There are more than 35,000 works of art in the Johnson Museum’s permanent collection. As our mission statement makes clear, the Museum “preserves, documents, interprets, and makes accessible its collections for the benefit of current and future generations of museum visitors.” Long-term collections care is critical to ensuring that these resources remain available for the benefit of the university community and the general public. 

Although we regularly address conservation needs, ambitious preservation efforts fall outside of the Museum’s operating budget and require special fundraising. Fortunately, many recent partnerships, successful grant applications, and a new comprehensive plan have allowed us to make significant progress on important collections care.

Ellen Avril, our chief curator and curator of Asian art, initiated a collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, when they proposed a loan of a pair of the Johnson’s Chinese bapo (“Eight Brokens”) paintings. The scrolls had been in need of conservation and remounting since they were donated in the 1980s. The Asian Conservation Studio at the MFA agreed to restore the paintings and divide the cost with the Johnson so that the scrolls could be included in an upcoming MFA exhibition. The conservation of these bapo paintings follows a rewarding series of grants received from organizations including the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation to help us conserve several dozen scrolls and screens in our Asian collections. This November, the Carpenter Foundation awarded $30,000 toward the conservation of an additional two Chinese scrolls and a Tibetan painting.

In 2013, the Museum received a Heritage Preservation Conservation Assessment Program (CAP) grant, supported by the IMLS, to provide an updated collection survey. The CAP report assessed all collection areas but was particularly helpful in guiding the concurrent reinstallation of the first- and second-floor galleries. During this process, Museum staff identified works of European and American art—some of which had not been on view for many years—that needed to be cleaned, lined, or otherwise treated, including the condition of gold leaf and historic frames. Thanks to outstanding work by Kasia Maroney, objects conservator at Boston Restoration in Trumansburg, New York, the majority of the frames in these galleries have now been restored.

To address the most pressing conservation needs, the Museum applied for and was awarded a 2014 Stockman Family Foundation conservation grant, generously matched in full by Museum Advisory Council Vice Chair Susan Lynch. Thanks to these funds, our curators and registrar, Matt Conway, have contracted with several specialized conservators to complete newly identified treatment projects and make significant progress on the backlog.

Two key examples are currently on view on the first floor (see below). The original black velvet on Lee Bontecou’s welded iron, canvas, and wire sculpture had faded to brown after decades of light exposure. Andrea Inselmann, our curator of modern and contemporary art & photography, worked closely with the artist’s studio to select a new, more color-fast velvet. An important minimalist painting, John McLaughlin’s #13, was not on view for many years because of cracking and surface smudges, but was recently conserved by Cranmer Art Group in New York City and installed.

By the end of 2015, fifty artworks and/or period frames were conserved under this initiative, and another dozen are still in treatment. Endowing a fund to care for our permanent collection is an important long-term goal in order to continue the remarkable progress made in these last few years.