How do I work with history?
October 22, 2010 6:45 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to find a career in historical preservation/art restoration from where I am now?

Basic info first:

I'm a recent graduate (2008) of a small art school in eastern Massachusetts. I have a BFA in illustration, and while I have a good deal of experience in digital art-making/vector graphics programs I'm mostly a traditional painter (acrylics, oils, gouache, etc). I've taken standard undergrad art history classes from prehistoric to modern, but nothing particularly focused. My artistic skill is very much in painting.

Illustration was a great field to major in, but even before graduating I realized that my level of self discipline just isn't enough for a sustainable freelance artist career, and during the course of going to school and in the period of time afterward I've definitely decided my heart lies in a field that's historically oriented. Until I was eighteen my family and I lived in the caretakers cottage of a historic home in Gloucester, MA (Beauport Museum) so the idea of working with a piece of history and contributing to the growth and understanding of that history is incredibly attractive to me.

Right out of school I got an internship at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass in the graphic design department, which lasted for six months, and I now have two jobs, working at a small local gallery and working at a paint and decorating shop. Working at the museum and working at my current job at the paint shop are definitely responsible for rekindling of my love of decorative arts and history, and now more than anything else I want to find a way to get a job in some kind of preservation/restoration capacity, whether it be with paintings or architecture. The paint shop I work in is pretty high end, and I work primarily as a stain and color matcher and faux-finisher. My job requires me to replicate a lot of complex decorative arts processes and I have a very good eye when it comes to creating and matching color and texture with pigment. A lot of our clients are historical associations or design firms, and a good deal of the decorative finishes I make are historically oriented.

Current skills:
-BFA in illustration from a small but respected art school
-traditional and digital media knowledge, with a major focus on acrylic and oil painting
-museum experience (both personal history-wise and professionally)
-hands on experience in decorative and architectural finishes
-basic art history knowledge (though no particular expertise)
-extensive American and European historical knowledge, as well as respectable world history
-interests in film and cinema, architecture, literature
-I'm a fast learner and I have spunk (also, pep)
-And as relevant knowledge, I live in Northern Massachusetts, my traveling options are reasonably open, and I'm a 24 year-old male.

So I guess my overall questions are, what is the best way to narrow down what I want to do in this relatively expansive field? How specific do I need to be in my focus? What are the areas most likely to net me a livable income? What kind of experience do I need beyond an art history/museum studies/etc. degree? What books should I read and what places and people should I study? What kinds of jobs are available and what kind of jobs should I consider? Any and all information is welcome, I know this might be broad but I'm just looking for a lot of good ideas!
posted by billypilgrim to Education (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I went to Cornell for the graduate program in historic preservation planning. The backgrounds of the people who enter the preservation and planning programs there is very diverse and it sounds like you have a great background. Cornell's program is sometimes seen as more planning-centric, but while I was there we started a chapter of the Association for Preservation Technology and there are a lot of conservation and architectural resources in the program and on campus.

I would also check out UPenn, Roger Williams, Columbia (thinking East Coast as that is where you currently are).

You may want to contact someone like John Vaughn to get an idea of what he does as a conservator (I know his name as the firm I currently work for consults with him a lot).

As for jobs, take a look at PreserveNet for an idea of what's out there.

Historic preservation and art restoration are really two completely different fields, but I think you get that and there are places where they overlap.

I'd be happy to answer any other questions you might have!
posted by stefnet at 7:17 PM on October 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I should also add that no one ever entered the preservation field to get rich, but I know a lot of people who are gainfully employed in a variety of fields.
posted by stefnet at 7:20 PM on October 22, 2010

I'd check out the programs at Winterthur in Delaware. It's a decorative arts museum that has an extensive educational program including graduate programs and adult education. It sounds like art conservation would be a great field for you.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 7:44 PM on October 22, 2010

Another thought, although it may be more museum-based than you seem to be interested in, is the Cooperstown Graduate Program.
posted by stefnet at 7:47 PM on October 22, 2010

Check out AMIEN - Art Materials Information and Education Network. Posting a question about this on their forum should get you a lot of very focused information on programs and specialties.
posted by leslies at 8:33 AM on October 23, 2010

Also check out the grad programs at Pratt in NYC: they offer some combined history/fine art degrees that might interest you. (link)
posted by xo at 8:52 AM on October 23, 2010

Best answer: I recommend pursuing an advanced degree in historic preservation and steering clear of the Museum Studies programs. They'll be too limiting for you to practice the content specialization you crave. But your media skills are also pretty significant, and I expect that new paths will be opening up for digital natives who can combine historic preservation detail knowledge and hands-on craft ability with media savvy - I don't necessarily even know what they are, digital documentation and interpretation, perhaps?

The upshot is that if you want to be actively involved with the processes of preservation and restoration, you'll find it's really a specialized field and you'll want the specific, specialized training of a preservationist. There are some programs in which you can get an MA or PhD in art history and concentrate on architecture or preservation, and some programs which are much more targeted toward practical preservation approaches. I'd really recommend the latter, and keep up your skills in other areas - that way you'd never lack core preservation knowledge but could always integrate your other interests and skills that require less professional credentialing, like interpretation, design, media, history, etc.
posted by Miko at 11:10 AM on October 23, 2010

Response by poster: Awesome answers everybody, this is a great start. And thank you stefnet for so many suggestions, I'll definitely MeMail you if I have any other questions!
posted by billypilgrim at 2:49 PM on October 23, 2010

Response by poster: One more quick question if anyone is still reading this: Does anyone know anything about Savannah College of Art and Design's online MA program in historic preservation? The idea of online degrees are pretty dubious in my opinion, but I've heard their preservation program is pretty solid. Any idea whether this program is higher quality and more useful than, say, some kind of University of Phoenix class?
posted by billypilgrim at 10:18 AM on October 24, 2010

Honestly, I'm not sure, but have you checked with this organization? Also, ListServs are really great for this sort of query - anywhere you can get feedback on the merits of various programs from people in the field will help.

I generally think online Masters' programs are really helpful, especially if you're a working person, but preservation is a pretty hands-on field, so I'd wonder how they manage the need for practica and onsite training and such.
posted by Miko at 2:23 PM on October 24, 2010

Response by poster: That was my main concern too. And that site looks like just the sort of thing I'd like to check out, thanks so much!
posted by billypilgrim at 3:22 PM on October 24, 2010

I generally think online Masters' programs are really helpful, especially if you're a working person, but preservation is a pretty hands-on field, so I'd wonder how they manage the need for practica and onsite training and such.

It's also a small field and the more networking you do, the better, which I think would be somewhat difficult with an online program.
posted by stefnet at 7:59 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

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