Outside of the academic and museum world, most conservators work solo or in small partnerships. Although highly trained in science and/or the arts, these professionals are ill prepared to operate in the rigors of competitive business practices and potential litigation. Successful conservators often work with objects that are valued in the high six or seven figures. Recently, these client-collectors paid even more for the same objects. This makes clients very invested in the piece to be conserved. Sometimes the depth of that monetary investment can obscure any artistic, historical, or aesthetic value to the owner and can make the conservator vulnerable to any misstep, real or perceived, by the owner client. Moreover, conservators working with modern and contemporary objects are challenged by the degradation of previously unknown materials.
This year has seen the closing of some of the most prestigious conservation educational centers around the world. The impact of the closing of these major institutions is multifold. Accordingly, conservators are facing a world with less supporting academic research and with fewer well trained professionals. Presented with increasingly novel challenges in the form of new mediums that are disintegrating in ways that have not been seen before and a client base that has spent more money on pieces than any generation before and are unlikely to recoup that investment in their lifetime, conservators face potential litigation as never before.
How does a conservator ensure good client relations and avoid problems that may lead to litigation? The key to success in any business is to determine when to be the professional you are and when to bring in other professionals allowing them to do what they do best. Don’t attempt to act like a lawyer if you are not one. Most small business owners, conservators included, get into trouble in one of the following areas: 1) problematic paperwork; 2) failure to communicate well or at all with clients; or 3) they promise more than they can deliver and/or exaggerate their credentials and expertise.
A review of the paperwork generated by a conservator including advertising materials, initial contact letters, retainer agreements, reports, and any follow up materials produced by their business can reveal a business’s most vulnerable aspects. What is necessary to protect the conservator’s best interests and what should be avoided? Finally, the legal and ethical guidelines for conservators will be outlined. Using a framework of solid paperwork, good communication skills and a working knowledge of the framework of legal and ethical guides, the paper will be a tool toward best practices to help conservators protect their own interests.
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