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Art restoration business spreads wings into Asia


State-run art conservation organisation Artlab Australia is gaining an international reputation for its restoration work.

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Artlab Australia is responsible for the conservation programs of extensive collections in Adelaide, including at the State Library, Art Gallery of SA and several public museums.

But a business model that requires the organisation to raise a third of its budget through commercial work has resulted in it developing a body of clients beyond the state’s borders.

Staff have recently returned from restoring three large external wall paintings at a centuries-old Chinese temple in Taiwan, while Artlab director Andrew Durham last month signed a memorandum of understanding with the Shandong Museum in China.

“We’re funded by the South Australian Government through Arts South Australia but what makes us unique anywhere in the world, in my experience, is that we receive that funding but then we earn half as much again doing commercial work,” Durham said.

“We’re always looking for opportunities in Australia and overseas.”

The recent restoration work in Taiwan involved treating the temple’s walls, which had been damaged by rising damp, causing the paintings to crack and peel.

Durham said the paintings were consolidated using an adhesive after the rising damp was treated and then the areas between the cracks were “in-painted”.

“There are various approaches and each case is different, to a degree. We have a consultation on each artefact and come up with a way of doing it,” he said.

Unique art restoration business spreads wings into Asia

Artlab’s restoration work includes many types of artefacts including sculptures, books, documents, textiles and historic paintings.

“We’ve got a stove here at the moment we are working with that’s been on the bottom of the ocean for 150 years,” Durham said.

Artlab staff have previously worked on high-profile pieces such as the restoration of the sari Indira Gandhi was wearing when she was assassinated in 1984. The garment is now on display at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum.

The organisation also restored the original 1854 Eureka Stockade flag, an iconic symbol of democracy in Australia.

Durham said Artlab had developed a strong reputation for its work in Australia and internationally.

He said the additional commercial work allowed the organisation, which has about 25 full-time employees, to maintain a broad spectrum of expertise.

Durham visited China last month as part of a 160-strong delegation of government leaders and representatives of more than 100 South Australian companies on a business mission to coincide with the 30th anniversary of South Australia’s sister state relationship with Shandong.

He said he was hopeful the memorandum of understanding and other major projects in the area – such as the Qingdao Bay Old Town Reconstruction Project and a $50 million, five-year project to repair artworks on the ancient buildings that comprise the Confucius temple in Shandong – would lead to further work in the region.

“This is why we do go to China; we could just stay here but I think it’s very important to be part of the wider picture,” Durham said.

“Priorities are shifting and worldwide it’s becoming massive and China probably epitomises that.”

This article was first published on The Lead.

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