In an effort to raise awareness of museum conservation practices, the Guggenheim Museum in New York has promoted one of its longtime conservators and established a new mentoring program. Francesca Esmay is now the museum’s director of engagement, conservation, and collections care, a role that will include overseeing a newly established initiative called Mentoring Emerging Professionals in Art Conservation (MEPAC).
The MEPAC initiative will administer a 10-week, paid opportunity for three undergraduate or graduate students who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) to learn more about museum conservation topics including materials analysis, time-based media conservation, and preventative preservation. Esmay said that there is a “persistent lack of diverse demographic representation within the field of conservation,” which continues to lag behind curatorial and education departments in terms of efforts undertaken in terms of openness and accessibility.
“To diversify our field, more people need to know about our field,” Esmay said. “The Guggenheim is putting long overdue energy into a reckoning to confront the question of ‘What are the barriers to inclusion in our field?’ The aim of the program is to provide young people from underrepresented communities with opportunities to come into the field who might not necessarily get access. The core piece of what we hope to cultivate is for participants to have ongoing access to the museum’s staff, to build relationships that provide ongoing mentorship.”
Esmay’s newly created position at the museum is endowed by the Mellon Foundation and Michael R. Hulton and Penny R. Hulton, two heirs of the early 20th-century German Jewish collector and dealer Alfred Flechtheim. In addition to overseeing MEPAC, Esmay will also work across departments to create additional public programming that will look at the intersections of art with technology and science in modern and contemporary art, with a focus on preservation.
Esmay said that the museum’s conservation department, led by chief conservator Lena Stringari, has been thinking for several years about ways to “initiate a dedicated resource to activate this space and tell stories about what’s happening in the realm of collections care.” She continued, “Frequently, people are unaware of how works of art are cared for. That can extend to awareness of the existence of art conservation as a profession. So much of what does happen within a museum’s conservation department takes place outside of the view of the public. This ranges from documenting an artwork so its carefully monitored and described over time to interviewing artists so we capture the intent of a work and the basic information of its materiality. It’s about helping a work live through time, with the understanding that change is inevitable.”
Since 2010, Esmay has worked at the Guggenheim Museum and helped lead its Panza Collection Initiative devoted to an important collection of postwar American art, with an emphasis on Minimalism and Conceptualism, assembled by Giuseppe Panza di Biumo. After a decade of research that merged art history and art conservation, the initiative resulted in a two-day public symposium at the museum in 2019, the publication of Object Lessons: Case Studies in Minimal Art (co-authored by Esmay, Ted Mann, and Jeffrey Weiss), and the launch of an online project that brought together its research. Prior to working at the Guggenheim, Esmay had been the first conservator of two other storied institutions, the Dia Art Foundation in New York and the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas.
For Esmay, her new role at the Guggenheim is about making conservation publicly accessible to all. “We want to make transparent the choices and decisions around stewardship of collections,” she said. “There are so many stakeholders—curators, art historians, conservators, artists, and others—who make decisions on behalf of artworks, which are of course held in the public trust. In many ways, I see this as a responsibility for the museum to be able to tell stories about how we make these choices to preserve works over time.”