Cleveland Museum of Art Establishes Center to Conserve Chinese Art

[courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art]
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Institutions that hold collections of Chinese art are facing a crisis. The number of Chinese painting conservators is rapidly shrinking.

“Most of the conservators in the field came from China shortly after the Cultural Revolution, but also up until the late 1980s. They are about five to 10 years away from retirement, and there weren’t any junior conservators taking over their legacy,” said Per Knutas, chief conservator at the Cleveland Museum of Art. 

Several years ago, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation invited a group of American museums, including Cleveland Museum of Art, to discuss the future of the field and if any institutions were interested in setting up a training center to teach new conservators.

Given the Cleveland Museum of Art’s highly regarded Chinese painting collection, Knutas felt it would be in the museum’s best interest to establish such a center.

“We have one of the best collections of Chinese paintings in the country. To respectfully conserve them, we need the expertise on staff,” he said.

Knutas said that learning to become Asian painting conservators has a different set of requirements than other types of conservancy, which may have been a driving factor in the limited number of candidates.

“In addition to going through a graduate program, the conservators are required to work 10 years under a master. There are also language skills required, either Chinese, Japanese or Korean. It’s quite an undertaking to go into the field, so I think it was one of the barriers in the past.

With a grant from the Mellon Foundation and a recently announced matching gift from retired curator June Li and her husband, Simon, of California, the Cleveland Museum of Art is now home to the Li Center for Chinese Paintings Conservation.

Knutas sees this as an important step in both preserving works and providing a place for a new generation of conservators to be trained.

“It is a game changer for the field in the US. It will not only preserve the object, but the legacy of the profession. I’m very proud that Cleveland took that step, because we will be one of the driving forces of this initiative,” he said.

With the establishment of the Li Center, the Cleveland Museum of Art becomes just the fourth institution in the United States with a dedicated lab for the preservation of Chinese paintings.

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