Does Mellon's Grant to SF MOMA Herald the Future of Art Conservation?

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation 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.

The Artist Initiative aims to:

  • Increase collaboration among conservators, curators, and artists.
  • Advance SFMOMA's expertise in documenting artists' methods and add to its knowledge about contemporary art practice.
  • Share these findings more broadly with leading scholars and the public.

In other words, living artists will have a hand in how their art is collected and conversed about now, in the present, while they are still roaming the Earth. Two immediate questions therefore come to mind. The first one involves the classic "chicken or egg" argument. Do foundations and their funding decisions dictate the pace and nature of change in the art world, or are they simply responding to demand created by the market and artists themselves? We venture to argue that it's a little of both. Technology is rapidly changing the scope of art conservation and foundations like Mellon, thankfully, are around to give it a little nudge.

This brings us to our second question: Is "living" arts conservation the wave of the future? The evidence seems to suggest yes. As noted, technology has revolutionized the concept of art history. Social media, advanced archiving techniques, and mobile computing make it easy for visitors to interact with artists in the present. As a result, the creation, preservation, and appreciation of art has become a collaborative experience. No longer is a painter toiling away in solitude. Now he or she can connect with Facebook followers the moment his or her piece is hung.

We'll leave the question as to whether or not this is a good thing for the art world to other more opinionated commentators. In the meantime, we can safely characterize the Mellon-funded Artist Initiative as one of the more forward-looking examples of living art conservation we've seen.

The emergence of this new collaborative field is also good news for art students and organizations seeking funding. As recently as five years ago, art students could turn to art conservation as a career choice with one minor caveat: it wasn't particularly exciting. As noted by Jill Sterrett, SFMOMA's director of collections and conversation, the practice was "traditionally thought of as a solitary pursuit in backrooms of museums." Yet this new, living art conversation is anything but solitary. It's built on collaboration, it spans disciplines, and it employs technology in an innovative manner. Seems like good news all around to us.