The Mellon Foundation has given the Smithsonian a $1 million grant to endow the next generation of conservators of Chinese painting.
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art, are home to the only program in the U.S. that teaches conservators how to care for delicate and invaluable Chinese paintings.
The new $1 million grant, provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will endow the position of an assistant Chinese painting conservator, who will work closely with a senior conservator in the Freer’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research.
As a condition of the grant, the museum must match it with an additional $750,000 by 2016 in order to receive the Mellon support and endow the position.
A lengthy apprenticeship period, combined with limited U.S.-based resources and educational opportunities, means that a shrinking number of experts are available to care for growing—and increasingly fragile—museum collections of Chinese paintings. This endowment, and the mid-level position it creates, will provide both a career pathway to aspiring conservators and the teaching structure necessary to create a new generation of master conservators in the field.
“This program is crucial to the future of Chinese painting conservation, creating the ideal educational climate for research, collaboration and exchange,” said Julian Raby, The Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art. “Matching this endowment will be an important investment in protecting some of the most fragile treasures in U.S. museums.”
While there are thousands of such works in U.S. museums—including more than 2,500 in the Freer and Sackler galleries’ collections—there are only four senior Chinese painting conservators in the U.S. to care for them, all of whom are close to retirement.
The training required to preserve such treasures is complex, lengthy and highly specialized. Since treating damaged paintings is an extremely exacting process—based on experience, ingenuity and a deep understanding of the materials—it requires both formal education and several years of apprenticeship under a senior conservator. Traditional conservation techniques were developed in China over centuries and are passed down from generation to generation in established studios.
The Freer’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research is world-renowned for the care and study of Asian artwork, and frequently hosts conservation interns and fellows who travel from Asia, Europe and around the U.S. to train with Xiangmei Gu, the museum’s senior Chinese painting conservator. Many of her trainees now hold positions at prestigious institutions in Asia and in the west.
Gu has served as a leading force in the effort to ensure the preservation of the skills and knowledge of traditional Chinese painting conservation. She trained for 15 years in China before coming to the United States in 1987, and combines years of study in traditional technique with a knowledge of recent scientific discoveries and best practices from other cultures. Grace Jan, the current assistant Chinese painting conservator, has a graduate degree in paper conservation from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and has interned in Chinese museums and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Equipped with specialty tools and materials sourced from Asia, the Freer’s Chinese Painting Conservation Studio performs specialized treatments onsite, from minor repairs to full remountings of rare Chinese artworks. The conservators’ experience guides the decision-making process, such as when to clean a painting with water, when to perform local repairs and when to completely remount layers of silk, paper and starch adhesive. Culling from the expertise of different Asian and Western traditions, they are also able to share best practices with the field at large, through safe handling, display and storage workshops, and by providing research opportunities for hands-on study.