Unheralded conservation shops are vital to art world

Fred Koszewnik, owner of Painting Conservation in Marlton, touches up a painting in his studio. – Painting Conservation

Christyl Cusworth doesn’t leave her own mark on an artwork. Her impact often is imperceptible.

That’s the way her clientele of art collectors and museums wants it.

Art conservation shops, like her own Lambertville-based Christyl Cusworth Paintings Conservator LLC, are an invisible component of the local art scene. But the profession has an importance to that scene — and the many local collections of aged artworks that need preserving — that’s easy to see.

And it’s a profession that has changed a great deal over the past few decades, Cusworth said.

“The basic conceptual difference today is that, when we get a painting, we want to try to preserve condition it’s in while restoring as best as possible what you have left of it,” she said. “It’s a principle of doing no harm by maintaining the integrity of the piece as much as possible.”

Even calling it art restoration, which is often done by those outside the profession, has quickly become dated.

“Conservation is a more honest word for what we do today,” said Fred Koszewnik, who, like Cusworth, has a private practice, Painting Conservation.

A lot of the change has been ushered in with access to new, more easily reversible materials that can be used on an artwork without permanently covering up the original artwork.

That means oil paint wouldn’t be a go-to for a restoration of an older oil painting by today’s professionals. Those in the field come to have an extensive knowledge of modern solvents that would be used instead, which makes for an interesting fusion of skill sets.

“Aside from having to know a lot about art history, you also have to have a science background — which is not something you usually find,” Koszewnik said. “You have to understand chemistry. So much of it is knowing how solvents will interact with paintings that have been darkened and discolored over time.”

Cusworth’s caveat is that, most of the time, small art conservation operations are working with people, not museums.

“So, my pieces go out to the real world, which is a lot harsher than most museum climates and I have to take into consideration,” she said. “It means that maybe I have to be more aggressive with materials because the painting is going to get harsher treatment.”

A local art conservator can work with a wide array of clients, even living artists that want guidance on how to best maintain their art for the future. Besides a customer who wants restored, as Cusworth said, “great-grandma’s painting that was done 80 years ago,” art dealers utilize restoration businesses as part of the high-dollar art sales process.

Koszewnik, who works out of Marlton, said he’s also had corporate clients. That work has included conservation of pieces owned by Bank of America, which has a large art collection and does traveling gallery shows. Koszewnik did conservation touch-ups on artwork slated for those shows.

Additionally, small conservation practices remain crucial to keeping art owned by institutions and small museums intact, as many of these organizations don’t have someone on staff that can do it.

Regardless of the sometimes high-profile clients a conservator may have, there is no official certification or license that exists for those in profession.

“There has been people who have argued for years about the need to get organized and create licensing within the profession,” Koszewnik said.

Some, but not all, conservators spend many years apprenticing before entering the profession. Stephen Weston, co-owner of Weston Gallery and art restorer who specializes in porcelain, did that in London. He now runs a shop in Manasquan.

“A lot of people have said, ‘You should be in New York or one of the bigger cities — what are you doing here?’” he said. “The expense of having a studio in a place like New York City would change who I dealt with. Plus, it’s more comfortable here.”

Like others in this underappreciated profession in New Jersey, his careful work is as much the figurative glue holding together Pablo Picasso originals as it is the small item treasured by a family.

“I have customers who seek me out years after coming to me to say that some piece they brought me looks as good today as when we received it,” Weston said. “It’s great to hear that.”

Conversation Starter

Reach Christyl Cusworth, owner of Christyl Cusworth Paintings Conservator LLC at: info@cusworthconservation.com or 609-397-5441.

Reach Stephen Weston, co-owner of Weston Gallery and porcelain art restorer at: info@westongalleries.com or 732-292-1664.

Reach Fred Koszewnik, owner of Painting Conservation at: fredkoszewnik@comcast.net 973-962-2240.