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My career as an art conservator

Frances Berry graduated from BA (Hons) Fine Art in 2004 after specialising in sculpture. Now a conservator at Stedelijk Museum van Actuele Kunst/Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art (S.M.A.K) in Ghent, Belgium, we catch up with her about her career so far.  

What is your current role and what are your key responsibilities?

I am a conservator at Stedelijk Museum van Actuele Kunst/Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art (S.M.A.K) in Ghent, Belgium.

I am lucky to have very diverse responsibilities and continually learning. One day I will be writing condition reports and documenting works, the next I will be travelling as a courier with an artwork or to a meeting about a project. I design packaging, install works, research every aspect of an artwork or the materials it is made of. This provides a great combination of practical work, problem solving, admin and research. 

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I get to work with art all day! I probably shouldn’t admit to it, but it’s fun to be one of the few people allowed to touch the works. Handling, cleaning and treating works by artists you’ve admired and researched feels like a privilege and I get to know other artists through their work on a daily basis.

Is there a project you have particularly enjoyed during your career so far?

I got the work ‘Double Edge’ (1995) by Marina Abramovic back in working order (pictured below). This involved updating the electrics which had fallen below the current European norms. I commissioned a company to make new heating elements for the ‘hot’ ladder and am one of the privileged few to have seen the rungs of the ladder glowing red.

This project was a real challenge as I had to learn a lot about heating systems, cooling systems (for the ‘ice’ ladder)  and how to manage lending such a complex work for exhibition while keeping the borrowing institute and artist happy.

How did you get into your current role?

After finishing my BA (Hons) Fine Art in Norwich I carried out various small projects and commissions in the UK. Two years later I moved to Belgium, initially to learn some Dutch. I ended up staying in Belgium but felt cut off from the network and chances I’d had in the UK. When I found the Conservation & Restoration course I knew it was what I wanted to do. 

I did a Bachelors and a Masters in Conservation and Restoration (C&R) at the University of Antwerp with a specialism in wood and polychromy (gilding and paint layers on wood).

I carried out an internship at S.M.A.K. during my Masters study. After the internship I went back to S.M.A.K. as a volunteer and did a research project about plastics in the collection. I was invited to work on projects such as the installation of Wall Drawing nr. 36 (1970) by Sol LeWitt which was amazing experience and great fun. Seeing all the research and preparation that goes into installing such a work was an eye opener and the process regularly gets used as an example when giving behind the scenes guided tours.

Luckily for me, one of the Conservators left S.M.A.K. and a position came free!

What advice do you have for university students for getting into your industry?

Working in the creative industries is tough, especially in the uncertain times of late. I would advise:

  • Be honest with yourself and others, you need to have a genuine passion and belief in what you’re doing.
  • Maintain a positive attitude – the path to a job that you want can be long and frustrating. Set achievable goals and maintain a record of your achievements to build a full and adaptable CV.

What was your experience of being a student in Norwich, were there any highlights?

I had a great time during my four years Norwich and spent a couple of summers working and hanging out. I did all sorts of part time jobs and met people from all warps of life. I met lots of like-minded people and made great friends.

How did NUA prepare you for working in the creative industries?

Studying art helped me to get to know myself – largely through the work I made – and to identify what I wanted. It taught me to be open to new experiences and to be interested in people and their stories.

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