Midwest Art Conservation Center staff conduct conservation of "Processional image in the form of a fantastic bird" at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Conservation connection: MN couple brings art back to life

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By Tim Gihring //

Kevin and Leela Scattum were meeting with a couple of curators from Mia when Pujan Gandhi, the museum’s Jane Emison Assistant Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art, showed them a photo of a fantastical swan. The enormous sculpture, now at Mia, was created more than a century ago for a temple in India.

The temple turned out to be very close to Leela’s hometown, in the southwestern state of Kerala. “It was a huge personal connection,” says Leela.

Midwest Art Conservation Center staff work on an Indian processional sculpture at Mia in the fall of 2020.

The swan bust, about 10 feet tall, was once atop a much larger structure, an effigy of the Hindu goddess Kali that was carried during the annual Pooram Padayani festival. It was constructed in the 1800s from some rather delicate materials—paper, tiny mirrors, the wings of a coconut rhinoceros beetle—and was in rough shape when it was acquired by Mia in 2019. Before it could be displayed, the piece needed conservation.

Kevin and Leela, who live in North Oaks, stepped forward to help pay for it. “Given the connection for us, and the possibility that this could be a major piece in the galleries, we thought, why not help with that?” Leela says.

Kevin has been coming to Mia since the 1970s, when he took at an art history course at the University of Minnesota, and Leela has found a sense of composure there. “I’m a numbers person,” she says. “Looking at art helps me relax.” Eventually, they came to appreciate conservation, the idea that a painting or sculpture could be restored to its former luster, and perhaps go on view for the first time. An enormous impact, Kevin notes, yet a chronically underfunded aspect of most museums.

The swan was repaired just in time to assume a prominent place in the newly configured South and Southeast Asian galleries, on the second floor of Mia. It’s so satisfying on so many levels to see it there, says Leela. She’s still marveling over the sculpture’s sudden appearance in Minnesota, a link between her past and present: “What are the odds?”