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Finding Minnesota: Midwest Art Conservation Center

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Art is often viewed as the preservation of our culture. From 17th century sculptures to the work of a local painter, all has value.

In order to preserve that art, it needs to undergo some type of conservation. In the Midwest, it will most likely wind up at the Midwest Art Conservation Center, one of the few facilities dedicated to art conservation in the United States.

When creating a work of art, the vision for the finished piece is often in mind. Megan Emery, chief conservator of objects at the MACC, understands this approach and applies it as she works on a brass, three-dimensional sculpture of crucified Christ. She's not creating an original piece; instead, she's working to repair years of damage.

"There were missing fingers. There were structural cracks in the sculpture, so it's here to get on overhaul treatment to make it displayable again," Emery said.

Megan is among a team of highly trained conservators at the MACC.

"The difference between art conservation and restoration is the fact we put a lot of effort into preserving the artist's original intent," Emery said.

Each conservator is an artist in their own right, tasked with restoring a piece to its original glory.

"Each object dictates its treatment. No one object is treated the same as another. Everything is customized," Emery said.

Tucked inside the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, it's one of only five centers around the country.

"Very few people know this place exists but institutions know us very well," Colin Turner, MACC's executive director, said.

Each year, MACC conserves hundreds of pieces of art. Many of the pieces arrive to the facility because of its ability to treat all four categories of materials, textiles, paper, objects and paintings.

"We run the gamut on type. We've got decorative art, ethnographic art, archeological art, ecological material, historic facts. We have everything," Emery said.

"It comes from all over, from little historical societies, archives, libraries and museums," Turner said.

David Marquis specializes in conserving paintings. He joined MACC 30 years ago and over his tenure has worked on some of art's most recognizable names.

"I've worked on Van Goghs, I've worked on Cezanne, I've worked on a lot of major artists," Marquis said. "It's a privilege."

Conservators don't get distracted by the renowned names. They take the same approach to every object or artifact. Each piece gets the same attention whether it's from a famous artist, an artifact from a historical society, or even a family painting that's handed down for generations.

"You really start to appreciate the art for how it was made, the materials, the technique that was used and less about the artist. It's actually a benefit to the art that we put that aside because then all art, all objects are treated equally," Emery said.

There is no rushing the rehabilitation; progress can take weeks and in some cases years.

"To us, the most important thing is to always proceed carefully and never take anything for granted," Marquis said.

For him and all the conservators, it's rewarding work knowing their role in conserving a piece of history.

"You play a role in transforming it both structurally and cosmetically," Marquis said. "When people visit a museum, you want them to focus on the art, not what's been repaired."

MACC also puts an emphasis on preventive conservation. The organization spends a lot of time taking calls and offering assistance and advice on storage, lighting and exhibition to conserve art.

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