Full Transcript for the April 2023 Conservation with Karen Zukor.

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Conversations with Change Makers, April 2023

Karen Zukor (Principal, Zukor Art Conservation, Oakland, California)


In April of 2023, the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) Sustainability Committee’s co-chair Amy Crist had the opportunity to talk to Karen Zukor, principal and founder of Zukor Art Conservation, on the steps her studio in Oakland, California takes to incorporate sustainable practices into their work.

Karen Zukor has been a professional paper conservator for over 35 years and is an AIC Fellow. She has been responsible for many collections - including fine art, archival material, maps, documents, and rare books - held both in private hands and at institutions. In addition, she has trained both pre- and post-program interns for over twenty years, and lectures widely to the general public.

Karen discusses how she and her team manage their studio space. Use of solar power, managing electric usage, managing air borne pollutants, and water reuse are discussed. She also shares their practice of reusing packing materials, and the responsible procurement of products in reusable containers.

0:00 Introduction

3:24 Studio Building Overview

8:32 Solar Panels

12:40 Lighting

17:12 Do it yourself attitude

18:08 Electric car charger

19:15 Recording energy production and consumption

21:16 Heating

21:38 Working with Temp and RH fluctuations

25:28 Packing artwork for clients

29:02 Air quality issues

34:46 Recycling and reusing materials

37:00 Q&A: Reusing water

39:32 Q&A: Building materials and buffering environment

40:22 Q&A: Buying sustainable materials

43:02 Q&A: Water filtration system

44:34 Closing remarks

*Please note that transcript has been edited for legibility *

(0:00- Opening Remarks)

Amy Crist (AC): It's two minutes after our start time so I think we should get going, and at least get the housekeeping out of the way. Thanks for being here for our third conversation with a change maker. My name is Amy Crist. I'm a book and paper conservator at the University of Michigan Library as well as the current Resource Chair for the AIC Sustainability Committee and incoming Co-Chair with my colleague Kate Fugett. Our current Chair Roxy Sperber is here manning the chat. This has been an ongoing project in collaboration with the Icon Sustainability Network. We're talking to people who have made the changes that I think we all need to start making, or at least start planning to make, especially with regard to the energy it takes to heat, cool, dehumidify, humidify and light the buildings that we work in.  This produces significant carbon emissions, so we should be aware of it and try to improve and be more efficient because our climate has changed. It is here, so it is time.

Let me go over a few housekeeping items. Please enter your questions (we will have time in the end) in the Q & A rather than the Chat. It's much easier to go through the Q&A: You can upvote a question if it's important to you, and you can also comment on a question if it falls in your area of expertise or you have something to add. Also feel free to use the Chat, just preferably not for questions for the speaker. The captioning should be enabled and we are recording. Our next conversation is in June. We're taking May off because of the annual meeting. The topic is small museums in the UK. It's June 13th, 11am Eastern Standard Time. Lorraine Finch of Icon will chat with conservators at small museums in the UK. Registration information will be available in May. If you missed our February event with Patty Silence of Colonial Williamsburg and Nancy Ravenel of Shelburne Museum or our March event with Rob Pierce of Museum Wales, they were recorded. I think Roxy put the links in the chat and you can also find links on the sustainability committee's Wiki page, which is part of the overall AIC Wiki.

(Introduction 02:30)

Now for the main event. I want to introduce to you Karen Zukor. Karen runs Zukor Art Conservation, a private practice in Oakland, California, specializing in works on paper. Karen has been in private practice for 40 years and is a fellow of the American Institute for Conservation. She has cared for a variety of materials including fine art, archival material, maps, documents, and rare books for both institutions and private clients. In addition, she has trained interns for over 20 years and lectures widely to the public. I'm especially grateful that Karen can be with us today because I know it's not easy for conservators in private practice to make time for this type of thing. So thank you Karen, thank you for coming to share your experience and your perspective, and if you in the audience are also a conservator in private practice thank you for making the time.

(3:24 Studio Building Overview)

So Karen, let's start with the building, since that is our main topic, that you use for your private practice. Where you are geographically, the weather, who owns the building, and all the other relevant information.

