Heather Becker is an artist, author, and entrepreneur. She studied painting and art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the International School of Art in Italy, and is represented by Zolla Lieberman Gallery in Chicago. In 1992, Becker developed a national business plan for The Conservation Center, Inc. and later purchased The Center from the founder in August 2003; it has since become the largest private art conservation facility in the country.
Becker co-founded both the largest mural preservation project in the country’s history and the New Deal Preservation Association-Midwest Chapter, a not-for-profit organization that records and preserves works of art from the New Deal Era, and in 2004 authored a book on Chicago WPA murals and art preservation, Art for the People a(Chronicle Books). In 2004 Becker was named “Small Business Person of the Year” for the State of Illinois by the Small Business Association (SBA), and in 2007 The Conservation Center was awarded the “Chicago Landmark Award for Preservation Excellence” by the City of Chicago.
When did you first come to Chicago?
As a senior at the High School for Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, Texas in 1985, I was recruited by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and given a scholarship to the BFA program in painting. The Hugh Hefner Mansion in the Gold Coast was the dorm for freshman students and that’s where I stayed my first year…that was my introduction to Chicago.
What led you to the path of art conservation?
After I graduated in 1989, I was awarded a scholarship to study abroad at the International School of Art located in the countryside of Italy, between Rome and Florence. We went on several field trips during the program to learn about figurative art in the area, and one was a site visit where a conservator was working on a chapel mural. I went back to visit the conservator and she invited me up on the scaffolding. Over the next few months, I visited several times and talked with her about her career and it opened up a window for me.
At the School of the Art Institute I put myself through school by waitressing, and knew I wanted to find another way to support my art career. In 1989, on the flight back to Chicago from Italy, I decided instead of going back to waitressing, I would pursue a job in the field of conservation. The mixture of art and science was fascinating to me. I asked where the laboratories were and kept hearing “You should visit the Chicago Conservation Center.” I called the founder, Barry Bauman, and he graciously met with me. He realized I had no experience; I just had passion and was eager to learn. The only position he had available was an administrative assistant. I accepted the offer and started typing all of the conservation reports for him.
I was in that position from 1989-1992. In 1992 I kept staying late, learning from the conservators and Barry, and I started thinking about the operation. I’m from a family of two entrepreneurs—my mother and father—and I kept having ideas about how to grow the company. I made an outline and presented it to Barry like a business plan. He told me I had a lot of great ideas and gave me one year to try my plan. I grew the company 12% that year.
You’ve done extensive research on the WPA murals in Chicago Public Schools and other locations. How did this opportunity present itself and how did it evolve?
Barry received a call from Flora Doody, teacher at Lane Tech High School. She had noticed a mural at the school that was falling off the wall, and was devastated to hear that the engineer was going to staple it back to the wall. Mortified, she stopped the engineer, and told him she would contact Barry who she knew from her days at the Art Institute, and seek advice.
Barry and I visited Flora, and we walked around the school, amazed there were 66 murals scattered around the campus. We thought this would be a great research project, because we felt there had to be more murals out there. Barry gave me permission to investigate and I called John Vinci, architect and historic preservation expert, to see what research there was on murals in these public buildings throughout the city. Vinci suggested I call local historian Mary Gray.
Gray had started research for a book she was writing, A Guide to Chicago’s Murals, and asked me to join her. I was in the right place at the right time. We spent the next several years visiting over 500 sites and documenting everything; we found hundreds of murals in the public schools. Not many people knew much about the collection, including the school board or the city.
Mary and I were determined to bring awareness to this issue and we fostered other supporters, such as Robert Eskeridge, Director of Museum Education at the Art Institute of Chicago. We involved several city officials in this project, and the teachers wrote class curricula around the murals. Before we knew it, we were involved with very complex fundraising to preserve the collection; we got support from the Field Foundation, the Driehaus Foundation, Alphawood Foundation and many others.
