All Is Not Lost With Viviana Dominguez
How the renowned art conservator goes about saving artworks—including many Southwest Florida pieces
Dominquez works in her Miami studio; she also shares one in Naples with another artist
With the patience and precision of a watchmaker, Viviana Dominguez takes a deep breath and picks up a small spatula, slowly inserting its edge into a 4-inch-long crack in the canvas of an oil painting to see how deep the damage is.
Moments later, she applies an adhesive to the gap and carefully joins its two edges. Once the adhesive is dry on the canvas—a portrait of a sad-eyed woman painted by Boston artist Vesper George in the 1920s—Dominguez uses a small brush and a palette of meticulously matched paint to replace missing flakes around the spot where the crack had been, the results imperceptible to the naked eye.
“For me, everything should be treated as the original Declaration of Independence,” Dominguez says as she works, alluding to the care with which she restores paintings, drawings, murals and sculptures—her life’s passion.
Dominguez, an accomplished art conservator who lived on Marco Island until recently, maintains a studio in Naples. She has worked far and wide in her profession, including as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s effort to restore murals and paintings damaged by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and on other projects around the world, including in Spain, the Dominican Republic, Hawaii and her native Argentina.
Closer to home, Dominguez removed mold and made other repairs to 20 Ukrainian oil paintings, soiled in long-term storage, to prepare them for an exhibition this fall at the Florida Gulf Coast University library in Fort Myers. “I asked her to do whatever it took to make them presentable,” says Rose Brady, a Naples resident and retired journalist whose late husband, Jurii Maniichuk, collected almost 150 paintings in the Socialist Realist style when he worked for the World Bank in Kiev in the 1990s.
Dominquez consulted on an extensive photo album project for The Holocaust Museum & Education Center.
In Naples, Dominguez worked on paintings and drawings in The Baker Museum, The Ritz-Carlton, Naples and the Collier County Museum, and on photographs in The Holocaust Museum & Education Center of Southwest Florida. She lectured at the Paul Arsenault Gallery about her experiences in rescuing theatrical props and costumes damaged in New York by Hurricane Sandy, and at The von Liebig Art Center, where she addressed the topic of exploring art through science.
“Here in South Florida, it’s perhaps not where you would expect to find a great concentration of professional conservators—certainly not with her experience,” says Frank Verpoorten, The Baker Museum’s director and chief curator. “From the start we were very impressed with her, and we as an organization are very privileged to work with her.”
At The Baker Museum, Dominguez worked on several pieces, including paintings by Salvador Dalí, Abram Lerner and Jackson Pollock. The untitled Pollock, executed in 1941 or ’42 in watercolor and pastel, required relatively little work—the removal of acidic tape from the back and reframing with an acid-free mat. But another piece at The Baker Museum, a 1979 oil painting by Kurt Larisch titled Quo Vadis Opus 37, was more problematic, with a deep tear in the canvas. Months after Dominguez repaired it, and after working on many other pieces in the meantime, she stood before the Larisch in a gallery at The Baker Museum and was momentarily baffled.
“I must be good, because I can’t see where the tear was,” she says with a smile, before remembering it had been near the upper right corner of the canvas. “Oh, I found it,” she exclaims, pointing to a tiny mark left by the repair, barely visible.
That was, apparently, a rare moment of pride. Dominguez tends to downplay her skills, which she first tested as a college student in Buenos Aires, where she was born in 1960. As a child, she and her mother would spice up their trips to the grocery store by visiting art galleries. By the time they moved on to exhibitions at the National Museum of Fine Arts, 9-year-old Viviana was hooked.
“The museum really caught my attention,” she recalls. “It felt like home, like a place where I wanted to be, where I could spend many hours and stay all day if possible.”
Some years later, while studying for a degree in fine arts, Dominguez attended a seminar on conservation at the newly established Technical Institute for Restoration. She learned among other things that the field requires an understanding of chemistry, since the components in works of art must be tested before solvents and other cleaning agents can be chosen and used.
“I liked the mixture of science and art,” she says of the institute, which she immediately joined. “It was a bit like the Renaissance, like da Vinci.”
In 1990, Dominguez moved to Los Angeles and signed up for an art class at the University of California. Within 12 months, Dominguez had married her teacher, a union that lasted seven years. She was similarly fleet-footed in the art restoration field, securing a job after a single phone call to a conservation studio that had just received 27 smoke-damaged paintings and needed help immediately.
Dominguez has been working steadily ever since, fulfilling a huge range of commissions and acting as a conservation consultant and lecturer. For private collectors, she has tackled imperfections in works by Pierre Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jean Dubuffet, Alexander Calder and Julian Schnabel. Among other projects, she worked on etchings by Pablo Picasso at the Nova Southeastern University Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, on murals at the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall in Los Angeles and on vintage wallpaper at the Lyndon B. Johnson Ranch in Stonewall, Texas.
Despite the hours, weeks and even months required to repair a damaged work of art, she says, no trace of that labor should be visible to the untrained eye. But for historical purposes, the work must be detectable under an ultraviolet light.
“A piece of art is regarded in conservation as a historic object, so any conservation must be reversible,” she says. “A historian must be able to see the work.”