Karen Zukor (KZ): Okay. Thank you, and good morning, good afternoon, and maybe good evening to some of you. I'm really glad to try to offer whatever points of view I can add to this conversation because the challenge really of being in private practice is that I'm trying to work within the financial constraints of having a small practice and also trying to be mindful of what is the most sustainable path for this building.

I'll discuss the building in just a second and I'll show you a picture but I should make these points right off the bat:  First of all, we are in Northern California, where the weather is moderate and we don't have extremes of cold and heat so that's an enormous advantage. We also have a great deal of sunlight year round and you'll see in these slides coming up, the proliferation of windows we have in the studio, which does mean that we can work by natural light a good part of the year. So while our concerns are with of course lighting, heating, cooling, etc., we're in an old building.

This is an image of the exterior and it shows the fact that it's two floors. It's 3,000 square feet (my unit).  But it's one of 15 units within a larger building. I have control over the studio (over the interior). But I don't have control over the exterior, which means the roof and the courtyard and anything else that's held jointly by the other 15 homeowners. So you'll see it's a brick building. Did I mention it's from about 1937? So it's old. It was a warehouse.

This is the very front of the building. This is where I see clients.

This is the main studio. So you can see some of the advantages and some of the obstacles right away. A great deal of space, a lot of natural light, and the fact that the lighting fixtures that we have are 18 feet off the floor. So they're very difficult to change, and because of that we have tried our best to get the most sustainable kinds of lamps. That way when we do install them we can pretty much hope they'll be up for eight to ten years, which is great.

In terms of what we're able to do with the building, you'll see we have very minimal heating and air conditioning. We rely on opening our front doors and opening windows. But because the building is primarily brick, the temperature stays pretty consistent throughout the year. This just shows you a view from the main office into the main workspace. There is this catwalk that gives you access to the second floor which is where the second floor studio is. You can see that there are a number of skylights. The image before gives you an idea of these large banks of windows. So light is in abundance, but these are old windows. They’re not the most leak-proof and they're not the most air proof, but again we have really moderate weather.

This is a view looking down from the catwalk into the studio again to give you an idea of the height of the building. There's our one heater and that heater came with the unit so it wasn't something that we installed. It does work. It's very noisy, but we haven't been able to replace it with something more amenable to actually working. Do you want to ask another question Amy?

(08:30 Solar Panels)

AC: I didn't know how much you wanted to show the beautiful pictures of your studio. Okay. We can start by talking about your solar panels. I'd love to hear the story, since you don't own the outside of the building and the building is also used as a residential building. Just how did the idea come about? How did you get people to buy into the idea? How did the whole thing work?

KZ: It's a good story in that one of the residents in this complex got it in his head quite a while ago, in 2005, for us to look into the possibility of installing solar. We have large flat roofs and there are no other buildings of any height near us, so we had a lot of accessibility. He brought in a company to basically pitch us on the idea of having multiple solar panels installed. At the time there were a number of tax credits and rebates that made it much more feasible to do. Out of the 15 units, 7 agreed to go with solar. What made it even more affordable was because that many units decided to go ahead, we were able to have the solar installer come in and do it kind of all at once, rather than piecemeal (if individual units had agreed to this separately).

The other thing was the actual banks of solar panels are in three areas, so they're not individually placed over the units that are utilizing them. There are three large banks of units. In fact, my panels are not over my unit. They're next door to me. At the time I was able to only afford about 18 panels, which was to address about 75% of my energy usage. This has really seemed to be fine.

I'll just comment: The way it worked out, there was a California State rebate of close to $8,000. There was a state tax credit and a federal tax credit that were available at that time. This was 18 years ago. When you add them all together, the savings was over $10,000. It was about $10,500 that was taken off the initial purchase price. I know those same rebates and tax credits are not necessarily as available now, and they're certainly not as generous. What was great was the fact that enough people chose to see the advantage of jumping on it at that time. The savings was terrific.

Now those panels do need to be kept clean. They're installed at a little bit of an angle. We haven't had a whole lot of rain up until this year, so they do need to be cleaned off occasionally because dust and dirt will limit their efficacy. But I have not had to do any kind of maintenance. The transmitter that you'll see shortly upstairs did have a warranty of 10 years. After 10 years I needed to replace it, but that was a small expense all in all. That has really dramatically changed our bills in terms of gas and electricity.