We were amassing an incredible collection of data and I thought it should be turned into a book. I had been interviewing artists from that era and I talked to Studs Terkel who was involved in the WPA Federal Writers Project. The book I wrote, Art for the People, was published by Chronicle Books in 2004.
An incredible experience that started in 1994 flourished into an arts preservation program; to date it is the largest mural preservation program in the United States, restoring over 400 murals in the Chicago Public Schools. I am passionate about public art and murals; they have such potential to impact a broad audience that may not have access to the arts otherwise. This project drew me back to my childhood; I was a quiet, shy child and my mother decided to put me into a magnet arts program at a public school. That opportunity changed my life, and I believe having these murals in public schools can open doors and foster creativity for the children.
Beyond paintings what does The Conservation Center work on today?
Together, Barry and I nurtured a more inclusive transition. One of our first conversations was how do we want to grow, and what is the strategic purpose of the growth? Originally we handled paintings, paper, and textiles, and we wanted the ability to treat an entire collection under one roof. In order to do that properly in our industry, experts were needed in all areas. It would be difficult to gain respect in our industry if you said that you treat everything—there’s too much to know in order to be good at everything. So over the course of 10 years, we regularly added another discipline, fine-tuned it, and made sure the newly hired experts worked with the rest of the team before moving on. Eventually we had built a team with the expertise and credentials to treat an entire collection.
Do you have a mentor?
I bought the company from Barry in August 2003. I accomplished this because I had special mentors like Barry, Marshall Field V, and Norm Bobins. They suggested I get a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan. I bought the company without any investors or partners, something that would be very hard to make happen today. I continued growing the company, nearly doubling it in two years. I started an advisory board because I knew there was a lot I didn’t know; I needed to surround myself with smart, passionate people that could help with different aspects of the company—real estate, banking, economy, and financial reporting. Marshall Field V was the first to support me, and Norm was the second. I then added Diane Swonk, Bob Glick, and many others over the years.
How did you assemble this savvy board of individuals and what is the board’s role?
These are all relationships that I’ve nurtured over time; every one of them is a mentor for me. I’m a big promoter of vetting ideas, thinking about positive change, and being creative about running a business. The board plays different roles and is involved in various ways. Diane Swonk taught me a lot about economics and how my business relates to the economy. Bob Glick has given me a completely different perspective on legal issues. Buzz Ruttenberg has been a great help in finding our new building and teaching me strategies in real estate and business. Marshall Field V was involved from the very beginning with the founder and I have had the honor of carrying on that tradition with Marshall. The advisory board meets four times a year: they are strictly advisory and carry no legal responsibility.
What would you like to accomplish?
I don’t necessarily want to get bigger—that’s not my goal. I want to make a wonderful work environment for very talented people: an environment that is effective as a conservation laboratory, which is what I pursued with Jeanne Gang in designing our new facility. Moving into the new space was a very pivotal moment in taking my goals for the company to the next phase of the operation. We spent a year planning and executing the move, and during the last six months we honed all of the details with Studio Gang.
How did you first meet Jeanne Gang?
We’re both members of The Chicago Network, an organization of women entrepreneurs and executives in Chicago. After meeting at a few events, we became friends and developed this great rapport because of our synergies in the art world. I mentioned to her, “We’ve got this challenging new space we’re moving into; and it would be great to have you and your team develop the design with me and the conservators so the space flows with the conservation process,” and Jeanne graciously accepted. It was a privilege to collaborate with her and the Studio Gang team.
Tell me about your disaster assistance involvement.
We have become known nationally as a go-to resource for disaster situations. The first was the LaSalle Bank fire in 2004 where we helped recover over 4,000 photographs in the bank’s famous collection. The next year, Hurricane Katrina hit in New Orleans and we were brought in by AXA Art Insurance to assist at the New Orleans Museum of Art immediately following the floods. We rotated crews in New Orleans for four months, assisting collectors, families and other institutions in the region. We realized that it was a unique service to offer, and we developed a following, so when the wildfires in California happened in 2007, we were called in to assist again.
