Art of the Month Club: Ellen Salzman Chase

The Art of the Month Club is a regular feature of the WCMA blog. Each month we invite someone special to write about a work from our collection. Find your own favorite WCMA artwork by searching our collection database. You never know, we may invite you to be the next Art of the Month Club member. Today, please welcome Ellen Salzman Chase, Objects Conservator at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington D.C. and Williams College, Class of 1988.


Caption: Sol LeWitt, Arcs 12" wide from the upper right corner of the wall alternating bands of yellow, red, and blue ink washes, May 1988. © 2013 The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York._x550

Caption: Sol LeWitt, Arcs 12″ wide from the upper right corner of the wall alternating bands of yellow, red, and blue ink washes, May 1988. © 2013 The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

When thinking back to my time at Williams, rather than any work of art in particular at WCMA, it is the space of WCMA itself that left an impression. One of the things that remains with me most from the museum is the art on the wall of the stairway. I loved the way the art and the space drew you up into this treasure trove in the rooms above. Although I had grown up going to lots of museums before attending Williams, this was probably the first time I had encountered art that was so big. It broke the boundary of a traditional frame and used the space as part of the art.

More important to my future career, the art was also temporary. In fact, the two pieces that I remember most—a Sol LeWitt wall drawing and this amazing drawing of hands by Mike Glier—no longer exist. Being drawn to the temporary nature of the art may not be expected from someone who is an art conservator. But I think that stairway space is what first got me thinking about the idea of art not being permanent, either intentionally or because of deterioration, and about process. As an art major, I was learning about how to make art. But watching the pieces being created on the wall and then replaced by another wall work really started me thinking about the role of technique in the maintenance—or demise— of a work of art.

I have a few friends who are professors who often use me as an example of why a liberal arts education works. When I chose my majors of art and biology at Williams, I had never heard of a conservator nor had any idea that I was heading exactly where I needed to go to become one. When I learned about art conservation and conservation science during my senior year, it all just clicked.  Looking at the art in the stairway started me thinking about art in a more process-oriented way—an outlook that is integral to being an art conservator.  The collections with which I currently work are generally quite old and rarely predefined by limits of time, but process—how things are made and what they are made from—is still something I think about every day.

—Ellen Salzman Chase


Reproduction, including downloading of Sol LeWitt works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists RightsSociety (ARS), New York.

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