For that same reason, a conservator cannot in good conscience take artistic license with another artist’s work, even when, for instance, a piece is missing from a painting. “I cannot reinterpret,” Dominguez says. “I have to be faithful to the original. If I have an old photo of the original, then I can do it. If I don’t have an exact picture of the missing area, I’m going to use a neutral color that won’t get the viewer’s attention, to make it a part of the painting without inventing something that wasn’t there. It’s not an artistic choice; it’s a technical choice, an ethical choice.”
In disaster areas, where works of art are sometimes damaged along with everything else, Dominguez learned quickly that a skill often overlooked—listening—is usually the first one required.
“People who went through a very bad natural disaster are disoriented, and are skeptical of receiving help,” she says. “We’re trained to approach people, to listen and to be understanding. People are in a panic that they’ve lost everything, that it’s all ruined. But we know how to salvage it, and we know how to treat the art to prevent further deterioration.”
She gave as an example her work in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when she was asked to help rescue a trove of costumes, sets, theatrical props and artifacts, worth an estimated $4 million, that had been stored by the Martha Graham Dance Company in a Manhattan basement, a space Dominguez says was “flooded from floor to ceiling.”
Once the water was drained, Dominguez and her colleagues discovered a soggy mess, with mold everywhere and a powerful stench. Some of the basement’s contents—including costumes and sets going back to the 1940s—were beyond saving, but many other items were brought back to life, an effort aided immeasurably by a fundraising campaign launched among dance aficionados.
After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the work of Dominguez and her team had the support of First Lady Michelle Obama and the organizational backing of the Smithsonian Institution. Under the banner of the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project, they embarked on a major conservation effort in the devastated capital, Port-au-Prince, a place where art and a historically vibrant culture had always thrived even as the nation was mired in poverty and corruption.
In less than two years, Dominguez and other conservationists had treated more than 30,000 items and trained some 100 Haitians to continue the work into the future.
“We dug things out of the rubble in pieces,” Dominguez says, referring to paintings and murals buried by the debris of falling buildings, including most notably the wrecked Holy Trinity Cathedral, famous for its murals of Bible stories featuring black figures.
Dominquez's restorations have included pieces by names as big as Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso.
“There were things that were apparently destroyed that we were able to recover,” she says. “Many you could not recover completely. So you have to set priorities: Which are the things that we’re going to recover before the money runs out? You decide what can you save now, what you can’t and what can you save in the future.”
Under far less harrowing circumstances, Dominguez began accepting commissions that same year for conservation projects at the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, in Miami, and discovered she liked Florida and its proximity to Europe. In short order, she made her home on Marco Island. A few months ago, she bought an apartment in Miami with a view of Biscayne Bay, while retaining the studio she shares with another artist in Naples.
Inevitably, she spends a lot of time on Alligator Alley.
On a recent morning at The Holocaust Museum in Naples, Dominguez placed white cotton gloves on her hands and opened an album of photographs assembled in Germany shortly after World War II. The museum had received the album and five others as a gift in 2013 from a local family that had connections to the Jewish Welfare Board, which helped displaced people who had been locked up during the war in concentration camps.
“You have different problems here,” Dominguez told Cody Rademacher, a curator at the museum. “The album is damaged. The metal rings have oxidation. The paper is brittle. I suggest removing the photos and placing them on archival paper. Everything has to be isolated.”
Dominguez explained that the brittleness of the album’s pages meant that they too had become oxidated, “so you’ll get more acid burn if the picture is in contact with that.” She then listed some of the equipment that would be required: scalpels, tweezers, so-called micro spatulas, and cleaning pads, made of cotton, specifically intended for cleaning documents.
“Vivian was highly recommended,” says Rademacher, who has some background in archiving but not in conservation. “She’s been very helpful.”
Because of budget constraints at The Holocaust Museum, Dominguez was acting as a consultant on the photo album project, and her plan was to train an intern to do most of the hands-on work.
Similar budgetary limitations affected the amount of work Dominguez could do on the Socialist Realist paintings being shown at FGCU.
“We didn’t do major surgery,” she says. “It was mostly treating mold, cleaning and consolidation of the paint layer”—the latter term a reference to a process in which adhesives are used to secure parts of a work of art that are in danger of detaching.
For instance, On the War Ruins, which Yevhen Zherdzitsky painted in the 1970s, showed dust, grime and amber-colored stains. In some places, the paint was “blanching,” which means it looked cloudy. A small chip of paint was missing from a soldier’s boot.
The dust and grime were removed with a soft brush, dry sponges and cosmetic wedges. The verso—the back of the painting—and its stretcher were vacuumed. But because of the project’s small budget, no other work was undertaken on that painting and on most of the others, leaving Dominguez to merely recommend what additional work she would undertake if money were no object.
She does not always ask to be paid. In the Wynwood neighborhood in Miami, where dozens of buildings are covered in wildly colorful murals, Dominguez has established working relationships with street artists she meets while strolling around.
“I ask them about their work, and its longevity, and I give them my card,” she says. “They ask me about paint materials or how to protect their work from being tagged, or how to clean it once it got tagged. So I’ve been going around testing solvents and removing tags. That’s my pro bono work.”