Melanie Gifford ’73
Conserving paintings and sustaining Marlboro
“I think that Marlboro College brings something that other academic institutions rarely do, which is the chance to explore on your own terms far more broadly than would be expected from a typical program of education,” says Melanie Gifford ’73. She should know, as her Marlboro experience prepared her for a fascinating career as a research conservator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. “I think what Marlboro did for me was to sustain a sense that everything is fodder for my train of thought.”
Melanie did her Plan on the life and work of Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, inviting the great Columbia University art history scholar Julius Held as her outside examiner. She went on to get master’s degrees in both art history and art conservation, learning the chemistry and organic chemistry she needed along the way, and later receiving her PhD in art history from University of Maryland. “What the Plan of Concentration did for me, for my future career, was first and foremost to bring me into the study of art history in a rigorous, scholarly way,” she says.
As a research conservator for painting technology in the Scientific Research Department at the National Gallery, Melanie conducts research to help conserve the precious works of Vermeer, Rubens, van Eyck, and other Dutch and Flemish masters. But she also explores the ways these artists made their paintings, studying cross-sections of microscopic paint fragments to discover their techniques and choices, layer by layer.
“By understanding how these works were created, there are times when I feel as if I’m looking over the shoulder of the artist and watching the decisions they make from day to day,” says Melanie. Her current project is looking at microscopic material evidence to characterize three distinct stages in Rubens’s development of the dramatic painting The Fall of Phaeton. “This is a deeply emotional connection that sustains me every day.”
Melanie’s continued appreciation for the role Marlboro played in her career trajectory has led her to be a sustaining giver at the college, having a small amount drawn from her account each month for a large cumulative impact.
“I choose to be a sustaining giver because I really support Marlboro’s educational mission and because sustaining is quite simply the easiest way to do it. Life is busy, and I know that what I can afford to give is being given to Marlboro at all times. As someone who recognizes that Marlboro is a small place, with limited resources, I think it’s really important for those of us who have managed to earn a living to share that with the college.”
Melanie has one more reason for her continued interest and support in the college, her son Tim Bedford ’17, who transferred to Marlboro to complete his degree in music with a Plan focusing on electronic music and improvisation.
“I think it was the perfect place for Tim. He has a very eclectic mind, and he brings new perspectives to everything he works on. Marlboro allowed him to expand his music degree with all sorts of other study and weave it together into a really fascinating package.”
“Marlboro’s wide-ranging appreciation of all the disciplines and how they come together, at one time, in one mind, on one problem, is essential preparation for the future. Marlboro students are people who can work in all sorts of environments, who can tackle new problems unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. I think that kind of creative thinking is absolutely essential to the future of the world, and that’s why I am a sustaining giver to Marlboro.”
Relationship to Marlboro