I'm just going to give you a few more views of the studio. You still see there's a lot of brick and a lot of skylights. This is the upstairs lab as we call it. It is nowhere near as dark as it appears in this picture. I don't know why the images seem to make it look like it's kind of in a forest, but you will see that along two sides of this fairly large room it's nothing but windows. And then we have two skylights as well letting in light. So the whole issue of trying to work by enough natural light or bring in enough electricity is not as big an issue as it would be in most studios. You'll also see the two skylights that are prominent in this room. They both have shades on them that have a reflective backing. They're on a spring-loaded roller, so in the winter they're open. But in the summer, in order to keep the heat down, we close them and that reflective backing really reduces the heat, by I would say about 10°F in this upstairs room. So, you know, what I'm talking about is the advantages that we have in terms of light. But the challenges are we cannot modify this studio hugely in order to make it work more efficiently for us.

AC:  When you and the other residents there, the 7 of the 15, decided to go forward with the solar panels, did the owner of the building…?

KZ: We are the owners. This is a condominium. There was a developer who renovated this old building and then put up the individual units for sale. So each unit is individually owned and any modification to either the roof or anything else that would change the appearance of the outside of any of the units has to be voted on by the homeowners. It hasn't been a huge problem. Every once in a while somebody wants to do something that is found objectionable by the other residents, but it's very much to keep the uniformity of the building the way it presents to the outside. Each unit has a separate entrance. It's like a big U around a courtyard. I would show you a picture of it but the courtyard is filled with cars in the evening and sometimes during the day, so it's very hard to get an idea. We all have individual access into our studios but anything that will affect all of us is a joint decision. It has to also conform to the codes and restrictions that were set up by the homeowners association when it was started. Here again you get a little bit more of a view of one of the skylights and some of the actual lighting fixtures that we've put in.

(12:40 Lighting)

AC: Now you said when we were chatting before the webinar that some of your skylights you even cover in the summertime…

KZ: Yes, there is one in the main room and the way the sun hits, it comes down to one corner of a table that is so bright. Not only can you not work under it, but it almost heats up the table. So in the summer months, and we're about to do that very soon, we actually get up on the roof and cover it with a tarp. It doesn't really affect how much light is in that room because there are so many other ways light can get in there. But we really do have to do that. I was thinking about that the other day:  The fact that we have to make some of these changes ourselves. We don't have automatic anything. We climb up on the roof, we put a tarp down, we secure it with bricks and pipes. But it works.

AC: Your roof has a combination of the most cutting edge and the most basic.

KZ: I will say the solar panels were just such a brilliant idea to have gone ahead with at the time that we did. When you asked me about doing this presentation, I had to go look up the actual year we installed them and I was surprised it was 18 years ago. That has been a big difference. I will also just throw in that for 30 years I drove a standard transmission Toyota vehicle and when it was about to die, I went and got an electric car. Not a Tesla. A Chevy bolt. But what's great about that was I knew I could put in a vehicle charger at work because of those solar panels. So I actually have a unit installed right outside my front door. So I can come and plug in my car every day. Well, I don't need to, but I can plug in my car while I'm here at work and I can do it during hours that are not peak consumption hours. That was something that I had thought about a while ago. I just didn't have the means to go ahead with it until just about two years ago when the old car died.

AC: Great! Did you want to go through more of your photos?

(19:15 Recording energy production and consumption)

KZ: Well I only have a few. This is that little transmitter that records whatever energy is being produced by those solar panels and it's upstairs. It's not particularly attractive, but what's nice about it is we can look at it and see when it's working. We have access to the readout if I get on a stool. To show you what kind of consumption is, and at the end of every day it records what has been produced during that day.

AC: We have panels in our home and our box like that has an app, so I can pull up on the app on a sunny day and see. Yeah it's fun, it's working!

KZ: I've actually had an ongoing discussion with our gas and electrical company, Pacific Gas and Electric, because they send me quarterly this multi-page readout of my usage which strikes me, from a paper position, as incredibly wasteful given that my bill is often about $4.60. I think they could save a lot of paper by just emailing that to me.

AC: They don't do paperless in California utilities?

