Q&A with Julian Baumgarnter, conservator and owner of Baumgartner Fine Art Restoration.
Tell me about Baumgartner Fine Art Restoration.
My father, Rene Agass Baumgartner, was a Swiss-born man who started working with a conservator while he was in art school in the early 1970s, mostly as a means of survival. He started by cleaning and preparing materials, but as he learned more, he began a kind of formal apprenticeship in conservation. Years later, he moved to the United States and set up a shop in Chicago while he made art on the side. He slowly built his clientele through word of mouth—he felt the quality of his work and reputation should speak for itself.
Growing up, I spent sick days, snow days, and a lot of extra time in the studio. Ahead of my formal studio art education, I was learning a lot just by being around the materials and watching my dad work with the art and clients. When I came home from college, I helped around the studio by sweeping, cutting canvas, and mixing solvents. After I graduated, my dad—somewhat reluctantly—let me work for him. I started as an apprentice and worked my way up. After he passed away, I took over the business and started to make it my own.
What does your work entail?
My role is bifurcated between running the business and [doing] conservation work. As a conservator, I work primarily on paintings, works on canvas, and painted objects. Conservation can range from stabilizing pieces to putting them entirely back together, and that can include paintings that are five weeks old to more than 500 years old, from masters and heirlooms to unknown artists, from zero- to seven-figure paintings, and from those owned by a family to those hanging in global institutions.
Many people became familiar with your work because of your popular YouTube channel. What prompted you to start filming?
It started on Instagram, because people had no idea what I did. Working alone, I also didn’t have an immediate peer group, and I hoped to connect with others. My page started to grow, and a publication reached out about featuring my work. I sent them a link to a video I’d had made by a videographer and posted to YouTube for a big conservation of a William Merritt Chase painting. My followers quickly skyrocketed, and I continued making videos. I experimented with elements like length of time and narration. The videos have forced me to find better ways of discussing conservation and allowed me to investigate new techniques on increasingly challenging projects.
What are some tricks of the trade?
I don’t think there are any true secrets in conservation. However, I like to think that since I didn’t come up through a standard conservation program, I’m unencumbered by the restrictions and limitations [that come with] learning a rote model. Sometimes the “solutions” that we have [in] the field won’t work for a specific piece that comes into the studio. I’m open to trying and adopting techniques, materials, and practices from other fields if it can further conserve and preserve artwork. While conservators aren’t allowed to take creative liberties, the field of conservation often requires creative solutions.
What’s rewarding about your job?
As someone who loves art and has spent my life making, studying, and being surrounded by art, it’s an incredible privilege to have the responsibility to sustain that art. The best conservators die anonymous: nobody sees their [actual] work, just the artwork itself, and that’s the highest praise.
On a more humanistic note, I’ve had people who are physically overcome with emotion by the work that I’ve done. For example, one young man brought in a painting that his ex-partner had taken a knife to in an act of violence. The man had been living with the torn painting and the trauma for years until he came to me. I conserved it and made it whole again. When he saw it, he cried. Paintings can be avatars for memory, people, and experiences that are important in our lives. For him, his experience with that painting and part of what was so special about it was finally restored.