A Brief History of Heritage Preservation

1970s and 1980s: the Beginning

Arthur Beale, Emeritus Chair of the Department of Conservation and Collections Management, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Introduction

Throughout the nineteen seventies many national, governmental, professional, and private not-for-profit organizations and individuals worked in a rather uncoordinated way to develop a national strategy for the conservation and documentation of collections in the United States. Attempting to bring some order to this process, a national organization developed and helped shape a number of action initiatives as they evolved. In the nineteen seventies this organization was called the National Conservation Advisory Council. It became the National Institute for Conservation in 1981 and renamed itself Heritage Preservation in the nineteen nineties.

 

Much of the federal and private foundation grant funding available today for the conservation of collections evolved and grew as a direct result of the pioneering efforts to develop a national strategy. Like all funders, each of the organizations involved had a consistent primary premise to maximize the impact of its resources. The result over the past three decades has been a quantum leap forward in the care of the nationʼs collections. While individual program efforts have played a significant role in helping accomplish this success, the 1980ʼs Bay Foundation funded project to develop curriculum to train individuals in collections care and maintenance put in motion a whole new direction for the conservation profession whose potential is still far from being realized.

Note: This article originally appeared in Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals, Volume 2, Number 1, August 2005, pp. 11–28. Copyright © 2019 SAGE Publisher. Please see SAGE for reprints: https://journals.sagepub.com/home/cjxa

2010s: a Time of Transition

A door closed on Heritage Preservation (HP) on June 30, 2015. On that day, the non-profit organization was legally dissolved:

 

On April 15,2015, the shrinking membership of HP had voted 69 to 1, to dissolve the organization; one of the 126 members still subscribed in 2015, 56 did not bother to submit ballots. Paid enrollment had leveled at just over 200 members in previous years, but had plummeted after 2009. After months of careful assessment of the financial position and structure of the organization, the Board put the vote to the membership to cast ballots for or against dissolution. The vote was decisively for dissolution.

 

Still spooked by the Great Recession of 2008 and in fear of more cutbacks, cultural institutions did not see the value of continuing their support for HP, an organization that for decades had promoted the care of America’s cultural heritage and sought funding to improve  and protect the condition of institutional and private collections.

 

After the Great Recession, even cultural institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art in NYC reduced staff and negotiated lower salary increases than has been promised. The Detroit Institute of Arts Museum briefly fell into the City of Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings but extricated itself from demands to sell part of its collection; the museum administration fought for the rights of donors and won a decisive tax increase at the ballot. Fisk University negotiated a split ownership with Crystal Bridges Museum so that works from Fisk’s Van Vechten Gallery could show at Crystal bridges regularly. The money contributed by Crystal Bridges helped the Fisk gallery continue operations.

 

Others were not so lucky. The Delaware Art Museum had to sell important art works to pay substantial construction debts; similarly the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA is currently (2017) facing a court injunction to keep it from selling important  works by Norman Rockwell. The Massachusetts museum needs the money to continue operations  and  have some of the works sold in order to revamp the direction of their collection.

 

After serving as Executive Director of HP and its predecessor, the National Institute for Conservation for 27 years, Lawrence L. Reger stepped down on February 7, 2015. This too was another forlorn event. Mr. Reger had been a notable figure in the Washington DC arts and cultural scene since 1970 when he accepted the position as General Counsel for the National Endowment for the Arts. Later he served as the Executive Director of the American Association of Museums, today known as the American Alliance of Museums. Before joining the National Institute for Conservation, precursor to Heritage Preservation, Reger defended the legal rights of artists and worked with members of the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) on several initiatives.

 

Above all, Reger had maintained collaborative relations with the Getty Conservation Institute, which had been originally considered by members of the Board and staff as a formidable competitor to the National Institute of Conservation back in the 1980s. NIC/HP maintained fruitful relations with many governmental agencies and cultural institutions around the nation’s capital. In addition, relations with members of the board, institutional and individual members, and clients amplified contacts with organizations from coast to coast. These relationships would be ruptured with the dissolution of the organization.

Heritage Preservation has lost vital funding from the National Parks Service (NPS) whose budget had been eviscerated by Congress. There was not enough time to seek additional funding, or sponsors interested in continuing the organization and its many initiatives.

 

Many other doors, however, opened as the various initiatives, such as the Conservation Assessment Program (CAP), Alliance for Response (AFR), State Heritage Emergency partnership (SHEP), Risk Evaluation and Planning Program (REPP) found homes in the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works  (FAIC). FAIC will also promote the annual May Day and continue the joint award presented every year with the College Art Association.

 

The Heritage Emergency National Task Force returned to FEMA with support from the Smithsonian Institution.

 

During the time of the transition, four members of the former HP staff along with their projects joined AIC and FAIC, three are still there, thriving. A fourth is continuing her work developing emergency plans for FEMA and was assigned to the Smithsonian.  

Maria Gonzalez, 2017