Claire M. Barry, the long-serving conservator at the Kimbell Art Museum, has announced her plan to retire at the end of March.
Barry will continue to collaborate with the Kimbell on a consultative basis and will transition to the position of director of conservation emerita, effective April 1.
Though she has stayed well behind the scenes at the acclaimed museum, Barry is widely recognized as a leader in the field of paintings conservation.
“If you don’t know I exist, that means I’m doing my job as close to perfectly as possible,” she said in a rare profile in the Washington Post in 2016.
“The Kimbell has been extremely fortunate to have a conservator of Claire’s caliber,” said Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum. “Through her efforts to promote the Kimbell as a center for conservation and cutting-edge art-historical research, she has helped the museum grow into the great institution it is today. Highly respected both in North Texas and across the international art world, Claire has become, indeed, part of the museum’s DNA.”
During her more-than-30-year tenure at the Kimbell Art Museum, she has advised on many of the museum’s acquisitions of important works of art, including Michelangelo’s “Torment of Saint Anthony,” Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s “The Cardsharps,” Nicolas Poussin’s “Sacrament of Ordination (Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter),” Claude Monet’s “Weeping Willow” and, most recently, Anne Vallayer-Coster’s “Still Life with Mackerel.” Her work on paintings by Fra Angelico, Titian, Jacopo Bassano, Tintoretto, Jusepe de Ribera, Nicolas Poussin, Diego Velázquez, Bartolomé Murillo, Henry Raeburn, Richard Parkes Bonington, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse represents major contributions to the scholarship on these European artists.
But it is not just the Kimbell where Barry has had an influence. In 1992, Barry initiated the joint conservation program between the Kimbell and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, which brought the neighboring institution’s major holdings of American paintings under her care.
“For almost thirty years, the Carter has had the great fortune of working with Claire Barry. She has played a vital role in the Carter’s preservation of our masterpieces of American painting, preserving works by renowned artists such as Mary Cassatt, Thomas Cole, Stuart Davis and Frederic Remington,” said Andrew J. Walker, executive director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. “Barry’s legacy and contribution, not just at the Kimbell and the Carter but to the field of conservation, will be felt for numerous years to come.”
Following the completion of a Bachelor of Arts degree in art history and studies in chemistry at Oberlin College, Barry earned a master’s degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Conservation from the Cooperstown Graduate Program, The State University of New York, Oneonta, founded by pioneering American conservators Caroline and Sheldon Keck.
From 1981 to 1985, Barry trained with internationally renowned conservator John Brealey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Following her internship with Brealey, Barry was awarded the Sherman Fairchild Fellowship in Paintings Conservation and was later invited to work as a contract paintings conservator at the Met.
The Kecks and Brealey represented two opposing approaches to conservation at a time when the field was actively re-examining its methods, namely the extent to which a conservator should intervene. “My father always told me to read more than one newspaper,” Barry reflected. “Similarly, in my conservation training, I actively sought out different points of view in order to develop and refine my eye and conservation practice.”
Barry thrived at the Met and was deeply influenced by Brealey’s humanistic approach to conservation and the collaborative environment he fostered in the studio. By bringing together conservators, curators and conservation scientists within one department, he ensured that meticulous treatment standards were informed both by modern scientific technology and art-historical research. Under Brealey’s supervision early in her career, Barry developed experience treating some truly exceptional works of art, including George de La Tour’s “Cheat with the Ace of Clubs” and Murillo’s “Four Figures on a Step,” both of which are now in the Kimbell’s permanent collection.
Ted Pillsbury, director of the Kimbell Art Museum from 1980 to 1998, recognized Barry’s talent and offered her the opportunity to develop a new conservation program in Fort Worth.
“After my experience at the Met, I wanted to continue to work on paintings of great quality, and it was evident that the Kimbell was actively developing a collection of the first rank,” said Barry. “Although it was a big leap to leave New York, I was attracted by the Kimbell’s ambitions and commitment to conservation as well as the profile of its neighboring institutions, the Amon Carter Museum and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The Kimbell offered the perfect environment to establish a collaborative department inspired by the Met, albeit on a smaller scale.”
Barry’s working practice at the Kimbell was characterized by close interaction with museum staff, including different generations of conservators, curators and directors. Upon her arrival at the Kimbell in 1985, Barry was tasked with setting up the museum’s light-filled, double-height, vaulted conservation studio, designed by architect Louis I. Kahn.
In addition to her treatment of paintings, Barry developed a particular interest for technical studies that shed light on the creative practices of the artists represented in the collections of the Kimbell and the Amon Carter. She published on Michelangelo, Georges de La Tour, the Le Nain brothers, Bartolomé Murillo and Claude Monet, as well as Thomas Cole, George Caleb Bingham, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Frederic Remington and Charles Demuth.
The acquisition of specialized equipment used for technical analysis, including a camera for infrared reflectography and an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanner, set the Kimbell apart in North Texas for its ability to implement technical imaging of paintings and led to many new discoveries. For example, Barry detected the presence of an earlier state of Matisse’s “L’Asie” during examination with infrared reflectography. More recently, XRF scanning of Murillo’s “Four Figures on a Step” identified the artist’s use of red underlayer beneath the hand of the young man, a finding that contributes to a greater understanding of the artist’s painting sequence and handling of light.
Under Barry’s leadership, the Kimbell’s conservation studio increasingly became an important resource for the Dallas-Fort Worth museum community. Barry advised and cared for the collections of museums throughout Texas. In addition to serving the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Sid Richardson Museum in Fort Worth and the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, she also treated paintings from the McNay Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. At the Meadows, she participated in groundbreaking collaborative research projects on Fernando Gallego, Francisco de Zurbarán and Salvador Dalí.
Barry also has overseen the conservation and study of paintings from museums farther afield, including the University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. Her work for private collections has included examination and treatment of paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Hans Hofmann and Diego Rivera.
Barry credits the Kimbell’s board of trustees and museum leadership for providing her with the unparalleled opportunities that the world-class permanent collection and special exhibitions afford. “I’ve grown with the collection under my care,” she said, “and while I will miss the dynamic day-to-day life in the studio, I look forward to watching the Kimbell continue to expand and thrive in my new role as director of conservation emerita.”
ABOUT THE CONSERVATION DEPARTMENT
Prior to the construction of the Louis I. Kahn Building, founders Kay and Velma Kimbell envisioned a conservation program to “preserve for future generations what has been entrusted to its care.” The pre-architectural program, dated 1966, called for a conservation studio with an “open studio work area” with the caveat: “must face north, with entire wall glazed; it is impossible to get enough light in this room!” With the building’s completion in 1972, the paintings conservation studio became one of the first purpose-built museum conservation studios in the United States.