How Important is Art Conservation in the Discussion Surrounding Art and History?

Art Windsor-Essex
6 min readMar 18, 2024

Written by Sabrina Muscat, Education and Public Programs Intern at Art Windsor-Essex.

An inside view of an art gallery with a conservation table in the forefront.
Restored Treasures: Part 2, 2022. Curated by Spencer Montcalm. Photo by Frank Piccolo GXZ Design Inc.

Art has always been synonymous with change. Without artistic expression, human culture would not be as critical, creative, or inventive. If one has a basic understanding of art history, it is easy to see that art has advanced in skill level and ingenuity over the millions of years it has been a creative outlet. From the simplified cave paintings with broad washes of colour to intricate charms carved from bone or rock to the religious and colourful frescos in Ancient Egypt. From the tempera paints of the Byzantine and early Renaissance to the complex ornate and golden details of the Baroque period to the expressive modern pieces in art galleries presently. Though the transition of artwork styles tells a story of evolution in skill and technique, it also tells a more compelling history of the human ability to convey emotion with tools as simple as paint, brushes, and a canvas.

With the internet, we have a near-infinite amount of materials and resources readily available to preserve artworks for years. In the past, when the science behind conservation was not as advanced as it is now, restoring an artwork meant painting over places where there had been paint loss and covering up the original work with a reinvention of how the conservator wanted it to look. This manner of scrutinizing artwork and altering it to fit into the artistic standards of the time has gradually vanished. The story of where we are today as a culture is one that art conservators strive to tell in each conserved work.

As a child, I went through different phases of who I wanted to be when I grew up because I was intrigued by marine biology, microscopy, engineering, dance, theatre, and music. However, the string that connected them all was that I loved to create art. Inventing and constructing something with your own body is the most humanistic thing one can do. Even the caveman had his part in this process. Being able to craft something out of nothing but raw materials speaks to our inert creativity. Although creativity is somewhat of a spectrum, in each of us lies the human ability to create and expand definitions of the world and the objects around it. To reinvent, to change, to adapt. How does this relate to conservation?

When an artist invents something new, whether Leonardo da Vinci or Pablo Picasso, the culmination of their hard work and poring over the details for what must have been hours results in a piece of art. Every artwork has an idea, a message, and a purpose, whether understood or not. Through time, the artwork will go through different obstacles and will change over time. Dirt, grime, smoke, excessive light, or dust alter the original image, making it harder to see the complete story. The balance between art, science, and history itches all sides of my brain. This is a story I am willing to read and continue writing through my future career.

A metal tabletop with a sheet of paper and notes, glass jar of cotton swabs, digital camera and a wooden brush.
Restored Treasures: Part 2, 2022. Curated by Spencer Montcalm. Photo by Frank Piccolo GXZ Design Inc.

My goal is to learn how best to preserve, maintain, and keep telling the story the artist wanted to share 100, 200, or 500 years ago. I wanted to learn more about the trade, so naturally, when I secured an internship through my education at Art Windsor-Essex, I was curious if there were people who restored the artwork coming in. I got in touch with Spencer Montcalm, Art Windsor-Essex’s Conservator and Assistant Preparator. I was surprised that an art gallery here in town would have a dedicated conservator, and I was hoping to see what I could learn from speaking to him as someone looking to go into the same field. Here’s what I learned:

Art conservation requires a lot of education, and the only University in Canada that offers a Master’s Degree in Art Conservation has a small class of students. The schooling required is a massive undertaking, combining expertise in visual art, chemistry, and art history. I also learned more about how pursuing a career in the arts can be financially unfruitful for years with many internships until you gain the experience to settle in a stable place to work full-time. I learned more about the day-to-day workings of someone in a gallery and the effort it takes. A large part, I found, was in the communication and keeping your ears open to events happening in the gallery. Montcalm’s most important goal is ensuring that the artwork is handled correctly. Depending on the type of activity, lights, weather, etc., the artwork can be damaged or deteriorate quickly if not all precautions are being taken. A lot of the job consists of reporting the condition of each artwork as it enters the gallery, is stored, and as it leaves the gallery. If not owned by the gallery, any work done on the artwork must be approved by the owner.

One thing that could be observed from his decade of experience in the field is that change is bound to happen. Conservationist culture has changed drastically in its initial goal of restoring works. Before chemistry was formally used to maintain an artwork’s condition, artists would commonly paint over the artwork and replace it with their interpretation of the original idea. Oftentimes, the work is sloppy and does not reflect the original period. Essentially, it is a cover song in a different genre, with different instruments, musicians, and rhythm. But to properly convey the artist’s story, one must take special care in how they clean and protect it. Presently, the goal in conservation is to use chemistry to preserve and maintain the artwork in semi-pristine condition without covering up work. When paint fills craters, it is used in tandem to blend into the original brushstrokes and style, not to cover it up in large chunks.

Cultures, attitudes, and discussions about art will always be subject to change. After a long history in Windsor, it is apparent that the general public opinion regarding art is undervalued, one example being the Sculpture Park on the Riverfront, as it is the largest repository of free public art in the city. However, the tide is turning for Windsor, as more people are turning to places like the Art Windsor-Essex Gallery and the Windsor Symphony Orchestra to experience local art and contribute to conversations about the artwork. The world has moved away from experiencing an art piece and simply enjoying it as beautiful. Now, the goal is to enjoy artwork by understanding the intentions and going into a deeper conversation about how it influences emotions or perspectives. This change, in my opinion, is a good one because it further emphasizes the reasoning behind art.

Six works of art on a white wall.
Restored Treasures: Part 2, 2022. Curated by Spencer Montcalm. Photo by Frank Piccolo GXZ Design Inc.

Art is an ever-changing concept, and skills and techniques will consistently change, as is its purpose. Art is a vessel for an open discussion about culture and change in society. The Art Conservator’s role is to preserve these conversations and ideas from the past. It is a responsibility because, without an unbiased account of our history, we would have no sense of the future.

This article was written by Sabrina Muscat, Education and Public Programs Intern at Art Windsor-Essex for the Winter 2024 semester through the University of Windsor.



Art Windsor-Essex

Art Windsor-Essex (AWE) is a non-profit public art gallery that uses the power of art to open hearts and minds to new ideas. Change happens here.