Career Path: The Logic of Campus Giving for Art Conservation

In a recent post looking at an anonymous $10 million gift to the University of North Carolina's (UNC) School of the Arts to advance a graduate program in gaming and virtual reality, I noted that donors are increasingly keen on funding alternate career paths for art students.

We see this play out most commonly in the field of art conservation. Donors have been supporting efforts to steer artists down the art conservation career path for decades. It's the most obvious option out there. 

For corroborating evidence about art conservation's appeal to campus donors, we turn to Buffalo, New York, where Patricia and Richard Garman donated $4 million to SUNY Buffalo State College to support students who enter the competitive and internationally recognized Art Conservation graduate program, one of only four such programs in the country.

The Garmen donation represents the largest ever one-time gift in the school's history. (Indeed, it's been an exciting few months in Buffalo's arts community. Back in late September the city's Albright-Knox Art Gallery received a $42.5 million donation from Los Angeles financier Jeffrey Gundlach.)

"The gift will allow us to offer fellowships to the most talented individuals across the country interested in pursuing art conservation careers" and "solidifies our ability to provide graduate students with fellowship funding so they can live and not have to take out horrendous amounts in student loans," said Patrick Ravines, director of the Art Conservation Department.

Now let's turn to the donors.

Richard Garman is the former president and CEO of Buffalo Crushed Stone and ABC Paving Co. Patricia Garman taught psychiatric nursing and operated a private practice before her death in 2014. The Garmans have also made significant donations to the University at Buffalo and the Western New York Women's Foundation, of which Mrs. Garman was a founding member. The Garmans also supported Roswell Park Cancer Institute and the Girl Scouts.

The Garman gift also fulfills a challenge grant established by perhaps the most active funder in the art conservation space, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In the summer of 2014, Mellon awarded the Art Conservation Department a $1.25 million challenge grant, which required the college to raise an additional $750,000 by June 2017.

Which brings me back to my opening theory regarding art conservation's relative level of maturity. It didn't happen overnight. Not coincidentally, it was Mellon who paved the way. Over two years ago, I wrote a piece titled, "Why Is the Mellon Bullish on Art Conservation?" noting:

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.

The intervening years have seen Mellon maintain a robust level of support plus other major gifts from formidible players like the Grainger Foundation and the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Rothschild Foundation.

Given the amount of money flowing to highly competitive art conservation graduate programs, it's no wonder some donors feel emotionally secure in exploring alternative funding avenues like "creature/animatronic design."