The Need for More East Asia Art Conservation Specialists

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Pinfang Zhu (left) and Yi-Hsia Hsiao (right) wet cleaning Ancestor Portrait, photo by Yi-Hsia Hsiao; courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The conservation of cultural heritage from East Asia, namely traditional paintings and scrolls, requires the masterful use of techniques and materials quite different from those used in Western or European conservation practices. Unfortunately, as more of these East Asia art conservation specialists have retired in the last decade, there has not been an equivalent in-coming of new specialists to take their places.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation took note of this growing dearth, especially within the United States, and in 2012 met with several major American collections of East Asian paintings to discuss their needs and solutions moving forward.

In reaction to this meeting, plans for several new initiatives and museum centers dedicated to the preservation of East Asia art collections have been put into motion.

In 2018 the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), with its exceptional collection of Chinese paintings (which spans the 10th to 21st centuries), announced the establishment of The June and Simon K.C. Li Center for Chinese Paintings Conservation as a center for training and mentorship within this specialization.

A meeting with The Mellon Foundation also put into motion the Seattle Asian Art Museum’s (SAAM) new Asian painting conservation center, thanks in part to a 2017 Mellon grant. The focus at SAAM’s this new painting conservation center will primarily be to help in the treatment of artworks from other collections. The Museum is currently closed for renovations and is slated to reopen in the fall of 2019.

Other museums, including the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have received support from The Mellon Foundation to create endowed fellowships for East Asia painting conservators.

Those involved in these efforts are hopeful that, with the inevitable retirement of more East Asia art conservation specialists in the coming years, the profession will be ready with newly trained professionals and up-to-date facilities to not only preserve these special collections, but to also carry on the traditional practices required for their on-going preservation.

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The conservation of cultural heritage from East Asia, namely traditional paintings and scrolls, requires the masterful use of techniques and materials quite different from those used in Western or European conservation practices. Unfortunately, as more of these East Asia art conservation specialists have retired in the last decade, there has not been an equivalent in-coming of new specialists to take their places.
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