The NGV was founded in 1860 with new acquisitions arriving from abroad by sea. Unfortunately, after the long journey, some works were damaged during transit and a local sculptor was engaged to undertake repairs. So commenced a tradition of prominent local artists assisting with the preservation of gallery artworks. The history of paintings conservation at the NGV coincided with the opening of the Gallery in 1867, when the painter Louis Buvelot was asked to “clean and repair canvases” in the collection. He was followed by distinguished names such as Eugene von Guérard, Bernard Hall, George Bell and Stephanie Taylor. Occasionally international itinerant restorers visited and their services were engaged to attend to the growing collection. Another artist, Harley Griffiths, became the NGV’s first professional dedicated paintings conservator in a long career stretching from 1939 to 1976. When Sir Kenneth Clark visited Melbourne in January 1949 he was suitably impressed by Griffiths’ work and recommended a twelve-month trip overseas to continue his development at international institutions. To what extent this experience influenced Griffiths is unclear, but it did symbolise a commitment by the NGV to what would be the genesis of the Conservation department, and Griffiths made a lasting contribution to the collection’s care.
The opening of the current NGV International building in 1968, marked the beginning of the Conservation department as it is today. In his building plans, Roy Grounds included a dedicated space for conservation of the collection, an area still occupied by the department today. The new building brought new standards for the preservation and display of art, which coincided with a renewed focus on the care and maintenance of the State’s collections.
In the 1980s the department expanded in response to the diversity of the growing collection and the need for conservators with a range of material specialisations. New conservation positions specialising in Objects, Textiles and Paper were established and these staff members were tasked with documenting the condition of collection items, undertaking treatments, ensuring the collection was safely stored and preparing works for display and travel to borrowing institutions. In addition, a permanent frame-maker position was created, undertaking a program of frame reproduction and restoration for both the paintings and works on paper collections as dictated by the exhibition program. With the appointment of a Chief Conservator in 1984 a series of preventive maintenance programs were implemented to care for the ever-expanding collection. The need to establish technical assistant positions and workshop facilities were key elements in the structure of the emerging department. These positions gradually developed into Senior Conservation Art Technician roles as the tasks performed became more specialised to focus on housing of paintings, metal display mounts and mounts for storage and display of works on paper and photographs. As the NGV began acquiring contemporary artworks such as conceptual works, time-based media, interactive works and light sculptures, conservators and Conservation Art Technicians worked across their material specialisations, sharing the care of these complex works.
Conservation staff took on professional mentoring roles with the employment of conservation interns funded through the Art Foundation of Victoria at the beginning of the 1990s. The positions were offered for up to three years, giving incumbents adequate time to develop their skills and knowledge in their chosen area of specialisation, while making valuable contributions to the care of the collection. In the years that followed, numerous development positions were offered across specialisations through funding provided by various external bodies including the Ian Potter Foundation and the Hugh D.T. Williamson Foundation. Throughout the 1990s, the department continued to evolve with the establishment of a new area of specialisation – and the first of its kind in Australia – Exhibitions Conservation. The Conservator of Exhibitions role was created to undertake exhibition related work across all material specialisations, focusing on inward loans. One of the main preoccupations of the role was preventive issues such as packing for transport and developing non-permanent/non-invasive display techniques. This period also saw the expansion of the Frames Conservation Section to encompass Furniture.
The opening of Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia in 2002 and the refurbished NGV International in 2003 brought an exponential increase in the number of collection works required for display at any one time. To meet this demanding work program, new positions including a Senior Conservator of Textiles, a Textiles Display Specialist and Conservator of Photographs were created. In addition, a second Conservator of Exhibitions was appointed, a development that reflected the expanding exhibition program which in ten years had, on average, tripled both in number of artworks per exhibition and frequency of exhibitions per year. In 2018 the NGV Centre for Frame Research was established through the generous support of Professor AGL Shaw AO. This enabled the employment of a Frame maker as well as frame research and conservation projects. In recent years, due to the increasing size and complexity of the conservation work program, a Coordinating Conservator and Conservation Project Officer have been appointed to support a broad range of activities across the department.
From the beginnings when the collection was cared for by a series of dedicated artists to the gradual expansion of the Conservation department which now encompasses a broad range of material specialisations, much has been achieved in caring for the collection. Many major treatments and research projects have been undertaken, immense storage projects have been completed and the preventive care of the collection has been continually finessed. The Conservation department currently employs staff with broad experience and diverse training backgrounds, all dedicated to the ongoing care of the NGV’s remarkable collection.