Art Institute of Chicago art conservation scientist, Francesca Casadio, explains to delegates at the 2012 ICC4 meeting a project that investigated the enamel paints used in Pablo Picasso’s The Red Chair painting. Casadio and Katherine Faber are setting up a new conservation science research hub in Chicago. Credit: ACerS.

(Updated) A few days ago I posted a story and video to introduce ACerS’s new Art, Archaeology and Conservation Science Division. The video features Katherine Faber, who teaches and engages in materials science and engineering research at Northwestern University. Faber, the trustee of the new Division, has been involved with art conservation science for many years, and this work just has been rewarded. Just recently, it was announced that Faber and colleagues connected with Chicago Art Institute will establish an entirely new, multimillion-dollar institute dedicated to interdisciplinary research among scientists, conservators, and curators.

The new institute—to be called NU-ACCESS (the Northwestern University—Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts—is being made possible by a $2.5 million, six-year grant from the Mellon Foundation, a group that has been supporting this type of work for several years.

NU-ACCESS, the first of its type in the United States, is the direct fruit of the work of Faber and Francesca Casadio, the Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist at the Chicago Art Institute, who teamed up with her in 2004 to launched an ad hoc museum–Northwestern University partnership. The new grant will allow Faber and Casadio to expand and institutionalize the partnership. According to a Northwestern University press release, the new center will “serve as a collaborative hub, facilitating interdisciplinary research partnerships in art studies and conservation on a national scale. Academic researchers and scholars in training will meet and engage in mutual learning.”

The release also recounts how partnership’s remarkable discoveries over the years have been woven into major exhibitions at the Art Institute, including exhibitions of the works by Matisse and Winslow Homer. An upcoming show, “Picasso and Chicago,” will include findings from a study of modern bronze sculptures in which Northwestern and museum researchers traced some of Picasso’s unmarked sculptures to the Valsuani foundry in Paris, based on materials evidence.

Faber and Casadio also showcased several of the partnerships efforts as part of a tour of the museum held during the 2012 International Congress on Ceramics held last July (see photo, above).

Art and technology are prime material evidence of humanity’s accomplishment,” Casadio says in the press release. “By bringing the two together in this center, we will have a chance to enhance our understanding of the world’s shared cultural objects and preserve them for future generations. This landmark initiative represents a tectonic shift from the isolated museum scientist to a dynamic hub that will serve as incubator of new ideas and significantly accelerate the rate of discoveries by providing the latest technological innovations brewing in the academic environment,” says Casadio.

NU-ACCESS will be located at NU, and will eventually be staffed by a senior scientist and two postdoctoral fellows. The concept is that museums and other cultural institutions will submit research proposals to CSSA to investigate objects in their collection, or investigate scientific issues raised by those objects.

As the first such initiative in the United States, the center will inspire a new model for research partnerships between museums and academia, and we are especially excited by the promise of bringing museum professionals, researchers and students together to contribute original and groundbreaking research to their respective fields,” says Douglas Druick, president of the Art Institute, also in the press release.

An example of the type of work the NU-ACCESS will engage in is contained in a new paper by Casadio and coauthor Volker Rose, a physicist at the Argonne National Lab, published in Applied Physics A (doi:10.1007/s00339-012-7534-x) that for the first time documents that Pablo Picasso eventually employed common house paint in many of his works, such as his The Red Chair painting on display in the Art Institute. Casadio and Rose used ANL’s hard X-ray nanoprobe, an instrument at the Advanced Photon Source facility located at the lab. According to a new ANL press release, the X-ray nanoprobe “is designed to advance the development of high-performance materials and sustainable energies by giving scientists a close-up view of the type and arrangement of chemical elements in material.”

Investigators had previously used optical and electron microscopy to resolve the mystery of Picasso’s paints, but had failed. According to the ANL release, “Those art world detectives all failed, because traditional tools wouldn’t let them see deeply enough into the layers of paint or with enough resolution to distinguish between store-bought enamel paint and techniques designed to mimic its appearance.” Using the X-ray nanoprobe, Casadio and Rose were able to match Picasso’s paints to the chemical composition, particularly in regard to zinc oxide, of one of the first brands of commercial enamel house paints (Ripolin).

The benefits of this work apparently don’t accrue just in the art world. The ANL release also notes that in the course of doing this work, “Scientists also learned about the correlation of the spacing of impurities at the nanoscale in zinc oxide, offering important clues to how zinc oxide could be modified to improve performance in a variety of products, including sensors for radiation detection, LEDs and energy-saving windows, as well as liquid-crystal displays for computers, TVs, and instrument panels.”