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Freer/Sackler receives $1M Andrew W. Mellon Grant to preserve art of Chinese painting conservation
The museum must match the grant with an additional $750,000 by 2016 in order to receive the Mellon support and endow the position. Photo: Courtesy of the Freer and Sackler Galleries.
WASHINGTON, DC.- The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian's museums of Asian art, are home to the only program in the U.S. that teaches conservators how to care for delicate and invaluable Chinese paintings. The museums announced today that a new $1 million conditional grant, provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will endow the position of an assistant Chinese painting conservator, who will work closely with a senior conservator in the Freer's Department of Conservation and Scientific Research.

A lengthy apprenticeship period, combined with limited U.S.-based resources and educational opportunities, means that a shrinking number of experts are available to care for growing-and increasingly fragile-museum collections of Chinese paintings. This endowment, and the mid-level position it creates, will provide both a career pathway to aspiring conservators and the teaching structure necessary to create a new generation of master conservators in the field.

The museum must match the grant with an additional $750,000 by 2016 in order to receive the Mellon support and endow the position.

"This program is crucial to the future of Chinese painting conservation, creating the ideal educational climate for research, collaboration and exchange," said Julian Raby, The Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art. "Matching this endowment will be an important investment in protecting some of the most fragile treasures in U.S. museums."

While there are thousands of such works in U.S. museums--including more than 2500 in the Freer and Sackler galleries' collections--there are only four senior Chinese painting conservators to care for them, all of whom are close to retirement.

The training required to preserve such treasures is complex, lengthy and highly specialized. Since treating damaged paintings is an extremely exacting process-based on experience, ingenuity and a deep understanding of the materials-it requires both formal education and several years of apprenticeship under a senior conservator. Traditional conservation techniques were developed in China over centuries and are passed down from generation to generation in established studios.

Equipped with specialty tools and materials sourced from Asia, the Freer's Chinese Painting Conservation Studio performs specialized treatments onsite, from minor repairs to full remountings of rare Chinese artworks. The conservators' experience guides the decision-making process, such as when to clean a painting with water, when to perform local repairs and when to completely remount layers of silk, paper and starch adhesive.

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