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NSF Grant Funds Research to Enhance Best Practices for Creating, Protecting, Exhibiting and Preserving Acrylic Paintings

Preserving acrylic works presents a monumental challenge for art conservators; this new research aims to enhance best practices in this area


VILLANOVA, Pa. – Anthony Lagalante, PhD, Associate Professor of Chemistry at Villanova University, and a colleague at the University of Delaware, Associate Professor of Art Conservation Richard Wolbers, have received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the composition, cleaning and aging of water-borne emulsion polymer (acrylic) paints. Acrylic paintings are a significant constituent of the world’s cultural assets, and the cleaning and preservation of these treasures pose great challenges. This research, which will incorporate staff and facilities at Villanova and Delaware, as well as the Winterthur Museum in Delaware and the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, will enhance best practices for creating, protecting, exhibiting and preserving modern painted surfaces.

Since their introduction in the 1950’s, the number of acrylic paintings in major public institutions has grown almost exponentially and represent a significant cultural asset, both in terms of their sheer monetary value and their social, economic, and cultural significance. While acrylic polymer paints have enabled artists to move aesthetically far from the traditional limitations of oil paints, conservators face a cultural legacy replete with some of the greatest challenges in terms of cleaning and preserving these treasures.

As conventional cleaning methods for traditional oil paintings will harm acrylic paintings, this collaborative research will investigate the formulation of aqueous microemulsion based cleaning solutions to remove accumulated soils and grime.  Cleaning modern acrylic paintings is a difficult task as a balance must be struck between removing accumulated grime, preserving the artist’s original visual intent, and preserving the physical integrity of the paint and attachment of the paint layer to the underlying support. Advanced instrumentation and techniques will be developed to image the surface of the paint film and quantify the chemical, physical, and visual changes that accompany cleaning.  Conservator testing of optimized microemulsion-based cleaning solutions will be solicited at national and international workshops.

The introduction of advanced chemical imaging techniques will be transformative in the museum conservation laboratory for molecular imaging of artwork surfaces as well as find broader applicability in scientific fields outside the scope of the present work. A broad outreach is planned to educate artists, cultural heritage scientists, museum conservators, and paint manufacturers as to the best methods for creating, protecting, exhibiting, and preserving modern painted surfaces.

With a history spanning over 70 years, the Chemistry Department in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Villanova University provides a rigorous program for undergraduate and master’s level students. Chemistry faculty actively conducts research in diverse areas such as nanotechnology, environmental chemistry, natural product synthesis, catalysis, and computational chemistry. In addition, undergraduate research provides students with the unique opportunity to work closely alongside a faculty mentor gaining an experience that extends far beyond typical classroom learning.

About Villanova University: Since 1842, Villanova University’s Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition has been the cornerstone of an academic community in which students learn to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others. There are more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in the University's five colleges – the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, the College of Nursing and the Villanova University School of Law. As students grow intellectually, Villanova prepares them to become ethical leaders who create positive change everywhere life takes them.