Art conservators preserve and restore historic and artistic works. They work in museums, libraries, laboratories and elsewhere, and they often specialize in particular areas and materials, such as paintings, books, manuscripts or sculptures. To become an art conservator typically requires a master's degree in conservation or historic preservation. Sometimes a graduate degree in a very closely related area, along with specialized training in conservation through a certificate or diploma program, is acceptable if you want to become an art conservator.
Competition for graduate conservation programs can be intense because there are not a lot of programs offered. Undergraduate degree majors can vary, but undergraduate coursework in subject areas such as art history, anthropology and archaeology normally is required for acceptance into a program. Courses in organic chemistry, materials science and other sciences often are required as well. Studio art courses and experience in painting, drawing and three-dimensional art often is expected. Many graduate conservation programs require applicants to show portfolios of their artistic works.
Other coursework that can be helpful includes that in subjects such as museum studies, library science and related topics. Having experience actually working in the field or a related field often will put you ahead of the pack. Experience might be gained through internships, apprenticeships, regular employment or even as a volunteer. Knowing how to read and write in more than one language also is helpful if you want to become an art conservator. Be sure to check with conservation programs in which you are interested to find out the specific prerequisites of each program.
After you are accepted into a conservation program, you can expect it to last anywhere from approximately four to six semesters. Many programs require that students also perform internships during the summer or following the completion of coursework. An internship following coursework might last as long as a year.
Some art conservators learn the profession by apprenticing with experienced conservators and do not pursue formal education. It typically takes longer to be trained this way, and conservators with no formal education often will have a more difficult time finding employment than those with formal education, but it sometimes can be another path into the field. Another alternative to a master’s degree is to pursue a combination of conservation, historic preservation and art coursework while gaining working experience in apprenticeships and internships.
Characteristics that are helpful to become an art conservator include manual dexterity, strong communication skills and the ability to work alone or in a team environment. Knowing how to use computers and computer software systems is important. Having problem-solving and analytical skills also is necessary.