In 1971, the year before the Kimbell opened, Richard F. (Ric) Brown, the Museum’s first director, hired Perry Huston as the Kimbell’s first paintings conservator. He was charged with the care of more than 200 paintings in Kay Kimbell’s bequest, as well as the paintings acquired since 1965. Huston arrived at the Kimbell “before the roof was put on” and weighed in on the final design of the conservation studio. He recommended that the space be organized as an open plan rather than a series of smaller rooms. Over the next 12 years, he cared for the Kimbell collection on a part-time basis while also developing a growing private conservation practice throughout the Southwest.
Following the arrival of Edmund P. (Ted) Pillsbury, the Kimbell’s second director, in December 1980, conservation played an even more pivotal role in the Kimbell’s acquisition program, as the rate of acquisitions of European paintings quickly accelerated. As he had done previously as director of the Yale Center for British Art, Pillsbury frequently sought the advice of John Brealey, a renowned English paintings restorer who directed the paintings conservation department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from 1975 to 1989. There, he trained a number of conservators with the goal of raising the standards of conservation practiced in museums throughout the United States and Europe. In 1984, when Huston moved completely into private practice, Claire Barry, a protégé of Brealey and current director of conservation at the Kimbell, was appointed the Museum’s first full-time paintings conservator. Through the generosity of a Kimbell Art Museum trustee who greatly admired Brealey’s program, the Burnett (then Tandy) Foundation provided funds to furnish the Kimbell conservation studio with state-of-the-art equipment, including analytical instruments, fixtures, easels, and furniture.
In 1992, the Kimbell Art Museum partnered with the neighboring Amon Carter Museum of American Art to initiate a joint paintings conservation department based in the Kimbell conservation studio that continues to the present day. The department grew from one to two full-time paintings conservators to accommodate the increased work demands of the joint program. The start of the joint conservation program also launched a new period of scholarly research and public outreach. During the 1990s, the conservators organized a seminar for curators and museum professionals on the challenges of conserving Impressionist paintings, which coincided with the Kimbell’s exhibition of the Barnes Collection, and initiated the first autoradiographic examination of paintings by Georges de La Tour. The Kimbell’s active acquisition program, coupled with its ongoing commitment to generating ground-breaking exhibitions, has inspired numerous technical studies on a diverse group of artists and schools in subsequent years.
In 2011, the conservators closely examined the painting materials, techniques and artistic intentions in the Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. They integrated their findings in a gallery installation for the exhibition Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910–1912.
As the Kimbell plans for the next forty years with a new building by Renzo Piano, maintaining a controlled environment in the galleries is a primary concern. Light levels that allow for optimal viewing and preservation of the works of art are of particular importance, just as they were when the plans for the Museum’s paintings conservation department were first conceived.