures or photographs could talk, they’d tell a very different story.

Exactly what happens to a piece of art when it’s not on view is typically not known by the public. But the folks at the Dayton Art Institute came up with a great idea: Why not demonstrate to visitors exactly what’s involved in preserving the art so that it can be enjoyed for generations to come?

“Art for the Ages: Conservation at DAI” will be on display through Sept. 11 and offers an entirely new way of looking at art. If you’re looking for an unusual outing for family or friends this summer, this unique exhibit is a great way to entertain and educate.

“It’s really no different than taking care of our bodies,” says Peter Doebler, the museum’s Kettering Curator of Asian Art who served as lead curator for the exhibit. He says over the years art is susceptible to aging, to wear and tear and to accidents just like we are.

The various fixes are described and illustrated throughout the galleries. You’ll see a wide variety of art from the museum’s permanent collection –50 examples in all including paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, ceramics, furniture, even a mask and lace. They come from a wide variety of cultures and time periods.

Many of the objects have not been seen for years due to their fragile condition.

But thanks to generous donors and grants, a number of different conservation projects have been completed in recent years, including a large Korean screen that was sent to South Korea for conservation. Other examples? “Joy of Water’', one of the DAI’s best-known sculptures and a Japanese scroll that had been rolled up and had creases in it.

Those “fixes” became the inspiration for the current special exhibition.

Each of the objects in this show is analyzed –not by the art movement it represents –but by the materials that have been used to create it and the ways it can best be conserved. You’ll see this showcased through videos, photos and in-gallery demonstrations. The museum is planning a number of special programs as well.

Doebler says it’s important to distinguish between “restoration” and “conservation.” When a piece of art is “restored,” the idea is to make it look like new again. In contrast, “conserving” art is designed to change it as little as possible in order to stabilize the damage and deterioration and, at the same time, make it visually presentable. The process used for conservation must be able to be reversed in the future which is why materials different from the original are typically used. The emphasis in the art world these days, says Doebler, is definitely on conservation rather than restoration.

As you can imagine, repairing each type of artwork requires different training and specialization. Although larger museums –like those in Cincinnati and Cleveland – often have conservators or conservation labs on the premises, the DAI consults and hires experts from around the world to work on its treasures. A conservator may focus on paintings, for example or on textiles, stone, ceramics or wood. Each specialty requires training and knowledge of traditional as well as newer technology– microscopes, ultraviolet and x-ray fluorescence, even CT scans. The object may require treatment with everything from adhesives to fillers and varnishes. Along the way, the entire process is documented and photographed for future reference.

How does the art get damaged?

You can probably guess some of the ways in which a piece of art might be damaged, even inadvertently. Maybe a visitor gets too close; maybe light or temperature affects it; insects can be responsible as well or it can be damaged when it’s moved. It can get moldy or it may have originally been mounted on something that isn’t so great for it.

I can relate. After putting our family photos in boxes for many years, I was determined to get organized and put them in scrapbooks. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the adhesive pages of the scrapbook were ruining the photos and that they would have been much better off in their shoeboxes. The same kind of things can happen with artwork.

That’s why we’re asked not to eat or drink in the galleries. Wherever I begin to take notes with a pen in a museum, a guard or curator immediately reminds me that only pencils can be used.


It’s worth taking the time to read the wall text which walks you through the conservation process of each item on display. A good example is “Dayton From Steel’s Hill. " It’s one of the earliest known paintings of Dayton and was painted in 1844. You’ll learn about the damages the poor painting suffered over the years and the magic required to bring it back to life. A termite infestation had damaged a 19th century chest donated by Virginia Kettering with much of the wood being eaten away; now it looks beautiful.

You may remember how amazing it was when the DAI’s painting of an old man’s head dating back to around 1612 was examined under UV light, revealing a second head under the overpaint! The theory is that it had been painted over much later by someone other than the artist to change it into a portrait and make it more saleable. The DAI decided to return the painting to the artist’s original composition.

Serena Urry, Chief Conservator at the Cincinnati Art Museum, will speak at the DAI on July 24. Since she took up the post in 2012, she has conserved a number of paintings for Dayton, many of which are in the exhibition. “It’s been a real treat to work so closely with some of the DAI’s great paintings,” she says. " It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of my profession, being able to spend quality time with a painting, and helping to make each work look its absolute best for museum visitors. "

While Urry congratulates the DAI for putting together such an interesting exhibit, she admits it’s an odd experience to see her work so exposed. “Painting conservators ordinarily work so hard,” she says, " to make sure our efforts are not so visible!”


What: “Art for the Ages: Conservation at DAI’'

Where: The Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park, N. Dayton

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. ·Through Sept. 11, 2022

Admission: $15 for adults; $10 for seniors, active military and groups of 10 or more; $5 for college students and youth, free for children ages 6 and under and members

Parking: Free

For more information: www. Daytonartinstitute.org (937) 223-4278

Related Programs:

  • In-Gallery Demonstration: Katie Patton Bell, Conservator. Saturday, July 9, 1–4 p.m.; Friday, July 15, 1–4 p.m.; Thursday, July 21, 5–8 p.m.
  • Curatorial Conversations Via Zoom: Thursday, July 14, 1:30–2:30 p.m. In-Person: Saturday, August 13, 1:30–2:30 p.m.
  • Language of Art Via Zoom: Saturday, July 16, 12–1 p.m. In-Person: Thursday, July 28, 12–1 p.m.
  • Speaker Series: Serena Urry, Cincinnati Art Museum Chief Conservator Sunday, July 24, 2–3 p.m.
  • Community Kintsugi Workshops Sunday, July 17, 12-1:30 p.m. Thursday, August 25, 4:30–6 p.m.

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