Fall 2010 / Spring 2011

Photo: Courtesy of Livia Tosi of the Lorenzo de' Medici Italian International Institute
Photo: Courtesy of Livia Tosi of the Lorenzo de' Medici Italian International Institute
“Our partnership with LdM offers students opportunities not found in any other U.S.-based art conservation bachelor’s degree program." -Dr. Neil Pagano, Associate Dean of the School of LAS

Art … or Science?

The new Art and Materials Conservation degree program in the Department of Science and Mathematics offers the best of both.


In the summer of 2008, Dean Deborah H. Holdstein stood surrounded by carefully wrapped, centuries-old works of art at the Lorenzo de’ Medici Italian International Institute in Florence, Italy. The artwork, from the collection of the famed Uffizi Gallery, casually leaned against the studio walls, awaiting attention from student conservators. And standing there, profoundly moved by the art and history of Florence—the cradle of the Italian Renaissance—Dean Holdstein had an epiphany.

Two years later, administrators and faculty within the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) are putting the finishing touches on a new undergraduate degree in Art and Materials Conservation, slated to enroll its first cohort of students in the Fall of 2011. The first academic major in the Department of Science and Mathematics, the program is steeped in science as well as the arts, and it will be one of only three undergraduate Art Conservation programs in the country—the first in the Midwest.

So, how did a simple tour of Lorenzo de’ Medici (LdM), an Italian art school with which Columbia has had an exchange program for years, lead Columbia to create its first science major? Dean Holdstein explains:

“When I first arrived at Columbia, the Provost mentioned that Lorenzo de’ Medici might have some possibilities for LAS,” says Dean Holdstein, recalling a conversation she had with Provost and Senior Vice President Steve Kapelke shortly after she was appointed Dean of LAS in 2007. Gillian Moore, the Executive Director of Academic Initiatives and International Programs at Columbia, had noted that while LdM was pleased with the ongoing exchange program the two institutions had established, the Italian school was very interested in taking the relationship to the next level—creating a degree partnership. As Dean Holdstein stood in that conservation studio at LdM, she thought about what colleagues had told her about art and materials conservation: “It is really a science,” she recalls thinking. “I began to connect the dots.”

The art, the science, the LdM relationship … it all came together.

Like so many disciplines in this time of rapidly evolving technologies and global access to research and information, the field of art and materials conservation and preservation has become increasingly focused and advanced. Until fairly recently, a career in the field was generally attained through an apprenticeship with a master conservator. Now, such a career requires intensive formal education at the graduate level—a steady hand, meticulous work, and love of art are no longer enough. Students hoping to enter graduate programs in conservation also need a strong foundation in the philosophy and ethics that underlie all good conservation and preservation work, and an even stronger background in science, specifically chemistry and materials science.

The new major in Art and Materials Conservation, developed in alignment with the guidelines of the American Institute for Conservation, addresses each of these requirements, and it provides the hands-on learning experience one would expect from a degree at Columbia. Internships, conservation work experience, and volunteer opportunities will be required, as will a year of study at LdM.

“From our perspective, the unique feature of the degree program is the opportunity for students to spend a year at Lorenzo de’ Medici,” says Dr. Neil Pagano, Associate Dean of the School of LAS. “Our partnership with LdM offers students opportunities not found in any other U.S.-based art conservation bachelor’s degree program. If they complete certain requirements, Columbia students will earn a Restoration and Conservation Study Certificate issued by LdM, an additional credential that can help them find employment after their degree or pursue additional studies at the graduate level.”

The School of LAS includes the Departments of American Sign Language–English Interpretation; Education; English; Humanities, History, and Social Sciences; and Science and Mathematics. Of those, only the Department of Science and Mathematics did not include a major, even though, as Dean Holdstein notes, “Every undergraduate student is a Science and Mathematics student,” taking courses in the department as part of Columbia’s required LAS Core Curriculum, which includes the First-Year Seminar. Dean Holdstein continues, “Each year, a huge number of faculty members from Science and Mathematics come to graduation to support all students, even though none of them could, until now, earn a degree from that department. It’s an incredibly dedicated, talented faculty. At the same time, we’ve seen an increased demand for challenging courses in the department. We now offer Calculus III, and every section fills. We have students working on advanced research projects in science. Clearly, we’re ready to take this step.”

Dr. Constantin Rasinariu, Chair of the Department of Science and Mathematics, agrees wholeheartedly. “Of course I’m excited, because it’s my department’s first major,” he says. “It has a very nice ring to it, to say ‘art’ in a scientific context. It’s an intellectual delight.” He goes on to explain why the new major is a perfect fit for Columbia and its students. “Columbia is a special place, a place where you meld together various talents. There are students here who are art lovers at the core, but they know they won’t be professional artists. They have an appreciation of art, and some of them have an equal appreciation of science. In the past, they may have had to go elsewhere to pursue that. Now there will be a program that fits them perfectly.”

Noting that the proposal for the new major was an especially bold one, Dr. Rasinariu points out several of the aspects of the program that make it extraordinary. First, the program is expected to remain small, accepting only about seven to ten students a year, both to keep the quality high and “to be honest with the students—it’s a selective job market.” It will require students to acquire a broad background in the liberal arts and art history, as well as specific knowledge of the historical and cultural contexts—of the work they would be charged with preserving. Conservation philosophy, ethics, and practice will be stressed, and the college’s commitment to civic engagement will also be addressed, as the preservation of cultural artifacts is crucial to the understanding of cultural heritage. Coursework in the humanities and some work in studio art will be required, as will an immersion year at LdM. Finally, internships will be important, and partnerships are being formed with the Field Museum, the Chicago Conservation Center, and other institutions to provide that hands-on experience.

However, as Dean Holdstein notes, it’s science, particularly chemistry, upon which the program is based. “As we were putting together our proposal for the program, we talked to people currently working in the field,” Dean Holdstein says. “When we asked what they wished they’d taken in college to prepare, they all said ‘more science’.” That’s something Columbia is more than ready to offer. As Dean Holdstein says, “There couldn’t be a more appropriate major for this department, or a more appropriate college in which to launch such a program. I’m excited for our students and for our faculty. This is so Columbia, but it’s a side of Columbia not everyone knows exists.”

For more information about the new Art and Materials Conservation degree program, please contact Dr. Constantin Rasinariu, Chair of the Department of Science and Mathematics, at crasinariu@colum.edu.