By David A. Miller, Chief Conservator and Senior Conservator of Paintings, Indianapolis Museum of Art
The 2016 MRCG Symposium convened in Cooperstown, New York, an idyllic former resort town on a mountain lake in the center of the state. Cooperstown was also, for many years, the home of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Art Conservation. Its proud alumni are still active members of the conservation community locally, nationally, and worldwide.
David Miller, a graduate of the program and attendee at our 2016 meeting, revisited his old stomping grounds and shared his trip down memory lane with us. This post was a featured article in our most recent MRCG newsletter.
Nearly 40 years following graduation, I was back in Cooperstown, New York, to attend the 2016 MRCG Annual Symposium at the Otesaga Hotel on beautiful Otsego Lake, where I had attended the second AIC annual meeting in 1974. That meeting was memorable for several reasons, including the reception entertainment being a play written and performed by Sheldon Keck, Richard Buck, Rutherford Gettens, and George Stout in the same room where MRCG now enjoyed bountiful buffet breakfasts.
The building the Art Conservation Program occupied from 1970 to 1985 still stands on its idyllic location on the lake. The Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies now occupies the old labs. It was strange to enter the building, some parts still recognizable, with a timeline mounted on a wall of the history of the programs that have called it home.
Walking through the building, it was easy to recall what seemed like (and often was) the 24/7 spent there with classmates. Being a very small town, there wasn’t much to do there other than to study and work in the labs, so we tended to stick together. Cooperstown hasn’t changed much, except for having a few better restaurants than it did back then, but we probably couldn’t have afforded them anyway, preferring to meet at “The Pit” (Tunnicliff Inn, still there) for drinks when we had all done enough in the labs. Winters were difficult, with access to the labs sometimes best by cross-country skis or snowshoes, although our class did enjoy winning the ice sculpture contest on Main Street every year. Some of us did try our hands at ice fishing or doing car wheelies on the frozen lake.
The contrast between the stately and genteel Sheldon Keck and the uncensored, highly opinionated Caroline Keck was interesting to observe, with Sheldon able to redirect her with a look if things went too far for him. “Ma Keck” loved her students and treated us like her children for better or worse but you never wanted to be on her bad side. She was a very hands-on teacher, sharing anecdotes about colleagues (or rivals) related to painting treatments as teaching tools. Mr. Keck focused on examination, documentation, and the history of painting techniques and would magically appear behind you without making a sound if you were doing something wrong, especially in the photo suite. His early morning slide lectures in a darkened room were particularly challenging for overtired students. Both of them had a wealth of knowledge, and in retrospect, there was so much more to have learned from them.
Chris Tahk gave his very first, and nervous, conservation science lecture to my class, performing his “electron dance” that day. Katie Eirk taught paper conservation and Professor Rotislav Hlopoff (he insisted on Professor) taught objects conservation. In my second year, Jose Oracca taught photo and paper conservation. We had guest lecturers who regaled us with stories of the early days of conservation and we sometimes even got to enjoy dinner (and drinks of course) at the Keck’s house with them afterwards.
Cooperstown was full of bittersweet memories for me of classmates who have retired or unfortunately passed away far too young, but I was glad that MRCG chose it for our Annual Symposium, especially watching new generations of enthusiastic conservators and students present wonderful talks, and continuing to expand the body of knowledge and skills beyond anything we could have imagined at the time, in the place we once strove to become professionals in a relatively new field.