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What Goes On in the Hidden Bowels of Vancouver’s Art Gallery?

Tara Fraser repairs masterpieces. She’s very good at removing boogers.

Dorothy Woodend 24 May

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

The bowels of the Vancouver Art Gallery are a dizzying loop of twisting, turning passageways. It’s easy to get disoriented in the warren of hallways and small rooms, filled with packing crates, bits of stuff tucked into corners and busy folk working away.

If the public spaces are the gallery’s outer skin, buffed up and made pretty, down below is where the real gritty stuff takes place.

In the guts of the gallery you’ll find the conservation department, a spartan but highly functional place. Here the tools of the trade — paints, brushes and a giant vacuum for dealing with chemical fumes — are carefully arranged and presided over by Tara Fraser.

As the head of conservation, Fraser has cared for art for almost 25 years. Everything that the gallery presents, whether it’s a touring exhibition, work from a private collection or a piece plucked from the gallery’s own vault, must go through a conservator’s tender loving care before it reaches the public eye.

It requires a certain type of personality to do this kind of work, a light touch with cracked impasto, for example, along with a ferocious dedication to instilling respect for art, especially in people just joining the gallery.

On the day The Tyee arrives for a visit, a crop of gallery interns is waiting quietly to be schooled by Fraser in the finer details of properly caring for artwork.

“If I catch anyone without their gloves on...” Fraser lets her sentence hang in the air with its implicit threat.

“You beat them?” I ask.

“I’m not happy, yelling at people,” she says, explaining that some call her bossy pants, but it comes out as boxing pants.

“That works just as well,” I say.

She jokes that when she was asked what she would like on her business cards, she requested: “She Who Rules.”

Prior to assuming her role at the gallery in 2017, Fraser was the cofounder of Fraser Spafford Ricci Conservation, one of the largest private conservation labs in Canada.

Conservators usually specialize in painting, paper or objects. Fraser is a paper specialist, but also a master improviser.

The principals of restorative work hold across all mediums, but how she approaches a given problem depends on a number of different factors, including whether the artist is living or dead.

An example of a dead artist’s work is sitting on an easel when we arrive, upside down, so that Fraser can better assess an area of cracked brick-red paint in the bottom left of the work.

Fraser indicates the spot on Jean-Paul Riopelle’s painting, Untitled, 1956, that is at issue, and then immediately launches into the different means and methodologies of repairing it.

She explains that in any situation the point is to mend the problem invisibly, using materials that won’t break down over time. Watercolours can fade, whereas red wax will endure more cohesively.

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How to fix cracked paint? Tara Fraser with Jean-Paul Riopelle’s painting Untitled, 1956. Photo by Christopher Cheung. Untitled by Jean-Paul Riopelle, 1956, oil on canvas, collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of Canadian Forest Products Ltd.
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A conservator’s tools of the trade. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

She indicates three mirrored columns that have just arrived from the very-much-alive artist Vikky Alexander. The glass works have tiny chips in the base and along the sides.

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Tyee culture editor Dorothy Woodend and conservator Tara Fraser between the arm of a Plymoth vacuum on the upper left and the mirrored columns of a Vikky Alexander installation on the bottom right. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

It’s Fraser’s job to make certain that artwork endures not only the ravages of people, but also of time. Still, nothing lasts forever.

Oil paintings have been around for hundreds of years, and people have figured out the process of cleaning them, but modern materials are another matter.

This issue is compounded by the fact that artists often have no money and use the cheapest materials they can find.

Emily Carr, no stranger to penury, used gasoline as a paint-thinner; the result is grease stains on her work. (Also, a gentle reminder that it’s never a good idea to light a match in the vicinity of Carr’s work.)

Ensuring the provenance of a piece can necessitate some creative problem solving.

Something like a bit of Scotch Tape, laid down by the artist, must be treated carefully. Fraser describes the process of removing adhesive and then laying it back down, ensuring the original state of the work.