Our largest disaster involvement was the Cedar Rapids flooding in 2008 where we assisted five different museums at one time. There were over 7,000 pieces that we were responsible for; that was our most daunting task. When the floods hit the Farnsworth House, I got a call late at night and we were there to help the next day. Most recently on October 29, 2012, The Conservation Center was called to New York City following Hurricane Sandy, where we assisted both businesses and home owners with damaged art, heirlooms, and unique items affected by the flood waters. Our onsite crews worked to carefully remove and triage over two thousand works of art in order to mitigate additional damage.
How do you organize your disaster teams on location?
For Hurricane Katrina response, we were rotating crews for four months. We would have a team leader with 3-5 people per team go down for 3-7 days. These environments can be very extreme. If it floods in September in the South, the humidity is high and at 100 degree temperatures there is mold everywhere. We don’t send volunteers; only trained team members. It’s incredibly rewarding to be the people that go in and save rare and meaningful items in the situation, and you quickly see that you’ve made a real impact.
Do your teams require any hazmat training or special equipment?
Yes, everything from boots to goggles to hard hats. There are Tyvek suits and mold respirators required, and each person has to be specially fitted with their own respirator. There are also instances where certain vaccinations are required for various exposures.
We have a hazmat expert on staff and need to know quite a bit about that internally because of the solvents we use; there is so much science required for what we do. We attend several conferences for the disaster world, read articles and attend special programs year round.
What technological advances have there been recently in conservation?
There’s a very tight network in the conservation community. Conservators are great about relaying information and helping each other; that’s one of the things that we’re really proud of with this laboratory and our company culture.
For example, if our furniture conservator is posed with a new problem that he’s never had to address before, he can go to other conservators and see if someone has a suggestion on a technique or something new they heard about in a paper that was recently published, or heard discussed at a conference they attended; or they might send an email to their colleague at the Getty for example. There are many stylistic things that have been passed down through generations that you may not know about unless you’ve worked with or apprenticed under an expert. Innovation is a big part of the field, yet at the same time, there is a huge draw into the past, to learn from the mistakes that have been made over time and perfecting techniques that are tried and true. The coalescence of talent, experience, and intuition is something that thrives daily at The Center.
What has been your most rewarding or significant accomplishment?
Assisting five museum collections all at once was a daunting responsibility during the Cedar Rapids floods; yet being able to maintain order in the chaos of a disaster site multiplied by five, was very special in the history of the company.
What has been your biggest challenge in conservation?
One of the hardest things about a specialized company is perfecting and finding the right people to be on the team. This is a very unique talent pool; they must really enjoy working together, and communicate well with each other. I’ve learned the importance of managing and creating an effective workplace, where people like to come to work, and love what they do. When that combination of enjoyment, passion, and a challenge exists, great things happen.
What are the challenges of two careers, art and conservation?
Actually that’s one of the best things about my life. I don’t get tired of coming to work or being in the studio making art; I’ve found a way to balance my time. I’ve been very disciplined and effective with transitioning between activities through meditation and yoga, which I’ve studied for 12 years. I’m very effective with my time; I haven’t watched television for 15 years.
How often do you find yourself in the studio?
It’s probably 80/20…80% at The Conservation Center, 20% in the studio. What is good for me as an artist is I’m very facile. Even though I might work on 5-8 paintings over 6 months, I’m focused and I don’t fuss—it flows.
Who are your favorite women in Chicago arts?
Jeanne Gang is one of my favorite women; of course she’s a dear friend. I also respect Helyn Goldenberg and Mary Gray, who have been an inspiration over the years. Marilynn Alsdorf has shown incredible leadership as a connoisseur of art.
If you could have lunch with any artist, past or present, who would it be?
I’ll say Giacometti. He is very intriguing to me as an artist.
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading a book on yoga by Richard Freeman. He’s amazing. I’ve been practicing Ashtanga yoga now for 12 years; it’s changed my life.
Kathleen Waterloo had an 18-year career in interior architecture in Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in 1996 and is currently an artist in Chicago.