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Meet Grace White, paper conservator at Ackland Art Museum

Grace White at The Ackland Art Museum

Paper conservator Grace White works at her lab in The Ackland Art Museum on Monday, April 10, 2023.

Painters paint. Drawers draw. Artists create. 

But who preserves art so it reaches future generations? At the Ackland Art Museum, Grace White is the woman behind it all – well, at least all things paper. 

As a paper conservator, White works in a lab at the museum and uses chemicals and solvents to repair damage on drawings, paintings, watercolors and prints. She also works to keep the artwork safe and free from future damage. 

White said she is currently treating a 19th-century Japanese board game that was created on thin paper and became damaged by tape and tears. She is using solvents to remove the tape and watercolors to fill in the lost pigment from the tears. 

For White, one of the most interesting parts of her job is studying art materials from various time periods and parts of the world.

"I love being able to touch all of the artwork — something that is usually forbidden to most people in museums," she said. "But I really love that hands-on connection to the artwork and to the history." 

White's job is not only important for the physical preservation of art. She said conservation is important because art fosters global competence and gives viewers more compassion and appreciation for the world.

“I think loving artwork opens our hearts to loving each other and to learning more about each other and about other societies, other cultures, other nationalities, other races," she said. "I think it can be a holistic learning experience. Art can be a puzzle piece that fits in with the whole."

Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs Peter Nisbet said art at the Ackland and elsewhere has significance to history and the human experience.

"One thing that art is particularly good at is imagining an alternative to the reality of the time — that's not true of all art, but a lot of art really at its highest level — and brings a sort of utopian message of certain ideals that can transcend the historical circumstance when it was made," Nisbet said.

Nisbet also reflected on the importance of conservators, like White, in the University community.

 He said conservation is a powerful teaching tool for students because it emphasizes that physical art is real and often fragile. Much of the art that young people consume, Nisbet said, is constructed from pixels on a screen. 

Dana Cowen, an art curator at Ackland, believes that art also fosters inspiration and reflection — a key reason why conservation is so important. 

“So if you can understand something about what's mature or the time period, and you can learn from that period, you might see something that you never realize,"  Cowen said. "You change your future perspective, getting inspiration to do something."

While White now spends her work days repairing items like 17th-century Dutch drawings, her passion for art is long-standing.

“I did grow up with art as my biggest hobby," White said. "I did drawing, watercolor and printmaking especially. And I loved working with my hands. And I loved studying art and art history."

After studying art and English during her undergraduate years, White said she knew she didn’t want to be a studio artist or an art history professor. She looked for careers that blended her love for art and art museums — and found art conservation. 

In graduate school, White said she earned her Master's degree in conservation of works on paper. She later worked in conservation for Duke University's library.

White said she appreciates the creativity built into her current role at the Ackland.

“As long as (the works are) safe, I'm happy," White said. "But I'm even more happy when I get to use my artistic talents to in-paint the losses. So it really suits me well to be working at an art museum. And that was my childhood dream to work at an art museum,” White said. 

In order for White to continue her work in conservation, she has a team at the museum. She works closely with Cowen and Nisbet who consult with her on what projects to undertake, how to prioritize projects and what type of treatments and changes need to be made to artwork.

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“I think art is a window into humanity, really,"  Cowen said. "Art preservation can change the future."