After studying painting and art history on scholarship at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the International School of Art in Italy, Heather Becker embarked on a career in art preservation. In 1989, she developed a national business plan for The Chicago Conservation Center and purchased it from its founder in August 2003. She shortened the name to The Conservation Center and expanded its portfolio to provide conservation services in paintings, works of art on paper, murals, textiles, antiques and fine furniture, rare books, frames and gilding, and objects and sculpture. Today, it is the largest private facility of its kind in North America. A sought-after speaker, she has lectured at The J. Paul Getty Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, Art Basel Miami, the Risk Insurance Management Society (RIMS) and the Detroit Institute of Arts.


Apart from her work as the CEO of The Conservation Center, she continues her practice as an artist, specializing in figurative oil paintings and drawings and has exhibited at major art fairs, including Art Miami and EXPO Chicago.


Stay Thirsty Magazine was thrilled to visit with Heather Becker at The Conservation Center for this in-depth Conversation about art restoration and her work.


STAY THIRSTY: How do you feel standing before an iconic work by an old master knowing that you are responsible for bringing it back to life through cleaning or restoration? Do you feel the artist's presence traveling through time?


HEATHER BECKER: When you stand in front of a work of art from centuries ago, you recognize how important your position is in preserving it for future generations. It's a very humbling experience. It's important to understand where that artist was coming from, respect their intention and acumen for what they do, and know that we are only a secondary party trying to honor them by keeping their work alive.


A Glimpse into The Conservation Center

STAY THIRSTY: What was the most artistically significant piece The Conservation Center has ever worked on? What was the most difficult?


HEATHER BECKER: We have worked on an endless amount of artistically significant, incredibly creative, and powerful pieces over the 31 years I've been with The Center. I have a few stories that really resonate with me. One was a gentleman who came in with a few letters from a family member written during the last days of their life at a concentration camp during the Holocaust. These documents were important because they represented this person's life and their last form of communication, so it was a complete honor to preserve them for this family. Another story is from Hurricane Katrina: we treated a piece by Gerrard Robinson that's called Chevy Chase Sideboard, it's a substantial hand-carved sideboard that took the artist five years to create. It had been nearly destroyed with water and mold exposure, as it was completely submerged. It took us almost a year to treat; we had to take apart every piece and then put it back together. It was such a testimony to the talent required to create the work in the first place.

Examination in Process

STAY THIRSTY: What is the strategic process you go through in evaluating the conservation needs for a particular piece? Are there ever controversies about best practices to employ?


HEATHER BECKER: The strategic process we go through in evaluating artwork for conservation is very particular. Our team examines the work under microscopic magnification to determine the process, methodology, and materials required to ethically move forward using the least invasive and most reversible approach as possible. There are different types of best practices for each of the various disciplines of fine art. There is also a tremendous amount of ethics involved in knowing how far to maintain the original's integrity.

One restoration floor of The Conservation Center


STAY THIRSTY: Is there a different mindset required in conserving a painting from the 14th century vs. a cubist work from the early 20th century? How do the materials used in treatment differ depending on the age of the object at issue? Are there some materials that are part of the standard and some that are more leading-edge? How do you make the decision on what materials to use and do you duplicate the original materials?


HEATHER BECKER: Yes, there is a different mindset for conserving a painting from the 14th century versus a contemporary work from a living artist. Things that have aged and been around for centuries – or even decades – are deteriorating and aging and require different techniques to preserve not only what is going on in terms of degradation, but any issues related to inherent vice regarding how it is was made. There are many different material and treatment choices based on age-old techniques that go back centuries and techniques that have just recently been developed in the field of conservation. There's a tremendous amount of innovation going on in the field, but yet, just like medicine, it needs to be time-tested and proven before you use it regularly. All of that can be happening together in one treatment collectively, making it even that much more interesting.  

Selected Restoration Materials

STAY THIRSTY: Do techniques using sophisticated equipment, like lasers, come into play in your work? Are there techniques that The Conservation Center has pioneered or that are proprietary to your company? Are there types of treatments that you are particularly well known for doing?


HEATHER BECKER: Materials and techniques are a constant and lively discussion among the conservators in the laboratory, as it's an evolving process that's continually changing. That's where the leadership comes in: being willing to pioneer new approaches and yet really understanding when you need to rely on age-old techniques that have been around for centuries. It's the level of sophistication of each of the conservators, and I have to say, every department is very different. Technology is something that we always have to be adapting to as conservators.



STAY THIRSTY: How do you handle the expectations of your clients when evaluating a conservation project?


HEATHER BECKER: A high level of communication is the essential element of working with our clients – making sure we understand their personal goals with their needs and desires related to what we are treating for them. Yet, at the same time, we need to make sure we're responding to them with information to them that is relevant, poignant, and directed from our level of expertise so that they know what to expect going forward.


Storage and Shipment Processing


STAY THIRSTY: How do you select craftsmen and craftswomen to join The Conservation Center? What experience and qualifications do you look for?


HEATHER BECKER: The talent of this team is one of the essential elements of this corporation. This company would be nothing without the core talent of the conservators that we have on staff. Our level of expertise is incredibly important to prove the relevance and qualifications of what we do as an organization. Bringing on a new staff member is a very slow, thoughtful process. In-depth experience and qualifications are required; an applicant must have years of experience and the ability to work with others and a willingness to learn.


Elevation by Heather Becker


STAY THIRSTY: As a recognized artist yourself, what gives you the most satisfaction when a damaged work is brought back to life? Do you ever wonder if some of your work might need restoration in the next 50 or 100 years?


HEATHER BECKER: Working in a conservation laboratory has been one of the most important influences in my artistic development. I am allowed to watch pieces be conserved and cared for in a proper, sophisticated manner that brings them back to life. It's a very rewarding thing as a Chicago artist, and I understand now what it means to create something that lasts a lifetime.  


STAY THIRSTY: You are the author of Art for the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive and WPA-Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943 that tells the story of how a diverse group of people came together to restore and preserve important murals from a bygone era. Why was this project so important to you and is it a model for other mural restorations around the nation?

HEATHER BECKER: Writing Art for the People was a critical stage for me as a preservationist and activist within the community to save public art. I went to public schools as a young child, including an incredible middle school and high school. There, I was exposed to great art teachers who were very inspiring and pulled me out of my shell, allowing me to flourish as a young artist. Then I was accepted on scholarship at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and went on to study on scholarship at the International School of Art in Italy. Ultimately, I realized that if I had not been exposed to those influencers early in my life, then I might not have been as effective as an artist and pursued my personal goals to the level that I have today. Socially we should be doing more to support our communities, culture, and heritage.



STAY THIRSTY: What advice do you have for people who collect art regarding the care and preservation of their collections? Can works of art be made to last forever?

Heather Becker at The Conservation Center

HEATHER BECKER: My advice to collectors is to make sure your surround yourself with trusted advisors. As conservators, we consider ourselves experts in our field. We're always humbled and honored by having the opportunity to share our level of knowedlge and expertise with people passionate about what they collect in their homes, corporations, or institutions. There is no secret to all of this – it's never simple, and very nuanced based on the medium, the piece itself, artists intent, etc. – there are so many things that come into play. We continue to be passionate about what we do and we work for people who are passionate about what they collect. That's whats so fascinating about being in this industry.




The Conservation Center   

Heather Becker – Artist   

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.