KZ:  That's true. So thinking about this, we have a lot of challenges here. But we also have a lot of advantages because of the temperate climate, the amount of light. We've been very proactive about what kind of lighting we put in. In the winter when it is cold, I come in very early and I turn the heaters on. There's a small one upstairs and then the behemoth down here. I turn it on for a couple of hours and then I turn it off when people come in because it's too noisy to work by, but it warms up the space sufficiently.

(21:38 Working with Temp and RH fluctuations)

AC: Can we talk a little bit about how your indoor temperature and humidity is not particularly easy to control. It's certainly not possible to try to get it to 70°F every day at 50% relative humidity every day, which is what many museums strive for. But you've been doing this for 40 years and I'm wondering if you could maybe just talk a little bit about how you deal with fluctuations. Paper’s hygroscopic. Parchment's very hygroscopic. Give us a sense of whether it’s possible to have art in an environment that is not completely controlled?

KZ:  I think because we work only on paper, that is a huge factor. We're very attuned on a daily basis as to what the weather is, and we're always looking at the weather predictions for the week to see what would be best to work on. It's not just an issue of space, although it more often is that. For example, this happens to be an unusually hot temperature week. Upstairs, I can come in in the morning, open the windows, and it's about 60°F, maybe 63°F degrees up there. We can only work there in the morning. So we actually schedule our work around that. Because otherwise there are things that really can't be worked on upstairs. It just gets much too hot, which would be detrimental to paper. So then we work downstairs. There are a number of days when we do exactly that: We may start things that need washing, that need wet immersive treatments. Our sink is upstairs. It's in the back with a big nalgene tank on top of it. It's a four by five foot sink. So we can use that in the morning, but in the afternoon we're very mindful. We have to move everything downstairs. Or we just plan the day so that we know what works best in each of those two locations. So we don't have a lot of control over what kinds of fluctuations we'll have, but truly I do think the brick walls (we're surrounded by brick on three walls, it's only at the front part of the building that is exposed) it really stays remarkably consistent. So we can use that information and shift things.

AC: Fluctuations probably happen more slowly because of the brick too.

KZ: Right. So that again is an advantage. But it's also something we just have to be attuned to. When we know, for example when it does rain, which is unusual –very rare that it rains here, except for this year–  then we know we have a little more leeway because the air is going to be a little bit more moist and we have more working time. But yeah, we're very attuned to that.

(25:28 Packing artwork for clients)

AC: And you are saying you use mats and microclimates, so to speak, when a client picks up an artwork? If you know that they're going over to San Francisco where it might be damp that morning, you have a particular way of wrapping things up for them?

KZ: That is true. Because we're in Oakland, which is just due east of San Francisco, our temperatures are warmer. It's a little bit drier. Whereas in San Francisco and other parts of the peninsula they have fog. There's always been this long-standing history of in the morning along the coast of California it's very foggy and it's cool and it's damp. Then it “burns off” in the middle of the day. In the afternoon there can be a 20°F- 25°F difference in terms of temperature, and the humidity will also change. What we've learned from experience is that when work is being picked up we make a package for it. Whatever container is best for transport. We keep the item or items between blotters underweight in some kind of holding pattern, and we don't put them in the package until maybe 30 minutes before the client comes in. We also are very clear to them about how soon they should get something in a frame, that they shouldn't keep it in their trunk. I think people who live in this area are very aware of how changeable the weather is. But we are even more so because we want to make sure that when we give them something that's been conserved and is nice and flat that within two hours it won't start to become wavy.

AC: The package you put it in for the client to take it from your studio keeps it tightly compressed?

KZ: As snug as it needs to be. Everything is cornered in. And we do have a stamp that we put on the outside of the package and labels that say “temporary package/ do not use for long-term storage”. That's also one of the standard items on our invoices. So we try to make it really really clear: this is just for you to carry it home, to the framer, to wherever you're going. Please be mindful of the fact that you cannot keep it in there forever. The only exceptions to that is if we have a client that we know tends to store things in the packages we give them back, then we store them in different materials. They're all acid free, with buffer tissue often in between them if that's appropriate for the work, and we make sure that the package is sufficiently larger than the item. So that is a question we often ask our clients: Where are you taking it when you leave here? Are you going directly to a framer? But yeah that's a big issue.

