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Why Conservation Students Should Be Thinking BIG

Accredited conservator Lucy Branch has shared her thoughts with Icon on big sculptures, big art and what this might mean for conservators of the future

marble_arch_horse_cc_by-nc_2.0_by_zoer_0.jpgThe outdoors has become the hippest art gallery around. Where else can mighty kelpies be seen cavorting at sunset, a vast blue cockerel frown down on city-dwellers, and a life-size car be in the hands of a gargantuan child whose arm punches through the sky?

Intertwining forces have made large-scale sculpture a growth sector. The era has arrived when artists don't need institutional walls to validate their work or gain an audience. Artists are being given more opportunities than ever before to exhibit in public spaces and the bliss of unrestricted space for the admiration of their creations means that our city streets are becoming festooned by the daydreams of contemporary artists.

The popularity of contemporary art has excited foundations and private art markets. Since 2000, the contemporary art market has increased in value almost 14 times. Exceptionally high prices within the field have made private buyers see sculpture as great value for money. Over 90% of contemporary sculpture sold in 2015 was for less than $50 000 and yet sculpture was the second most valuable sector of the contemporary art market after paintings with sales of over $225 million within the year.

A multi-billion-pound building boom in museums around the globe is also fueling the purchase and display of large sculpture. London to New York, Tokyo to Reno – museums and galleries are adding wings or freestanding structures to house more contemporary art. The trend for supersizing museums relates directly to the quantity of large-scale art on display within these new spaces - though this doesn’t please everyone: a primary complaint by museum-goers is becoming that they frequently get lost.

Conservators don’t need a crystal ball to see that more large-scale art is going to need more people to look after it, and if it's housed outside we know what artists or investors might not: not much stands outdoors without change. Particularly in the public zone, apart from the rigours of the weather, there is a fine line between adoration and vandalism.

Skills like abseiling and high-ropes training will be useful

Conservators are going to be needed to maintain these savvy investments, but these objects need differing skills than traditional courses might teach and students should think about arming themselves for the future. Skills like abseiling and high-ropes training will be useful - working at heights is a skill you can learn and get better at. You shouldn’t assume that because you're scared of heights you always will be.

IPAF (International Powered Access Federation) training and safe use of other mobile elevating working platforms (MEWPs) will be vital to enable conservators to work on cherry pickers and use scissor lifts. Training to erect towers, use generators, assemble machinery with air hoses, water lines and nozzles is as much part of the work as the treatment process itself. Above all adapting methods to work at speeds appropriate to scale will be essential. Just because the object has generous proportions, it doesn’t mean that a client will be as generous with their work programme. Cultivating good fitness and strength becomes a must rather than a to-do in order to cope with days working across large surfaces and moving up and down scaffolds.

All the signs indicate that the appetite for contemporary sculpture is on an upward trajectory, and if anything, we are only at the start of the curve. It’s unlikely that it will affect the conservation community immediately, but for those studying conservation and thinking about their future careers, the streets may not be paved with gold but they may well be filled with large-scale sculpture. 

Lucy Branch MA(RCA/V&A) ACR  is a conservator of public sculpture and architectural features

Lead Image: Lucy Branch ©
Image: Marble Arch Horse CC BY-NC 2.0 by Zoer


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