23 June, 2020

Supporting the Kolkata Institute of Art Conservation

A review of one of the five zonal partners under the Tata Trusts Art Conservation Initiative

In 2018, Kolkata Centre for Creativity, a unit of Anamika Kala Sangam Trust (est. 1986), was inaugurated to propagate the vision of “build(ing) a culture through art and craft with a global network of institutes, governments and people public partnerships, using research, documentation, conservation, display and public engagement as enablers”. The multi-storeyed Kolkata Centre for Creativity houses, amongst various other services like exhibition halls, amphitheatre, dance studio, a café and library, the Kolkata Institute of Art Conservation (KIAC) that was established with the support of Tata Trusts under its Art Conservation Initiative.

Conservators at work at KIAC, Kolkata

Anamika Kala Sangam Trust (AKST) is the zonal partner for the eastern region, under the Tata Trusts Art Conservation Initiative, with its outreach in the states neighbouring West Bengal. Located in Kolkata, a city with a strong literary and artistic heritage, the establishment of a full-fledged conservation lab at KIAC is a welcome step towards creating a hub for art conservation. Moreover, its proximity and cultural ties to the north east region will aid KIAC in becoming a centre of pedagogy and learning that can assist collections and institutes in the neighbouring states in better preserving their collections through field surveys; and offer training opportunities to practicing conservators through the annual material workshops conducted under the Art Conservation Initiative.

First Year In

The four-year partnership with AKST commenced in February 2019. One year into the programme, three young conservators have been hired who are in-charge of the Kolkata Institute of Art Conservation (KIAC). They are responsible not only for undertaking conservation work of the Emami art collection and other private collectors, but also for helping set up processes for the functioning of the conservation lab, identifying procurement needs of the centre, and arranging the annual material conservation workshops through the year. Two ten-days long workshops have been conducted till date, and the conservators have undertaken two field surveys – one at Assam State Museum in Guwahati, and the other at Tripura State Museum. Besides this, the conservators attended six conservation workshops across the other four institutes under the Art Conservation Initiative, ensuring that their knowledge of several materials was consolidated at the basic level.

Training Activities

In fulfilment of one of the objectives of the Art Conservation Initiative (ACI), KIAC organised two material conservation workshops for ten-days each. The first workshop was on Conservation of Paper, with a focus on Illustrated Manuscripts held in August 2019, which saw 15 conservators participate (including 7 conservators that are working at different institutes under the ACI). Planned as a basic level course (Level 1), the workshop focussed on hands-on training in identifying signs of deterioration in manuscripts, paper-making and ink-making techniques, handling-detaching-rearranging of manuscript folios for conservation treatment, repair and lining techniques and more. While these sessions undertaken by field experts made up the bulk of the course, the course also included lectures by academics and library custodians on the histories of the different kinds of manuscripts across the major regions of India. Short field visits to the Asiatic Society and the Manuscript Resource Centre helped participants observe the storage, handling, and preventive conservation methods for manuscripts in archives.

Participants during the Conservation of Oil Paintings workshop, undertaking surface cleaning of a canvas

The second workshop on Conservation of Oil Paintings was conducted in January 2020, and 14 participants attended this course. The highlights of the ten-day course included an orientation visit to the Victoria Memorial Hall Oil Paintings galleries accompanied by the restoration team at the museum, mounting and framing of canvas, removal of fungus, dirt and debris from canvas surfaces, consolidation techniques of brittle paint and pigments, lining and filling of oil paintings and retouching. While senior conservators conducted the majority of the practical lessons in the workshops, lectures were organised that showed case studies on conservation of oil paintings, and a review of oil paintings by Indian artists.

Both workshops ended with a viva session as well as a written test for all participants, designed simultaneously as a review of the entire course, and to gauge the level of understanding of each participant. These grades were not shared with the participants. They serve the purpose of helping understand the base level of knowledge and practical competence against a particular material, to inform the structures of the subsequent advanced level workshops.

Participants during the Conservation of Paper (Illustrated Manuscripts) workshop, learning how to properly line fragile manuscripts leaves

While the in-house conservators undertook training in these workshops, they also imparted training during the field surveys conducted. Planned as a short exercise to document the condition of the collection of an institute, one of the objectives of the field survey is to train on-site staff in preventive conservation methods, specific to their collection. Both visits witnessed enthusiastic participation from the staff, and engendered discussion on best practices between the two institutes. The conservation team will also prepare a conservation proposal for each institute, based on what they identified as the key areas of focus, that will be shared with the institute to apply for funding for conservation projects.

Way Ahead

With the ongoing pandemic disrupting planned activities for most organisations, the Art Conservation Initiative has devised online learning initiatives for the conservators engaged at the five zonal centres. In addition, KIAC too is re-structuring their calendars to shift focus on research and development for conservation and restoration projects, and knowledge sharing. The restriction of mobility has allowed conservators more time to study and review the conservation projects they initiated in the past year, to finalise reports and prepare conservation proposals, and to plan for conducting field surveys within city limits when it is safe to do so.

A feedback exercise conducted in May 2020 revealed that two out of the three KIAC conservators were keen to work on the art of East Bengal and the NER, where they also hail from; they also expressed challenges faced during the first year that ranged from admin-related issues of organising timely workshops, to conservation-specific problems faced in the course of their work. The growth of the KIAC team and centre in the first year of the project is an example in best practices of a collaboration exercise between allied visions – that of Tata Trusts’ Art Conservation Initiative, and its five zonal partners.