Restoring Splendor at The Eiteljorg


Public exposure for two decades has taken its toll on the majestic three-panel painting – “October Suite: Grand Canyon, 1991” – that has greeted visitors upon entering the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art for the past 24 years.

Artist Wilson Hurley’s sweeping panorama is in the Gallery of Western Art awaiting a much needed round of conservation, and we’re invited to experience the meticulous process of a team of art conservators perform the delicate dot by dot operation of dust removal with a special cleaning solution and a cotton swab.

The sprucing up was essential to showcase “October Suite” in its original vibrancy in Eiteljorg’s upcoming Grand Canyon exhibition, opening March 26, 2016 and continuing through August 7.

Knowing the cleaning of “October Suite” had to be a priority, around 2005 the Eiteljorg Collections and Exhibitions staffs developed a plan to conserve this iconic work. First on the must do list was obtaining a grant because Eiteljorg does not have a conservation department. Amy McKune, Eiteljorg’s Director of Museum Collections, walked me through the multi-year, arduous process that ultimately will result in the restoration of “October Suite” and 29 other works needing immediate care. While the restoration of “October Suite” will be completed by January 2016, it’s a multi-year project to complete the others. These will be placed on exhibit as they are completed, with full explanations about the work done along with ‘before’ photographs.

A dramatic example of restoration and a plea for proper home care of art works resulted from the 2004-2005 restoration of Joseph Henry Sharp’s oil on canvas “Wild Plum Blossoms.” A gift of Harrison Eiteljorg to the Museum’s permanent collection, this work has been showcased as an example of “how cigarette smoke and other contaminants can accumulate on art from normal exhibition in a home environment.” McKune encourages visitors to pick up the brochure on protecting collections from deterioration.

When a donor gifts a work to a museum it most often comes “as is” which explains why conservation work is ongoing.

“In order to apply for a conservator grant, we needed to prioritize objects in need,” said McKune. “But we needed a grant to be able to look at close to 8,200 objects and identify priorities based on their condition, not on the subject of the object itself.”

A 3-year grant (2007-2010) from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a federal program, enabled Eiteljorg to bring in a team of specialists to survey their collection which usually also includes documentation research — finding a photograph of the work when it first was painted so the surveyor can assess the extent of damage/pollution. To obtain the grant to conserve, the Eiteljorg staff needed to outline what the conservation work would entail for each object. Eiteljorg applied for and got another grant to hire outside conservators to do the required work

As a result of the survey one popular object on display was taken off because of structural conditions that would have deteriorated it even more.

“Even the staff gets surprised when surveys are done,” McKune pointed out, adding “the museums make a commitment as longtime caregivers of works that not only are aesthetically appealing, but are pieces of history that are meant to inspire, enrich and educate people for generations. The museum must strike a balance between providing public access to objects by exhibiting them, and keeping objects safe from potential harm caused by temperature and humidity variations, human touch, light levels, pests and air pollutants.”

McKune explained that one of the objects for inviting visitors to view the hands-on restoration of “October Suite” is to help us understand why museums keep changing exhibits. It’s not just to entice us to see something new — it’s equally to preserve and protect from the effects of exposure.

“The team of conservators coordinates their efforts. They have experience with each other,” said McKune, “They work together to be consistent and avert what can go wrong. Their object is to get it to look like it did when Hurley painted the triptych in his studio in 1991. We don’t know how much it will change so it will be revelatory. The painting may need some touch up but that will be matched exactly — nothing will be done to damage the painting.”

Michael Ruzga, an independent conservator from Cincinnati, will be working on “October Suite” December 10-12. Monica Radecki, from South Bend, will follow in January.

McKune assures, “We can do this conservation work in the gallery with the public present because materials we are using won’t create fumes.” Ruzga and Radecki will be standing on scaffolding “rolling a cotton swab meticulously.”

Guides will answer questions so as not to pull the conservators from the meticulous work.

McKune expects us to be intrigued and mesmerized by the process throughout December and January. And for the time being, the wall to the immediate right of visitors as they enter is newly repainted, bare of adornment. We will be invited to visit the Gallery just past the visitors desk and experience the sweeping splendor of “October Suite” in another setting.

What: “Conservator Insights” lecture by Linda Witkowski, senior paintings conservator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, about painting conservation practices in museums. Dec. 12, 2015 and Jan. 9, 2016 at 2 p.m on both dates

Cost: Included with museum admission

Where: Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, 500 W. Washington St.

What: An up close experience in the craft of restoration of an artwork. See conservators at work to restore artist Wilson Hurley’s majestic three-panel painting “October Suite: Grand Canyon, 1991” to its original luster;

Dec. 10, 11 and12, 2015; and Jan. 8 and 9, 2016: at 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 1:30-4 p.m. on each date. Cost: included with admission