A recent show at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery describes its connections to the current movie “Monuments Men.” There are other connections that readers of this paper are probably not aware of, and those are to the Art Conservation Department at SUNY Buffalo State, which prepares students for careers as conservators/restorers in museums or in their own private practices.
The George Clooney character is based on George Stout, one of the pioneers of modern conservation as a profession. His fellow monuments man, Sheldon Keck, founded the conservation department at Buffalo State College. Stout and Keck were among the first wave of those who sought to save the art of Europe from Nazi depredations. Keck was with his friend and colleague, Walter Huchthausen, when they came under fire and Huchthausen was killed.
After the war, Keck founded the conservation graduate training program at New York University in 1961. He and his wife, Caroline, also a conservator, founded the conservation graduate school in Cooperstown that would be moved to Buffalo in 1987. These training programs were among the first in the world to treat conservation as a scientific discipline.
Stout and Keck were also instrumental in founding both the International Institute for Conservation and the American Institute for Conservation.
I have taught in the Cooperstown/Buffalo conservation program for 34 years. I was a student of the Kecks, and hired by them. My colleagues Judith Walsh and James Hamm were also trained by the Kecks. We benefited from the rigor of their approach, and felt conservation to be an almost sacred calling, as did they.
Our program has trained more conservators than any other graduate school in the country. Today our graduates fill key positions in major museums here and abroad, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Museum.
Our students take their mission seriously, and have been first responders for art after hurricanes in New Orleans and Haiti, as well as Superstorm Sandy. Students in the department, under the supervision of the faculty, have treated important objects from all of Buffalo’s museums. These projects have ranged from Anselm Kiefer’s “Milky Way” at the Albright-Knox, to a piece of Millard Fillmore’s wedding cake at the Buffalo History Museum to watercolors by Charles Burchfield at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Conservation is thriving in Buffalo.
Like most people, I feel deeply connected to buildings and the things in them, and am grateful to others who have carried on the local battles to preserve our cultural heritage. My wife and I have enjoyed the bus tours of preservation crusader Tim Tielman, a leader in many fights to save a building or neighborhood. Preservation-minded people such as developer Rocco Termini and attorney Tom Eoannou have taken on iconic buildings – Termini with his loving conservation/restoration of the Hotel @ the Lafayette and Eoannou with the North Park Theatre and now Ulrich’s Tavern. My daughter sold popcorn at the North Park, and my wife and I have enjoyed participating in Irish music “sessions” at Ulrich’s (the oldest tavern in Buffalo).
Though these projects gladden the hearts of many in this wonderful city, there have been losses in the battle, too. Preservationists were unable, for example, to save the stately Bethlehem Steel administration building from the government of the City of Lackawanna.
The fight to save art and cultural heritage that the monuments men were such an important part of continues here in Buffalo. Those who work to save that heritage from the slow fires of decay, as well as from the more active agents of destruction, deserve the support of every Buffalonian.
Jonathan Thornton is a professor in the Art Conservation Department at SUNY Buffalo State.