February 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

Preserving the past

Michigan's art conservators: Picture of growth, skills

Jennifer Lis doesn’t know actor and director George Clooney personally, but the two-time “Sexiest Man Alive” has been her best business marketer these past weeks.

Clooney has brought “The Monuments Men” to the screen with the help of an all-star cast that includes Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray.

It tells the true story of President Franklin Roosevelt ordering museum directors, curators, conservators and art historians to go into war-torn Germany to rescue artistic masterpieces from Nazi thieves and return them to their rightful owners in the name of preserving cultural history.

Lis, who opened Lis Art Conservation and Restoration in Novi two years ago, finds her phone has been ringing more often as the public sees the movie and discovers this service — reclaiming and restoring art, often with a magnifying glass and a Q-tip — really exists.

While New York City, Boston and Washington, D.C., are considered the hotbed for conservation, a handful of Michigan artisans like Lis have carved out successful businesses in the art conservation scene.

“People have called excited I had opened up,” said Lis, who specializes in repairing a wide range of paintings and restoring frames.

“They told me they used to take their art to Washington, D.C., to have it cleaned, restored or repaired and are thrilled that something opened in their own backyard.”

A lot of her work comes courtesy of moving companies, which fail to protect the art in the moving van, often resulting in tears. Mother Nature has helped this winter with water damage, as well.

Costs vary according to the restoration involved, but Lis recently quoted someone $400 to repair a painting and $27,000 to fix a mural.

The American Institute for Conservation, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to the preservation of cultural material, has 3,650 members nationally and internationally, with 44 of those conservators calling Michigan home.

“Michigan is lucky because it has a wealth of collections from private individuals but also from good, strong institutions,” said Eryl Wentworth, executive director of AIC.

“The Monuments Men” can only help Michigan’s conservation industry, Wentworth said.

“The movie’s been a win for our field because there has been so much excitement over how many more people understand the importance of conservation and taking care of our cultural heritage,” she said.

Now that the economy is slowly improving, Wentworth believes more private collectors will seek to have their art treasures preserved, helping the industry’s bottom line.

“A lot of people put special projects off when the economy stumbled,” she said. “With ‘The Monuments Men,’ we expect more will realize the value in preservation and seek referrals (to conservation specialists) on the AIC website.”

The Detroit Institute of Arts has helped put Detroit on the conservation map.

“The museum has one of the largest conservation laboratories in the country,” said Barbara Heller, director and conservator, special projects, for the DIA.

It’s large because the museum carries so many different art mediums, from sculpture to textiles, the lab needs to cover every specialty, she said.

“There’s been a conservator working on the DIA collection since 1927,” Heller said.

“The culture here, the preservation of the collection or individual works of art, is really, really important. We have fabulous collections here in Detroit. It’s the DIA’s 128th year, so someone is always keeping these pieces looking their very best.”

Because the industry is so small, Heller, who also sits on the board of the Michigan Alliance for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage, often finds herself handing out local referrals of those in private practice because she knows everyone’s specialty.

Ronna Rivers’ specialty, for instance, is paper. The owner of Rivers Conservation & Preservation Services in Detroit treats or examines works of art on paper, historical documents and photographs.

“I used to work in Indianapolis, and Detroit has so many more opportunities for the private art conservator,” Rivers said.

While she’s not getting rich off her occupation, she’s paying her bills and doing what she loves, combining a love of art history, chemistry and fine art, she said.

As is Celina Contreras de Berenfeld, owner of the Fine Art Conservation and Restoration Laboratory of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Berenfeld has worked in Canada, Europe and Mexico City and was quickly taken by Metro Detroit’s respect for art.

“It’s really been amazing here,” Berenfeld said. “I’ve had people come from Traverse City just to have me take care of their art.”

The movie will make her business — and a lot of lives — even better, she said.

“More people are becoming aware of conservation because of this movie,” she said.

“They’re connecting it to their everyday life and realizing that preserving the past is important to their future.”

Rene Wisely is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Jennifer Lis opened Lis Art Conservation and Restoration in Novi two years ago. Her business is reclaiming and restoring art. / Photos by Steve Perez / The Detroit News
Lis works on a painting. Michigan has a number of art conservators, ... (Steve Perez)
Jennifer Lis works on a painting. 'The Monuments Men' can only help ... (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)