Mellon Grant Provides Much-Needed Boost for Art Conservation

Times are particularly tough in the field of art conservation. Simply put, there's not much money. For example, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recently announced that it would scale back funding for conservation in favor of supporting new and emerging artists. But all is not lost.

For starters, the foundation provided a caveat to its previous announcement, noting that its initial gifts served their desired purpose of getting conservation programs off the ground at recipient institutions. In essence, the training wheels have come off, and the foundation believes that additional financial assistance isn't warranted. All in all, good news. Secondly, the money hasn't completely dried up. Case in point: We recently learned that the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian's museums of Asian art, were recipients of a grant from — you guessed it — the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the creation of an assistant Chinese painting conservator.

Despite the foundation's previous warnings that conservation funding would ebb, it seems Mellon couldn't ignore a particularly urgent need. While the two art museums have a combined collection of close to 2,500 pieces, only four experts in Chinese art conservation currently work in the entire United States. To make matters worse, all of these specialized conservationists are near retirement age. The foundation did the math and was forced to act.

Furthermore, the grant serves a dual purpose of creating a pathway for aspiring conservators, Chinese art or otherwise. This is encouraging because, first and foremost, society needs art conservationists. That's something everyone can agree on. Second, many art students and artists may not consider conservation a viable alternative because, well, there's no money in the field. Conversely, grants such as the one issued by the Mellon Foundation (see IP's guide on the foundation here) inevitably lead to more exposure, thereby making conservation an attractive career option for artists and students alike. And third, while funding for conservation is still relatively scare, this grant can nonetheless provide selected organizations with another angle to attain funding by broadening their scope of arts-related program offerings.