Open letter to ICON – UK Institute of Conservation

Institute of Conservation
1.5 Lafone House
The Leathermarket
Weston Street

October 23rd 2013

Dear ICON,

This is an open letter about my increasing dissatisfaction with the lack of clarity, direction and membership support ICON is currently reflecting – a complacent reality.

Having been a member of ICON for many years (Accredited 2000; Committee Member of UKIC; Editor for Paintings Section and Chair for a while) I believe that Conservation is a vocation but would like to see active growth towards it becoming a Profession, with a supporting Professional body.

I have supported ICON because I believe it is an organisation representing a group of fairly like-minded people who believe in supporting cultural heritage – in historical, political, economical, scientific and environmental contexts as well as for aesthetics and pleasure.

It has been the privilege of the Conservator to work closely with objects, to understand materials and techniques and ideally to have a voice. Of late I find myself dismayed at the lack of vigour within ICON, it seems to be running on the spot, an office managing the funds of its members in a manner to justify its own ‘Office’ existence with little voice given to the material objects of our concern or the Conservator.

It is costly to be a member of ICON and to be Accredited and I see less and less benefit as a long term practicing Conservator. ICON’s voice is dulled, its intentions seemingly drowning under administration.

I am aware that ICON actively supports training, pursuing lottery funding for placements because that kind of market funding is currently available, however ICON does little to support Conservators after training.

By this I mean that I can see no difference in ICON’s support for people who have invested in formal training and have good (if not great!) qualifications for the job.

ICON supports equally members who have no formal training. Craft skills of this group are probably high on the agenda but appreciating new developments in materials and techniques is of little interest economically, exposure to new developments not actively pursued.

ICON it could be argued, gleans member’s fees at the expense of supporting low-grade practice. How can clients be expected to differentiate a Conservator/Restorer/Studio Practice that has undergone the rigours of formal training and actively keeps up to date with CPD to that of a studio where no one has a formal training qualification and students (often foreign) are employed because they are cheap and sometimes even pay a fee for the experience?

There is no difference in the Accreditation system for people who have trained and those who have trained themselves in the ‘garden shed’.

How are clients to know? What can ICON do?

ICON may argue that details of Accredited practices are listed but if everyone thinks anyone can set up practice anyway what’s the point of qualifications when anyone can do it? If ICON lists a practice then it must be good, qualifications or not, it doesn’t matter!

How can Training courses compete when anyone can set up a studio to work in Conservation/Restoration, charge the same fees and be represented by the same body – ICON?

I feel ICON does not truly support training courses because it is not moving towards Conservation becoming a true profession. We are still at the ‘barber-surgeon’ stage of development. Is this to remain the case? Are we deluding ourselves with talk of Professional Development?

ICON may be in stasis, at best resting on the laurels of having developed Accreditation – rather a while ago now.

On another front ICON presents itself at formal Heritage events.

Does art and culture lie solely within the framework of Heritage Institutions?

There are huge events taking place all over the country from BADA Fairs to Frieze, from local town hall antique & collectors fairs to Country House Fairs and events. Where is ICON? You will not find ICON promoting any outreach there and to this end I think ICON is missing a major market, where many ‘Restorers’ ply their trade whilst potential Clients remain in the shadow of ignorance over what is good practice.

ICON could and should have a presence for Auction houses too, at least be approaching them to discuss Conservation and making presentations to auctioneers and dealers with the case for good practice.

It is an audience and an opportunity for raising awareness of good practice and saving a bit more of our culture from those who want everything to look brand new.

I was hardly surprised last week when the ICON office sent out the flyer about a television production company seeking ‘Restorers’ to bring forth their goods and contacts for a potential television programme.

Did anyone in the ICON read the flyer? Did ICON not think to make a professional approach to the company or provide advice to ‘Restorers’?

Is ICON afraid? Unsure? Or just can’t be bothered about the potential in these developments, seeing it as beyond some remit or other?

When I see the term ‘Restorer’ bandied about like some Holy Grail occupation my heart sinks. A supposed up and coming Professional body – ICON – lets an opportunity to ‘raise the bar’ pass by. The flyer was cast out like a bone to hungry dogs, not a thought given to either consequences or potential.

In this instance the least ICON could have done is be aware of implications for both Client and the ‘Restorer’.

A further note, if I ask about the possibility of decentralising the London office do the hearts of individuals sink?

Rentals in London are exorbitant and it may be something that ICON should be giving active thought to, considering the imminent loss of the Chantry Library for example.

In summary my arguments here are: –

  • Greater representation from ICON for formally trained & qualified Conservators.
  • ICON to actively speak out about the benefits of formal Training qualifications and Training Institutions and to support qualified alumni.
  • ICON to do more outreach to Client bases on a series of levels.
  • ICON to make moves (after nearly 14 years of Accreditation and the Conservation Register) towards a true and legitimate Profession.
  • ICON to consider decentralising its office base in order to support organisations like the Chantry Library. If money is the real issue where can ICON save on costs?

Thank you.

Lucia Scalisi

Conservator of Paintings