Meet Art Conservator, Kate Garland

Get to know the behind-the-scenes restoration artist at the Nelson Atkins Museum as she shares details of her painstaking work



Kate Garland of the Nelson-Atkins Museum assesses a tapestry

Zach Bauman

Restoring Priceless And Fragile Masterpieces Takes A Person With A Unique Skill Set That Includes Scientist, Artist And Historian. For Kate Garland, The Nelson Atkins Museum Senior Art Conservator, It’s A Picture-Perfect Melding Of Her Talents.

   The doors of Kate Garland’s studio at the Nelson Atkins Museum are massive ‑ almost what one would expect for an airplane hangar. This large scale is a necessity, given the size of some of the sculptures that have passed through these doors. Today, however, the most important work under the senior conservator’s care is relatively small: a Chinese robe.

    It was found in the tomb of the cousin of a 17th-century emperor and modified along the way from a man’s ceremonial garment into a woman’s wrap before being whisked to Kansas City by a former curator of the Nelson in the 1930s. 

   Despite the various alterations, Garland called the piece “A+” and “one of the most significant in the United States.” The 400-year-old garment certainly looked the part, with embroidery so detailed and rich that it’s hard to imagine a human hand producing it. 

   In keeping with the clothing’s peri-imperial status, golden thread was used throughout with extreme care. So precise was the work that the modern thread used to make the delicate repairs was no thicker than two human hairs which, at times, was too broad to pass through the embroidery without risking damage. 

 

wooden statue from Myanmar

 When 435 visited Garland, she was also hard at work on a wooden statue from Myanmar (formerly Burma): a haunting rendering of a Buddhist ascetic. Removing dust and dirt from the artwork required skewering a small piece of cotton wadding with a wooden stick and gently brushing it across the surface, inch by inch. When the remaining few bits of original paint threatened to fall off, they were attached with “fish glue” - an adhesive made from organic fish gelatin that dries without leaving a residue. 

  Garland says her work at the museum is the culmination of life focused on art conservation. Before she became the senior conservator at the Nelson, she worked for the National Trust in the United Kingdom.

   “My grandparents were artists, and I grew up in Europe mostly. I went into art history and studio art, yet at the same time I knew I wanted to go into conservation, so I did a lot of chemistry; it’s a discipline that requires a good mix of science and art history.”  

   Conservation is a constant process at the Nelson Atkins and Garland says there is a triage process through which art goes.

   “Things that are in very poor condition have priority, but if they’re going to go on display or we’re loaning, it gets bumped up. That decision is made between the conservator, the curator, upper management and finally Julian, who’s the director, he actually signs off on it.” 

   The hardest part of being an art conservator, Garland shares, is knowing when to stop and understanding that you must preserve the artist’s intent

 

restored textile work

“That is where the art historian and the conservator work very closely. We have to understand the artist’s intent and at the same time, we should take into consideration the ravages of time. We can’t redye these [textiles] to make them look like they’re not faded. [With] a contemporary piece, for example, the artist’s intent becomes incredibly important because the concept is so important there. We have to work often with the artist’s studio or foundation to make sure that we’re approaching it in a way that the artist would approve of.” 

   Her biggest challenge is not necessarily undoing the ravages of time, but the interventions of other people.

   “We spend an inordinate amount of time undoing old restorations. Generally, if it’s an historic repair, part of the history, we will leave it; but if it’s something that was done just to make the piece sellable, we will consider taking those off.” 

   Garland doesn't consider any one project to have been the most difficult; she’s worked on everything from mummy coffins to textiles, but she does say that some are more involved than others: 

   “I’m really proud of how the Jain Shrine turned out (a carved and painted wood shrine from 16th century India) that was a two-year project involving many people.” 

  The art conservator confides that working in the Midwest, distant from the art hubs on the coasts can present challenges. 

  “I personally love living in Kansas City because the people are so nice and they love the museum so much. One of the drawbacks of course is I don’t have as many colleagues that I can walk over to their museum and say ‘oh, what are you doing to your Chinese robe, any ideas?’ On the other hand, this is such a great museum, I’ve been here for almost 30 years. Our conservation lab altogether is up in the top 10, 15 in terms of quality and abilities simply because we are so supported by the community.” 

   The Nelson Atkins Museum has had a conservator on staff since shortly after the museum opened in 1933.

   The Nelson has two conservation units for the more 34,000 works of art housed in the museum. One for paintings and one for objects like sculptures, pottery, furniture and shuttlecocks. 

    An art conservationist's toolkit will include everything from high-tech devices like infrared lights and X-ray machines to scalpels, surgical clamps, jeweler tweezers and sailcloth to back damaged paintings.

   For decades Art Conservators have been dispatched in international teams to work on saving art that has been compromised by natural disasters or war.