(29:02 Air quality issues)

AC: Another thing we talked about before today was you having to deal with air quality issues. So as much as you are doing to combat the climate crisis, you are on the receiving end of some of the negative effects, including like you were saying soot in the air from fires a few years ago…

KZ: While trying to address the energy needs of this practice, it's actually been much more important to mitigate the area's bigger problems which are water and air quality. We've been in a drought for 15 years, and so we are very mindful of how we use water, how we recycle water. We pay a lot of attention to how much we use. In terms of air quality, we've been aware for a long time that there are fires. Two years ago the fires were so extensive that we couldn't even open up our own windows here. So we were familiar with face masks before the pandemic. We have again tried to address that. We have air purifiers in each room. Plug-in air purifiers. But you have to realize with a huge space such as this, we would have had to install something much heftier. But what we're trying to do is what we can do. So we did invest in air purifiers for each room. That was really initially to deal with the particulate matter from the fires. We're also not that far from a major freeway interchange, so there is that as well. The air quality is a very big deal to us and we're aware of it.

AC: Do you run the purifiers all the time because of the proximity to the highway or is it more when there is a fire?

KZ: We run them a lot. When there are fires they run 24 hours. There have been a few other times when I've just left them on overnight. But over a weekend, for example, if no one's going to be here I will turn them off.  

AC: Do you have a way of monitoring the air?

KZ: No we do not. That would be difficult. Also, given the height of the main workspace, that main workroom is just enormous. I mean it really is. So this is just looking down, but you get an idea– here, there's our one heater. It's a very big space.

AC: It's a very big volume.

KZ: I know that when we start the work week we usually come in and make sure we wipe off all the tables, just to make sure they're dust free. I think that would be done almost anywhere, but during fire season, which unfortunately now is almost year round, we are very aware of particulate matter. That's one of our biggest obstacles.

AC: Wow. So you actually notice more on your rag when there's a fire going?

KZ: I think last year was one of the most startling times when the fires were so huge and they weren't all that close to us but the way the winds were prevailing. It was in the newspapers. The sky turned black and it was shocking. People didn't even want to drive through it. So we are very aware of what's going on. We can also, if necessary, if we're concerned about some fire that might be happening closer to our studio, I can go up some ladders and get on the roof. I have a clear view of the entire surrounding area.

AC: I'm far from California but when I see the photos in the news it's apocalyptic. It's very scary.

KZ: It was last year, and that's what everybody's opinion was. It was terrifying, and of course that particulate matter stayed in the air for quite some time.

AC: We are about 10 minutes away from the official end of our webinar and I just want to remind the participants to enter any questions they might have in the Q&A. While I give people a chance to do that, maybe you could talk about everything you do to recycle and reuse your waste. We're past buildings a little bit, but you go to great pains even in a town where there should probably be pretty good recycling accessibility. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

(34:46 Recycling and reusing materials)

KZ:  Well, I am the head of recycling for this whole building, so it's been something that I've been involved in and have been researching for the entire time I've been in this building. Which I should have mentioned: I've been here for 32 years. Over those decades the ability to recycle has changed dramatically. It used to be that there were more places that would take plastics, for example, that would take glass and cans and would take solvents. You know, used solvents. All of that has diminished greatly. So we've constantly had to change our idea of what we can use and what we can't. Our organic solvent use is pretty minimal, but there is a place we can take them, which is great. It's the same place you would take old paint, chemicals, anything that certainly can't be disposed of easily.

In terms of paper, we can recycle paper for a long time. We were using an inordinate amount of blotting paper, and we found a paper maker who loved getting even stained blotting papers. She would take them, tear them up, and put them in a Hollander Beater and make paper out of them.

Our biggest issue is water. We use a huge amount of water.

(37:00 Q&A: Reusing water)

AC: Actually we have a question in the Q&A:  If you could talk a little bit more about how you recycle the water.

KZ: Okay, this won't be as pleasant but:  We have a fair number of buckets. After we use water in the sink or in the tray, we put it in the buckets and we either use it to water the landscaping out in the courtyard, or we use it to flush the toilets. That’s mostly what we use it for. So there's a little bucket brigade that goes across the catwalk every day, pretty much. I feel a little guilty about how much water we use, but I'm constantly trying to find another application for it. There is a lot of landscaping within this courtyard, which makes it attractive. I water it with the water that doesn't have chemicals in it— maybe it has some calcium hydroxide in it. I water the plants and we flush the toilets with it.

