Allison Porambo ’12 completed her undergraduate degree as an art history major at American University before going on to receive a Masters degree from the University of Texas, Austin, in Art History, Criticism, and Conservation in 2017. Now, she’s back in the D.C. area, and tells us about the ins and outs of her current job at a conservation studio.
Describe your job, and the daily ins and outs of what you do.
Allison Porambo: I work for Gold Leaf Studios, a framing fabrication and conservation studio here in Washington, D.C. My official job title is “Office Assistant,” which sounds a lot less exciting than it is in practice. Yes, I do a lot of typical office work—answering calls and emails, ordering supplies, processing payments, etc.—but I also examine antique frames brought in by clients with our master framer, William Adair, to prepare treatment proposals based upon our findings. After conservation treatment is complete, I draft treatment proposals summarizing what has been done to the frames and why, and giving recommendations on how to keep the frame in the best condition. Soon, I will be working with my co-workers to plan a gilding workshop to be held at the studio later this year.
Every day I am in contact with clients, whether they are museum curators or private collectors, who bring in frames or show us photographs of antique mirrors and frames in their collections, and it amazes me to discover just how rich the variety of frames out there truly is. You begin to appreciate the frame as a work of craftsmanship in its own right, as well as an important component of an artwork’s original context.
What made you decide to pursue conservation work as a career? What other jobs have you held since graduating from AU?
AP: I decided upon conservation work as a career near the end of my senior year in high school. The daughter of a family friend, who was a chemistry major at Sarah Lawrence College at the time, talked to me about her desire to become an art conservator. I had originally intended to major in history, but this conversation confirmed my desire to work with museum collections and focus on material culture. Although my original career path as an art conservator has gone by the wayside, I still love working with artworks themselves above all other aspects of the arts and museum world.
I’ve not always been able to work with museum collections, but I’ve searched for jobs and internships relevant to that goal as best as I could. I’ve interned and volunteered in the collections care or conservation departments of institutions ranging from the Library of Congress to the Maryland State Archives, as well as private conservation practices. One internship at Historic Annapolis allowed me to gain experience in collections management, which led to a temporary position as a Registrar’s Assistant during a collections-wide inventory project. It was a busy three-week position, but I had the chance to get to know an excellent collection of American decorative arts quite well in a short period of time. When I went to graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin to get my master’s degree, I spent the first year as a grader. During the second year, however, I worked as a Student Assistant in the Digital Collections Services department at the Harry Ransom Center, a research institution for the humanities that holds excellent collections of literary manuscripts, prints and drawings, movie costumes, and one of the best photography collections in the world. I had the opportunity to digitize some truly amazing documents, including 18th-century news clippings, movie scripts with Gloria Swanson’s personal notes, Aleister Crowley’s love letters (“My Dear Ugly Fat Girl,” he begins one), and photographs of Peter O’Toole goofing around on the set of A Lion in Winter with his fellow cast members. After graduation, I worked as an intern at the National Portrait Gallery in the departments of Prints and Drawings and Photographs under the Collections Manager, cataloguing collections and taking part in a project to digitize the Gallery’s collection of glass-plate negatives.
These positions may appear all over the art museum map at first glance, but they have introduced me to numerous aspects of museum collections: their conservation, preservation, curation, handling, management, and access by both researchers and the public at large. I bring my experiences into practice here at Gold Leaf Studios in relation to both the frames conserved or fabricated, and to the artworks they frame.
How has your education at AU shaped your career path? What made you interested in pursuing art as a career?
AP: My experiences at AU taught me that art history can be so much more than names and dates, although those are certainly important. In nearly every class, I learned how meaning and significance can be derived from the historical, cultural, social, physical, and material contexts of artworks. I was first introduced to the idea of the artwork as an object formed by the circumstances of its creation here at AU, complimenting my previous understanding of the artwork as an aesthetic creation. Without this new perspective, I would not be able to comprehend the choices made by artists of framers in terms of design and material. I had originally chosen to major in art history to prepare for a career in conservation, but even as I follow a career in the conservation of historic frames, I value this lesson above all others. I chose a career in the arts in order to preserve and protect the cultural artifacts of our past, and my education at AU taught me how complex and vital these artifacts and their histories are.