Art conservator's services are always on the house

Bauman with two recently conserved paintings

Bauman is flanked by two recently conserved paintings for other institutions  -- John Singer Sargent's "Lucius Fairchild" and Thomas Sully's "George Washington." Contributed photo.

It seems too good to be true -- a rock star in the world of art conservation offering to restore old paintings for Iowa State, other universities and museums, for free. Believe it. Over the past decade, Illinois conservator Barry Bauman has restored more than 1,500 paintings for nonprofit groups.

To take advantage of Bauman's expertise, institutions simply need to ask. So far, Iowa State has asked 19 times.

Deal of the century

"It's just an unbelievable offer that, for the negligible cost of materials, Barry will conserve your work of art," university museums director Lynette Pohlman said. "It's the deal of the century."

Pohlman estimates that deal so far has saved Iowa State approximately $75,000 in conservation fees and put some very nice paintings back on display.

Old paintings come back from Bauman's in-home studio in beautiful condition, Pohlman said.

A recent restoration of a small 19th century painting of ducks in a farm house "just glows," she said. "For the first time, you really see it as the artist intended."

Bauman's restorations hang in many universities, museums, schools and historical facilities throughout Iowa and the Midwest, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland and Arizona.

"Barry understands that works of art, whether significant to Iowa or to the world, need preserving," Pohlman said. "This is his way of encouraging America's cultural heritage."

Entrepreneur to pro bono

An elected Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation, Bauman worked for the Art Institute of Chicago for 11 years. He was the institute's associate conservator of painting when he left in 1983 to found the Chicago Conservation Center. Over the years, the center's focus expanded from conservation of paintings to conservation of all kinds of art, and it's now the largest conservation laboratory in the country.

Master conservator, sleuth

While cleaning a painting in 2011, Bauman discovered that a legendary painting of Mary Lincoln was a sham. New York Times story.

In 2003, Bauman sold the company, and shortly thereafter, launched Barry Bauman Conservation, a one-man effort to provide pro bono conservation services to museums and nonprofit organizations. Bauman has been at this latest endeavor for a decade and shows no signs of stopping.

"Sometimes you hear people say, 'I love my work so much I'd do it for free,'" Bauman explained.  "How many people do you know who do that? I know one. That's the way it's always been for me. I've always just loved what I do. I do it because it brings me great rewards and it gives me an opportunity to help museums that can't pay for the lights and heat."

Bring more

And so 10 months of the year, Bauman can be found at home in Illinois, cleaning, repairing and retouching old paintings for the likes of the Phoenix Art Museum, the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois, and Iowa State. The other two months, you'll find him in New Zealand, taking a rest from the brushes, solvents and Chicago winters.

Allison Sheridan, university museums program coordinator, often gets the call when Bauman has finished a project for Iowa State.

"Every time he calls," she said, "he says, 'Your paintings are ready. Come pick them up and bring more.'"

19th Century painting of ducks by V. Monselm

Bauman's recent restoration for Iowa State -- "Ducks," c. 1841, by V. Monselm -- "just glows," said museums director Lynette Pohlman. The 15-by-18 inch oil on canvas is on display in Farm House Museum. Photo by Christopher Gannon.