A Cup of Tea and a Tape Recorder

This week’s contributing blogger, Pamela Johnson, is a second-year Graduate Fellow in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, specializing in paintings conservation. Prior to attending graduate school, she spent five and a half years working in the Exhibits and Conservation Departments at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.


At my first artist interview, there was no fancy camera; no spotlights or scripts, no microphones. It was January 2012, when there were whispers of an artist interview program at the Hirshhorn, but the official ball hadn’t started rolling yet. I was young, working as Lab Tech and Administrative Assistant in the Hirshhorn’s conservation department, trying to soak in everything I could and earn those much-needed hours to get into conservation school. At a museum like the Hirshhorn, conserving artwork is not often about well-studied materials like oil paints and ceramics. It begs questions like how to make pollen, soap, or even live snails stand the test of time.

I had been working with our Sculpture Conservator, Gwynne Ryan, on one such challenging modern-materials project when the opportunity for an artist interview arose.  Our discussions with a New York-based artist about the conservation of her piece had been ongoing and, over the course of several years, we had established a long lasting dialogue with her built upon the common goal of caring for her artworks. She was the ideal artist to work with – kind, communicative, and eager to partner with conservation. As chance would have it, I was already headed to New York for a courier trip, and Gwynne suggested I stop by this artist’s studio for a face-to-face chat.

I was nervous. Me, conducting an interview? I was just a lab tech. I had no official training. A few years prior, I had been an undergraduate, reading about this woman in my Art History textbook. She was my idea of a rock star.

Another intern who was working on this project took the Amtrak up to New York with me so we could conduct the interview together. Cheap tape recorder in hand, we boarded the subway and headed toward the address scratched on a piece of paper. We diffidently knocked on the door and both took a deep, shaky breath but when we entered her studio, we were greeted warmly and invited to sit down. The whole air of it felt informal – like we were meeting with an old friend to catch up on life. She made us tea. We asked her if we could set up our little tape recorder on the table and she kindly obliged. We all pretended it wasn’t there.

I think the success of this interview – my first, and the only interview so far where I asked the questions – was in its comfort and ease. In my humility and star-struck awe, I asked simple questions and let her do the talking.  I had no script. No time restraint. I was simply there to get her take on her art and ideas she had for its future. It was casual. We chatted at the table for awhile, she talking about her art, and my colleague and I asking basic questions like, “Oh, so you don’t like that aspect of it?” “You’re okay with how it ages in this way?” or even basics like, “Really?” and “Why?” She embellished thoughtfully, taking time to discuss possibilities, pros and cons in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way. There was an instant sense of trust, built on years of relationship-building with Hirshhorn conservation staff, and also on her willingness to let us into her space and ours to eagerly listen.

Gwynne Ryan stated later that this simple interview was, for her, a sort of “aha” moment in realizing what it takes to have a successful artist interview.  It wasn’t a specific formula, but rather the building of a relationship over time. Although the recording and transcript from this interview ended up containing great insights into the conservation of the artist’s work, the interview has never been posted nor the artist’s name divulged. In keeping with her wishes to not share the recording, we decided that trust and respect for privacy trumped any airtime it may get. That, too, is sometimes part of the process.

The Artist Interview Program: Capturing the Contemporary officially started up at the Hirshhorn later that year, with Steven O’Banion at the helm.  I felt extremely fortunate to be able to assist Steven, Gwynne, and Susan Lake, as well as many other staff, with its successful lift-off. As the Hirshhorn began posting videos of its interviews online, I felt a huge sense of pride to have assisted the conservation staff in starting such an amazing program. Even as artist interviews look increasingly professional, however, I think valuable lessons can be gained from those first, unsure yet eager chats. When we take away the spotlights, we find that artist-conservator relationships built on sincere curiosity and mutual respect are the backbone for the essential work we do. At the heart of it all is just a cheap tape recorder and the willingness to share a cup of tea.

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