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In the past few years, the field of art conservation has taken giant leaps forward, and now possibly a step back. In the 1980s researchers realized that the widespread use of synthetic resins, or thermoplastics, used to varnish and stabilize aging oil paintings had some severe drawbacks and could not match the optical appearance of natural resin varnishes—which have a nice, clear look, but yellow over time. So conservation scientists over the past two decades, including E. René de la Rie, formerly of the Met and now at the National Gallery of Art (NGA), along with Mark Leonard of the Getty and independent conservator Jill Whitten, developed a low-viscosity, low-molecular-weight synthetic resin. The result: varnishes that stay fresh-looking as well as retouch paints in a palette of twenty colors that are stable but reversible, with similar optical and handling properties to natural paints. The niche market for this type of paint is perhaps small, but since 2000 the Gamblin Artists Color Co. in Portland, Oregon, has considered the product’s use to conservators important enough to help develop and then manufacture it.

While great strides are underway in the conservation field, it may suffer a significant loss due to a recent vote by the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, who decided to close its progressive Center for Materials Research and Education. Congress interceded and voted to keep the center open for the next fiscal year. An external committee is currently reviewing the fate of the Smithsonian’s conservation and scientific operations. “We are very grateful to the Senate and House for their intervention in keeping the center open,” says Director Lambertus van Zelst. “An outpouring of support from professional constituencies and individuals has been invaluable,” he adds. “People in the field view this as a very serious turn of events,” notes Angelica Z. Rudenstine, Director of the Mellon Foundation, a staunch supporter of the arts and conservation field.

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