Becoming An Art Conservator
Strategic internships, relationships and tenacity pave path to art conservation career
In 2006, Miranda Hope Dunn left her home in Baltimore for Dallas, thinking she was going to major in vocal performance at SMU.
One class in art history changed all that.
“I took Western Art with Dr. Karl Kilinski my first semester and that was it – I fell in love with art history,” says Dunn. “Professor Kilinski was absolutely my favorite teacher. He knew what his students were capable of and he always expected our best. He didn’t let me get away with anything. That was good for me – as a young college kid I needed someone to call me out and demand that I dedicate my full effort.”
Testing materials in the conservation lab at The Baltimore Museum of Art.
By the end of her junior year, Dunn was beginning to put the pieces in place to achieve a career in art history. That summer, she was accepted as an intern at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum.
One day, she walked into the Walters conservation lab and had a revelation. There on the table was a piece made of sheet gold over bronze, inlaid with garnets, amethysts and colored glass. “It was the ‘Eagle Fibula’ -- a work that had been a major part of my studies,” she says. “Someone was working on it, prepping it to go out on loan. I realized at that moment how intimate that relationship is: The contact the conservator has with art is so different from the contact everyone else has. I was drawn to the hands-on element. To take care of something people can learn so much from, to be in charge of the well being of objects and art ... I was hooked.”
Since that time, Dunn has continued taking steady steps toward her goal, pursuing internships that connect her with respected industry professionals as well as highly regarded works of art. Since 2010, she has interned at The Baltimore Museum of Art, working on Tiffany mosaic columns and Warhol paintings, testing materials for various items in the museum’s collection and more. In fall 2012 she also began working as a volunteer in the painting conservation lab at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
"I am delighted but not surprised Miranda has taken on one of our field's most demanding career paths,” says Dr. Janis Bergman-Carton, associate professor and chair of the Art History Department. “It was clear from the time she declared her art history major that she was a student guided by a voracious appetite for knowledge and intellectual challenge and that she was willing to work as hard as that challenge required."
Dunn knows the path she has chosen is a difficult one: Art conservators not only are expected to put in more than 400 hours of work in conservation labs, they are expected to go to grad school. With only three art conservation grad programs in the country, and each of them accepting only ten students, Dunn is keenly aware of the odds.
Dunn enjoys the hands-on aspect of preserving art.
But her chances are good. She took chemistry courses at Loyola and Towson universities in Baltimore to satisfy grad school chemistry requirements. And all along the way, she has received strategic advice from her SMU professors and from professionals in the field. While at SMU, she gained experience as a William. B. Jordan intern working in the education department at the Meadows Museum; Professor Bergman-Carton wrote a letter of recommendation for her grad school applications; and various conservators in the Baltimore/Washington area have encouraged her to get involved and network in the art conservation community.
Dunn is ready to begin the next leg of her journey. With her SMU Meadows B.A. in art history in hand, more than 800 hours of interning plus time as a volunteer at the National Gallery, she is sending in applications to all three U.S. grad schools and one to the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.
Dunn recognizes and appreciates the help she has received along the way and advises current students to keep in contact with their professors. “Especially the ones you feel close to and who know you well,” says Dunn.
“The way the Art History Department taught me to really look at things – really look at an object, not just read about it – is very important in conservation,” says Dunn. “That has helped me in my studies and in the way I work with art.”