Why is the Mellon Foundation Bullish on Art Conservation?

Back in the halcyon days of the mid-'90s, guidance counselors and professors would tell liberal arts students, "Major in a subject that you like." If you like art history, major in art history. If you like Immanuel Kant, major in philosophy. Unfortunately, that inspiring and idealistic advice seems slightly less practical in today's still-depressed economy when Ph.Ds can't find steady employment. Bummer.

But what if there was a third way? What if, instead of deciding between a career in being an Ezra Pound scholar versus a hedge fund manager, liberal arts students could navigate some middle ground, pursuing an artistic endeavor while also not working at a juice bar until the age of 46? Fortunately they can, and foundations like Mellon are making it happen.

The Mellon Foundation is bullish on art conservation. Given the incredible advances in conservation and restoration technologies they rightfully see it as an ascendant profession. Furthermore, they equally rightfully see it as a tremendously viable career path for ex-visual artists who concluded that a lifetime of abject poverty and insufferable cocktail parties wasn't for them.

Case in point: The foundation just doled out a $1 million challenge grant to provide University of Delaware Art Conservation graduate students with an increased stipend of $20,500 per student. The Mellon gift challenges the University to match $1 million by August 1, 2017. An additional $275,000 was awarded in spendable funds for more immediate stipend support.

As one of only five art conservation graduate programs in North America, the Art Conservation program is on the cutting edge of their field. The school receives nearly a hundred applications for the program's ten positions. Prerequisites include extensive course work in chemistry, studio art, art history, anthropology, and at least 400 hours of conservation experience, though the average experience for successful applicants often exceeds 2,000.

And if you require further evidence that Mellon doesn't view art conservation as a static, boring job relegated to bleary-eyed technicians in lab coats, it recently awarded a $1.75 million grant to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) for the creation of its Artist Initiative project, which incorporates living artists in its approach to art conservation and collections research.

In other words, Mellon views conservation as a living, fluid, and ever-changing thing that can actually provide liberal arts graduates with a reasonable paycheck. What a concept.