AC: I love that. Why not?

KZ: You know, it's a kind of a do-it-yourself way of going about it. We've given up paper towels. We only have towels that we can wash. We've given up all kinds of plastic containers. One of the other great advantages, and I hope this won't get too far afield: There's a great refill store in our neighborhood where we can take any container and get cleaning products. Personal care products, even food items. They have no plastic, it's only metal or glass. That's where we get all of our laundry soap, our dish soap. Nothing comes in paper or plastic anymore. It's almost impossible to avoid entirely, but I'm always going to that store to see if I can get more ideas of what I can use that will replace something that's not particularly recyclable or sustainable. Even if it's bamboo toothbrushes.

(39:32 Q&A: Building materials and buffering environment)

AC: Right. I do have another question. We're going to try to get through these as quick as we can. Do you think the wood in your building buffers any of the fluctuations in humidity?

KZ: I do because it's old cedar and it's quite substantial in its width. There's also a little bit of an overhang in the very front of the building. I'm sitting on the other side of those front windows and it's actually shaded to some degree. So yes, all of that wood, which is old, does help. I think the brick is much more of an insulating factor.

(40:22 Q&A: Buying sustainable materials)

AC: Interesting. Another question is: Is it getting easier to get lower impact packaging materials to send items home with clients as an example, or is our supply stream still difficult? Also, if you have contractors in for any work on the building complex, are you able to influence their waste and supply streams in any way?

KZ: Getting materials for packing is a problem. It's not the access to them. It's the quality and the cost. We still can get good quality materials, it's just getting them shipped out to California which is prohibitive very often. So that hasn't been a problem. We save everything we possibly can. So for example, if we get large containers that hold something, we save the cardboard. We reuse the cardboard to make our packages. We just line it with maybe an acid free paper. We reuse everything we possibly can.

In terms of contractors coming in here, that really is not a factor. That hasn't been a problem. We have made a few modifications to the interior. We've put in some sound insulation, but that was a very long time ago. So no, we haven't had any problems. I would say that for the most part, the interior of this building has remained the same as it was 32 years ago. I've just put in more earthquake bracing as is necessary. I had someone from OSHA come out to this building. I will say after the big earthquake in ‘89 it was retrofitted, and it didn't suffer any damage. But I had someone from OSHA come in the first year I was here, who recommended additional bracing and bracketing because I have these big long peirs inside.

You can get an idea of how big: I don't have pictures of the bracing throughout, but everything is held together with a lot of metal.

(43:02 Q&A: Water filtration system)

AC: Another water question: Do you use a water filtering system or not, because this person's reverse osmosis system wastes so much water.

KZ: We have a water filtration system but it's not reverse osmosis. I am familiar with the fact that those tend to use a lot of water to produce that quality that's necessary. We have a universal filter that filters out the larger particulate matter and then something that brings the water not quite to distilled. That has worked well for us. It's an interesting question. Every day, when we first turn on the water in our big sink, we test the pH because it varies wildly depending on what the water source is. Because it changes for this area. So we like to know what the pH of the water is just coming out of the tap, which has gone through the filter. The filtration system doesn't affect pH. It's been as low as pH5 and it's been as high as pH7. I have to know on a daily basis what we're starting with, to know how to adjust that water to where we can use it for paper.

(44:34 Closing remarks)

AC: We’re at time. We're actually a minute past. There are still some questions and I'm very sorry we didn't get to them. Stephanie Watkins also says “Hello and thank you, and keep up the good work! You're an inspiration to us all”. I would agree with that for sure. I'm really really grateful that you were able to be here to share your experience and your eco-mindedness. It's very obvious that it infuses your whole life, and it's inspirational. It really is the way to make changes, is to keep it top of mind, and then put those thoughts and values into action. So thank you so much. Thank you to everybody for being here. Thanks to Elena at AIC for logistical help. Remember to look out for our June webinar. In May the registration information for that will go out. If you're attending the AIC annual meeting, please make sure to sign the green attendee pledge and check out the Sustainability Committee's “Breath of Fresh Air” activity in lieu of a session of talks. Thank you again, Karen, take care.

KZ: Thank you. Thanks so much!

Have more questions?

Contact the Speakers

  • Karen Zukor, zukorart@sbcglobal.net