Things like Mowry Baden’s interactive installations (currently on display on the gallery’s second floor) require different kinds of attention — cleaning off grease or tracking down errant ping-pong balls.

“Many people go into a given profession, like engineering, thinking that they’ll get to design bridges, but actually end up working on parking lots,” Fraser says. “But this job is exactly what I thought it was going to be: looking out the window, listening to CBC Radio and working on art.”

Working in such close quarters with great work may seem a rare privilege, but the job requires a quick mind and the courage to try different things. Time is always of the essence. With major touring shows marching in and out of the gallery with alacrity, prepping work for exhibition means only a limited amount of time can be spent on any one piece.

Fraser has the help of colleagues across the country whom she can call for advice on especially intractable problems. “In Canada, there are only about 150 conservators. This is a small community that shares information, but I also have the Internet,” she notes.

She’s not afraid to try things that other conservators might never think of, such as freezing work to deal with insects. “The point is ultimately to improve the stability of the art,” Fraser explains.

But even with the greatest care and preparation, accidents happen. Over the length of her career, Fraser has collected her fair share of horror stories. Like the time she lit a piece of artwork on fire.

(She’s a bit circumspect about the details of this particular incident but holds back about little else. Fraser is blunt, honest and deeply funny about the nature of her profession.)

Are there any works that she finds particularly intimidating?

“Not really. Although if a painting is worth a few million dollars, you do tend to hold your breath when you’re working on it.”

She explains that most of the touring exhibits presented at the gallery are sturdy stuff, designed and prepared for the rigours of travel.

Dealing with humans, however, is another matter. “It’s great to see lineups and crowds,” she says, “But I’m happiest when everyone goes home.”

Left alone is when the real work happens. Dealing up close and personal with art is a curiously intimate thing. “I can tell if an artist is right or left-handed, what kind of brush they used,” Fraser says.

This kind of closeness has its challenges, but also surprising amounts of joy.

While working on a child’s dress from a Maharaja that belonged to a private collector, she steamed the lace collar of the tiny gown, releasing a cloud of spiced fragrance that perfumed the air of the entire room.

“It was like being in an Indian kitchen,” she says. “You could smell it everywhere.”

The physicality of working with different pieces gives rise to unexpected surprises. Fraser describes the experience of working with a Chinese terracotta horse, which had a hole in its stomach. “I could feel where the artist laid their fingers.”

Her story reminds me of seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks for the first time, and the quietly shocking realization that da Vinci was a real person.

Looking at his work, housed in London’s National Gallery, you could see how his arm moved. It was an electric experience that bridged past and present together.

This kind of intimacy lends itself to deep attachments to certain works. Fraser admits that there are some pieces in the gallery’s vault that she visits on a regular basis.

Does she have a favourite experience? “I cleaned up some Hogarth prints, so that the matte was able to be extended, showing the plate marks.”

If part of a conservator’s work is to send the art back better than when it arrived, it takes trial and error to figure out how to best fix things. Error is an especially effective teacher, and working alone can have its advantages: there is no one to see you sweat.

Although Fraser says that she can’t create in the same fashion as the artists she works with, conservation is an innately creative profession, requiring knowledge of chemistry, construction, and piercing observational skills.

And occasionally a strong stomach. People are gross, and nothing makes this more explicit than the things they do to art.

“The amount of snot, I’ve had to clean off paintings…” Fraser says, and mimes getting the dry heaves while cleaning boogers off a certain famous painting.

And selfie culture has created an entirely new set of problems.

The recent Guo Pei show at the gallery attracted record crowds, some of whom clambered onto the raised platforms to take pictures with Pei’s couture gowns before security guards could remove them.

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Installation view of Guo Pei: Couture Beyond exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, showing garments from the One Thousand and Two Nights collection, 2010. Photo by Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery.

It’s a delicate balance between protecting the artwork from humans and ensuring that visibility and accessibility are still maintained.

