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Touch-Up: Inside The Kentucky Center's Art Conservation Efforts

Alongside art conservators Andrew Rigsby and Robert Kleeman, I press my face close to a blue streak of paint running down the side of a sculpture.

“So, that little white spot right there?” I say, drawing a circle in the air with my nail. “Should it be there, should it not? Would you go over it?”

The answer is no. That white spot is actually the result of the original artist -- Jean Dubuffet -- painting on an unusual surface; it’s the end of a brushstroke. No repainting is needed.

As conservators with the Conservation Center in Chicago, Andrew Rigsby and Robert Kleeman ask themselves questions like this all day long with the ultimate goal of keeping artwork looking as fresh as it did on the day it was first completed.

And they are in Louisville to do just that at the Kentucky Center for the Arts.

This requires a special mix of upkeep know-how and an art history background.

“There’s a lot that goes into figuring out an artist’s work,” Rigsby says. “Researching how they worked, what they worked with, the longevity of those things that they worked with.”

Rigsby and Kleeman arrived in Louisville a week ago to start working on the Kentucky Center’s 20th-century art collection, which is made up of 11 major sculptures and paintings.

The collection was acquired in the 1980s under the guidance of Wendell Cherry, co-founder and president of Humana, Inc. and the first Kentucky Center chairman of the board.

And while most people probably just rush by these pieces on the way in and out of shows, they were made by some pretty big-name artists like Edgar Degas, John Chamberlain and Louise Nevelson. As a result, the collection is worth millions of dollars.

That’s why the center created a master arts plan to make sure the artwork gets routine maintenance every three years, which includes retouching, cleaning and reinforcing.

This year, Rigsby and Kleeman started with Chamberlain’s “The Coloured Gates of Louisville,” which -- if you’ve been to the center -- kind of looks like a colorful assortment of crushed auto parts hanging on the wall.

“And we basically go over the whole surface with a vacuum to remove all the dust before cleaning it,” Kleeman says. “And then we go back over it again using a variety of solvents -- which won’t react with the actual original paint or leave any residue when we’re done -- and remove all the other dirt and grime that has built up over several years.”

Most of this dirt and grime comes from just normal day-to-day goings on -- the air conditioning blowing around dust, a kid sneaking a touch or the occasional patron bumping into the artwork.

But some stains are a little harder to explain, like one they found on Jean Dubuffet’s sculpture set “Faribolus and Perceval” where it looks like someone spit on the artwork.

“I guess the appropriate conservation way to put it would be, ‘There were some scattered accretions on the artwork,’” Kleeman says with a laugh.

Regardless, thanks to consistent conservation efforts, the collection is actually in pretty great condition. So next time you visit the Kentucky Center, maybe take a look at the artwork that’s around the lobby before taking in what’s on stage.

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