From Landmarks to the Met: A Conversation with Ali Wysopal
We recently sat down with Ali Wysopal, a Master’s Candidate in Historic Preservation at UT’s School of Architecture and Landmarks’ Collections Assistant for the past two years. Wysopal recently completed her tenure with Landmarks and will soon be headed to New York for a fellowship with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our Q & A follows.
LM: How did you first become interested in conservation?
AW: I initially became interested as an undergrad majoring in art history and anthropology. I had started college wanting to be an archaeologist, and after taking a couple of lab courses, I knew that what I was really interested in was the methodical nature of observing and documenting objects more than the initial discovery part. At the same time, while interning at my university’s art museum, they had a conservator come in to look at a piece in their collection. That’s when I realized that this field existed and I saw how it combined my interests in art and science. At that point, I started looking into graduate programs and opportunities to gain preprogram experience.
LM: What did your early work in conservation look like? And where did you find opportunities or places to work and apprentice?
AW: For me, it was tough to find experience, early on. Conservation is a relatively small field, so opportunities to gain hands-on practice prior to pursuing your graduate degree can be difficult to secure. A lot of my early experience, right out of undergrad, was conservation adjacent and more collections related. I volunteered with local museums and historical societies, completing whatever projects they had available, and worked for an art supply store. Volunteering was a great way to stay involved with my local museum and art community, and I actually learned a lot about different materials while working in retail, but I knew I needed more direct conservation experience. After working and volunteering for a couple years, I went back to school to earn my post-baccalaureate certificate in conservation at the Studio Arts College International in Florence, Italy. That was an amazing experience! While there, I got the chance to complete an independent study at a local conservation-restoration studio in stained glass. From there, I knew that I wanted to focus on decorative windows, so after coming back to the U.S. I got a job at a stained-glass restoration studio in the Midwest where I spent three years as a craftsperson. I also joined the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN), which is part of the American Institute for Conservation, reached out to conservation labs to find additional volunteer opportunities, and took some additional certification courses in collections care. Joining ECPN was really pivotal, and is something I wish I had heard about earlier. It connected me with people who were on the same path and was a great resource for applying to conservation graduate schools, which can be a daunting process!
LM: Can you speak about the work you have done at Landmarks for the past two years?
AW: Absolutely! I documented and tracked changes to the collection, managed the Landmarks Preservation Guild (LPG), and worked with conservators to care for the collection, among other things. I’ve loved my time at Landmarks and have gotten to work with a group of great people while learning more about caring for a public art collection.
LM: What has been the most challenging Landmarks’ work to contend with?
AW: A work that has presented a fun challenge is Sol LeWitt’s Circle with Towers. Prior to starting at Landmarks, this installation had already been exhibiting several conditions related to moisture movement through the concrete masonry (CMU). While it is public art, it is structurally and materially similar to a building. So as a graduate student in architectural conservation, there was a lot of overlap in what I was learning about in the classroom and what I was seeing happen with the LeWitt. The decision was made to apply a water-repellant coating to the sculpture to reduce the amount of moisture that was being absorbed by the CMU in an attempt to mitigate the adverse conditions of efflorescence and staining that we were seeing on the surface. As part of that project, I was able to conduct RILEM tube testing to establish the sculpture’s absorption rate before and after the treatment. This test will continue to be performed annually by subsequent collection assistants in order to assess the efficacy of the coating.
LM: What has been the most unexpected aspect of your work with Landmarks?
AW: I’m not sure there has been any one unexpected thing. While the main responsibilities of the role stay the same, my day-to-day can look quite different depending on ongoing projects, LPG events, and even the weather, which is something that I like about the field of conservation in general. The job is a great combination of communicating with Landmarks staff, vendors, facilities, and volunteers while also completing stretches of independent field work.
LM: Is there a significant memory or moment you will take away with you from your time at Landmarks?
AW: This is probably going to sound cheesy, but experiencing an empty UT campus while checking on the sculptures during the early phase of the pandemic was pretty memorable. Having gone from only knowing a crowded and lively campus to being by myself with the artwork was fairly surreal but also very peaceful.
LM: What will you be doing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of their fellowship?
AW: This September I’ll be starting a postgraduate conservation fellowship at the Met. As an applicant to the program, I was specifically looking to work with their collection of stained glass, so I am thrilled to have this opportunity to continue to gain hands-on conservation experience working with the museum’s amazing and unique collection and under the guidance of their conservation staff.
We at Landmarks thank Ali for her terrific work on our collection and wish her all the best in New York.