Fraser explains that even if you stanchion off work, people still manage to sneeze on it. “You try to find a compromise so that people can still see the work, but not put it in danger.”

If humans are hard on art, sometimes it goes the other way.

The Murakami exhibit, with its massive statuary work, required some dicey manoeuvres to install.

A few hair-raising stories about gallery staff hanging onto the art for dear life brings up a different set of issues: namely, that the gallery was never purpose-built to accommodate pieces of a certain size and scale.

While it’s the responsibility of the curators to figure out these complexities, the conservation department is on call to fix stuff when things go wrong.

Additional issues like humidity and seismic upgrades are also problematic. The limitations of the current space are especially evident in the gallery vault, where the permanent collection lives.

The place is crammed. A canoe sits atop a block of packing crates, and every spare inch is filled.

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The current space at the former provincial court house was never designed to be a gallery. The lack of cold storage facilities, humidity and accessibility have posed considerable problems. Photo by Christopher Cheung.
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The vault houses the gallery’s permanent collection. Photo by Christopher Cheung.
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Art in the vault gets some love and appreciation from The Tyee’s Dorothy Woodend and the gallery’s head of conservation Tara Fraser. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Work that hasn’t seen the light of day in 25 years is subject to the predations of time and a lack of attention. Art is meant to be seen, and in the current gallery there are sad paintings languishing away, in need of appreciation.

Although she loves the old building, Fraser says she’s ready for a fresh start in a new gallery, one designed for the express purpose of presenting art. “We’ve outgrown this space,” she says.

When the announcement was made that the Chan Family had donated some $40 million, it looked as though the new gallery was finally on its way.

But this being Vancouver, things are never quite as straightforward as you might think. The new gallery, the first project undertaken by the design firm Herzog & de Meuron in Canada, has taken its sweet time.

I remember being part of a public consultation on the new design back in summer 2016, along with a number of other arts organizations. Everyone had their own agenda. As the discussion devolved into arguments about usage, the bigger picture got a little lost.

But no one understands the needs and demands of the new gallery better than the people who work in it every day. Whether you were Team Wood or Team Glass in the new building’s initial design stage, the necessity of a new space is explicitly clear.

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For the design of the new gallery, Team Glass prevailed over Team Wood. Concept image by Herzog & de Meuron.

As Fraser says, the current space was never designed to be a gallery. The lack of cold storage facilities, humidity and accessibility have posed considerable problems.

Herzog & de Meuron are specialists in the museum and gallery field, designing the M+ in Hong Kong and the Tate Modern in London, but Vancouver is subject to a particular set of issues. The new design is meant to be open and permeable, functioning with Vancouver’s rainforest climate.

In addition to more space for the gallery’s permanent collection, the new building is designed with openness and education in mind. It will include a 350-seat theatre, classroom areas, gardens and a wide-range of different spaces for the public and artists.

It all sounds great. But what does Fraser want from the new space?

As she explains, the most valuable space in any gallery is where the collection meets the public. The least valuable is where the hard work of prepping, cleaning and documenting the work take place. But they are still critically important, not only to the art itself, but also what kind of shows that Vancouverites and visitors can expect to access.

In preparation for the gallery’s move to its new site, Fraser is embarking on the long labour of prepping the artwork for the journey across town. Moving the entire collection will take the better part of five years, she says, meaning that the process must begin right now.

It’s Fraser’s job to make certain that artwork endures not only the predations of people, but also the ravages of time. But nothing lasts forever.

A conservator’s work is partly to forestall the inevitable, to prolong the life and beauty of work for art lovers yet unborn. In this, she is very clear about where her ultimate responsibility lies.

“It’s all about the art,” she says. The importance of preserving work for future generations is what she takes most seriously.

Many hundreds of years from now, long after the new Vancouver Art Gallery is built, Fraser’s invisible, impeccable labour will linger on. An act of care and creation for the ages.

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Photo by Christopher Cheung.
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