PSU professor brings chemistry to art conservation in Olympic Sculpture Park project
Author: David Santen, Office of University Communications, Portland State University
Posted: August 15, 2012


PSU professor brings chemistry to art conservation in Olympic Sculpture Park project

Fieldwork at Seattle Art Museum’s sculpture park now underway

An innovative field project led by a Portland State University (PSU) chemist and the Seattle Art Museum will help museums better prepare and preserve valuable outdoor sculptures.

Tami Lasseter Clare, an assistant professor of chemistry at PSU and director of the Regional Laboratory for the Science of Cultural Heritage Conservation, is working with Nicholas Dorman, chief conservator and Liz Brown, associate conservator from Seattle Art Museum’s (SAM) Conservation Department to develop new methods of analyzing and diagnosing anti-corrosion coatings on outdoor artwork at Olympic Sculpture Park.

MEDIA ALERT: Researchers will be available for interviews at SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park August 16–17, 2012.

Coatings provide the last line of defense for outdoor artwork—preserving the patina (coloring) of the piece, while protecting it from weathering and air pollution. But without methods of chemical analysis, assessing the quality of these coatings has had to rely on visual inspections, looking for signs of rust or “weeping” to indicate that the coating has degraded and needs to be reapplied.

“But at that point, the house has already burned down,” Clare says. To preserve these pieces, diagnosis must occur earlier.

Tami ClareA Seattle native, Clare (pictured, left) is working with pieces at the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, a nine-acre site in downtown Seattle adjacent to Puget Sound. She and her team are using a novel approach to electrochemical testing (Electrochemical Impedance Spectroscopy), which typically requires artwork to be conductive and wired to instrumentation at an uncoated region of the artwork.

Clare’s team will fabricate and use surface-mounted electrodes that can be quickly attached and cleanly removed, allowing for rapid and routine on-site evaluation of these protective coatings, and leading to more effective preservation techniques. This diagnostic tool will be transferrable to any museum in the world and customizable to specific art pieces.

“As art conservators we are always searching for new methods and techniques which allow us to understand the mechanism of deterioration and thus treat the artworks in a preventive rather than reactionary manner. A diagnostic tool such as this would provide wonderful method of evaluating deterioration before a coating shows visible signs of failure. We are also excited by the opportunity to engage the public through signage this summer regarding this interesting exploration of art and science,” says SAM associate conservator, Liz Brown

The three-year project, funded through a $420,000 National Science Foundation grant (NSF Award #11139230) comes at a time when new environmental and air quality regulations have restricted the use of traditional coatings for art and architectural conservation in outdoor settings, which contain solvents. That’s forcing adoption of water-based coatings that must protect the physical integrity of structures as well as aesthetic qualities, such as color, even though they remain largely untested in such applications.

“You can’t use a work of art as your field test,” Clare says. That’s part of her rationale for a related project with the Philadelphia Art Museum, where she previously worked as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow, and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Clare is developing clear coatings for outdoor metalwork, such as iron and bronze, that will meet new environmental and air quality standards and that will have a 50-year lifespan.

These techniques and materials may have additional application for high-performance coatings used in architecture, aerospace engineering, buildings and bridges, affecting maintenance of infrastructure such as buildings and bridges.

Established by Tami Lasseter Clare, assistant professor of chemistry at Portland State University, the lab studies newly emerging technologies, such as those in nanomaterials chemistry, to advance cultural heritage preservation practices through better diagnostics and materials.

Clare’s team works to improve performance, reduce environmental impact and facilitate the commercialization of new materials, making them accepted and available for use by conservators worldwide. The lab supports and collaborates with conservators of artistic and historic works throughout the Pacific Northwest, providing a suite of analytical instruments unparalleled in the region. Recent projects include:
•    Helping the Portland Art Museum to uncover details about a 2,000-year-old Chinese burial relic: a bronze money tree from the Han Dynasty:
•    Assisting Stephen Delamater at George Fox University (Newberg, Ore.) on authenticating and dating Ethiopian religious manuscripts by assessing inks, bindings and pigments:

The nine-acre site on Puget Sound in downtown Seattle is an industrial brownfield transformed into internationally acclaimed green space for art and people. The free park, operated by the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), has seen approximately 2.5 million residents and visitors since it opened on January 20, 2007. The park has garnered over 20 design, architecture, urban planning and environmental awards over the past five years, making it one of Seattle’s most celebrated landmarks. On view are commissions by Louise Bourgeois, Teresita Fernández and Mark Dion, as well as major works by Richard Serra, Alexander Calder and Mark di Suvero, among other leading contemporary artists.

View “Conserving the Surface of Sculptures, ”a video interview with Liz Brown, associate conservator at SAM about this project:



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For Immediate Release (#12-081)

David Santen, Office of University Communications
Portland State University | 503-725-8765

Tami Clare, Department of Chemistry
Portland State University

Cara Egan, Seattle Art Museum | 206-654-3158