Art attack

Art attack

Using the latest science, Queen's University researchers are waging war against the elements that threaten to destroy Canadian contemporary art
September 1, 2004
It's the perfect marriage of art and science.

In a unique project at Queen's University's Department of Art, researchers are using the latest scientific equipment, and pooling their talents with colleagues around the world, to ensure that Canadian contemporary art created today survives in good condition to become the masterpieces of tomorrow.

"Many museum curators don't have an opportunity to show some contemporary art because we don't know how to conserve it and preserve it for the long term," says Alison Murray, an Associate Professor and Director at Queen's University's Art Conservation Program. "That means our institutions don't have access to some contemporary art because we don't know what the most acceptable conservation techniques are for these pieces—many of which use new and experimental materials."

Murray is one of Canada's foremost conservation scientists and is leading a research project on the Conservation and Creation of Contemporary Art. She says the problem is that acceptable conservation techniques have yet to be developed. Modern methods used in the production of contemporary art over the past three decades are just too new for conservators and curators to have had sufficient time to understand and develop the best conservation practices to preserve them. Murray says it's an area where art must turn to science for a little help.

As a case in point, Murray points to the work she's doing in a medium that she currently specializes in—acrylic paint. She's helping artists understand the properties of acrylics, and helping conservators understand how to properly conserve or treat acrylic works of art. "With acrylics, we don't know exactly how they will react to changes in temperature, relative humidity, pollutants, or how they will age," she says. "Acrylics can become tacky and absorb dirt more easily. If they are put into a cold environment—for example, being moved in winter from one exhibition to another—they could become brittle. If they were to be dropped, the results would be terrible."

With CFI support, Murray's research group has been able to acquire several pieces of equipment that will help them understand the properties of certain materials used by artists. They'll also be able to determine the interaction that takes place with other materials and treatments used in cleaning and conservation processes.

Murray says a Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometer is helping the research team determine what is removed from paint when an artwork is cleaned, and how materials change over time, or after a conservation treatment. Another important tool is a "strain indicator," which allows researchers to understand the plastic and elastic qualities of paint as it ages-both before and after treatment, and in different environments.

Although saving finished works of art is a major part of the research team's work, they're also interested in what happens during the creative process-in the artist's studio. Murray's colleague, Sylvat Aziz, Associate Professor at the Department of Art at Queen's University, is leading the charge to find ways that artists can use to create contemporary art with safe, environmentally sound materials that aren't hazardous to their health.

"Many artists don't know what chemical compounds they're dealing with when they experiment with the enormous number of products and processes at their disposal," says Aziz. "These experiments sometimes come with unexpected negative results—some to the art, others to the artist."

Aziz and her colleague Bernard Ziomkiewicz are researching how some traditional artistic processes, such as those involving printing presses and etching, can eliminate the use of lethal acids. She's also investigating how best to introduce the use of solvent-free oil paints and other safe materials to her art classes. By articulating the use of new materials and methods, she hopes to engender safer and environmentally responsible practices for artists—without losing any of the quality or the magic in their oil painting techniques.


Acids, solvents, toxins, sickness, and possibly even death. These are hardly the things that come to mind when art gallery visitors look at works of art. But in the art world, these hazards are very real.

Now, thanks to the research being conducted by Alison Murray and Sylvat Aziz, Associate Professors in the Art Department at Queen's University, there will be far fewer of these hazards. The pair is working to improve the work environment for countless artists who often put their health on the line for the sake of their work. By eliminating dangerous solvents and acids, and by finding solutions for the disposal of toxic materials, artists can eliminate costly ventilation systems in studios. Most importantly, however, they can regain a certain amount of artistic freedom and work in their medium of choice—without worrying about the consequences to their health.

"Solvents are the single most detrimental substance in (painting) studio work," says Aziz. "Oil-based painting, which is regarded as the desirable medium because of its quality, versatility, historical importance and market value, can now continue to flourish without the harmful use of solvents."

The research being done by Murray and Aziz will also benefit conservators at art institutions across the country—and around the globe. Quite often, these conservators and curators are left in a quandary when faced with handling and preserving contemporary art. From the famous "meat dress" exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada a number of years ago, to acrylic paints, to relatively modern materials such as chocolate and electronic media, conservators are increasingly faced with conserving the unknown.

The need to understand new conservation techniques hit home in Murray's backyard at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen's University. The Centre had a painting by the late French-Canadian artist Yves Gaucher that they were unable to exhibit in its damaged condition. "It had these beautiful areas of one solid color and because certain areas had been bumped or scraped, they weren't able to show the work until it has been conserved," says Murray. "Some of the students worked on that, tried different techniques, and the curators were really pleased with the results."


Queen's University has the only conservation training program in Canada. The university works closely with four other programs in the U.S., as well as with others around the world. Key partnerships for the Queen's research group are with the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Tate in London, England, and the University of Turin in Italy.

"Canada can't afford to have hundreds of conservation scientists working in this field," says Queen's University Associate Professor Alison Murray. "That's why it's so important to develop relationships with other professionals working in galleries and museums worldwide."

The research group at Queen's University is also developing partnerships with private-sector partners who are interested in keeping artwork in good condition. Golden Artist Colors, an acrylic paint manufacturer in upstate New York, is keeping an eye on the conservation work being done in Canada and world-wide. How is the company contributing to the conservation effort? It has produced paint that's specifically formulated for research in art conservation. The breakthrough lets conservation scientists dig deeper into the properties of the paint to come up with even better conservation techniques. Golden Artist Colors is also providing funds for an undergraduate student to work at Queen's University for the summer to study the properties of gesso, the layer of primer that is applied to a canvas before paint is put on.

Learn More

Visit the Canadian Conservation Institute, which promotes the proper care and preservation of Canada's cultural heritage.

Find out more about the Canadian Conference for the Arts, Canada's oldest arts advocacy group.

Visit the Golden Artist Colors website.