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Omaha Magazine

The Story Behind Kenneth Bé: The Conscientious Conservator

Mar 01, 2021 11:37AM ● By Leo Adam Biga
Kenneth Bé sits amid historic portraits

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kenneth Bé has the distinction of being Nebraska’s only paintings conservator. Since 2008, he’s plied his expertise at the regional Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center in Omaha, treating works on just about any imaginable surface.

He filled a similar role at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where, he said, “I worked on nothing but the best of the best from one of the best collections in the United States.” After getting laid off in 2005 due to downsizing, he found opportunity here in Omaha. In assuming the then-newly created endowed position, he got carte blanche to outfit the lab to his specs.

As a Yale undergrad, he studied geology and art history. His earth sciences interest was influenced by his father, who studied microscopic ocean sediment fossils as global climate change markers. The field of art conservation swayed Bé when a Yale art history professor placed a framed watercolor by Anthony van Dyck in his lap. “I became very attracted to the idea of being a trained conservator who could do close physical examinations of works and have some impact on them,” he said. He feels obliged “to not only preserve works for the future, but help restore or bring pieces closer back to their original appearance or intent.” 

The New York state native learned his field’s painstaking techniques at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. The serene Bé’s appreciation for art and history reflects a yearning for the “quieter, more focused world of the past” versus today’s white noise. His parents were from the Indonesian island of Java, but were of Chinese ancestry. He feels the deep well of his cultural heritage. 

Paralleling his art history enthusiasm is an interest in Renaissance and Baroque music. Just as he’s steeped in “the pigments, varnishes, and old materials of paintings from the past,” he revels “in the sounds, textures, and spirit of music of the past,” particularly Renaissance lute music. A lute player himself, Bé sometimes performs with early music instrumentalists and singers, and owns a library of facsimiles of early music manuscripts. 

In addition, Bé plays guitar and the viola de gamba, or viol, and his life partner is also an early flute player. Whereas there is a social aspect to his music passion, he said, “in conservation I’m a little bit more of a loner.”

He said both his music avocation and art conservation, “get to understanding a period” in the way literature and architecture do. Just as he gives new life to early music, he makes worn artifacts new again. When conserving a painting, he said, the idea is to “do as little as possible.” 

“When you have to do a reconstruction of a missing part or color or section of a painting, you have to use restorative skills.”

He may spend days preparing the back of a painting before ever touching the front. It’s all about respecting the integrity of the work. 

Conservation’s meticulous skill set “requires a knowledge of chemistry,
physics, and biology.” 

“It uses knowledge of the history of materials and how they were used to make art,” he said. “It also uses hand skills akin to what one would develop in a studio. You need a lot of patience to do repetitive procedures and gestures. You have to pay attention to the minutiae of things.” The reward is “you can get sometimes quite magnificent, startling end results when you do things the right way.”

There’s a story behind every work he examines.

“Every work we receive comes to us (from museums, galleries, collectors) in a certain condition that is the sum total of its history—ranging from perfect to highly compromised by all kinds of things,” Bé said. Mishandling, vandalism, and even well-meaning but ill-fated attempts of previous art conservators can also play a role. “Each piece has moved from place to place, owner to owner, until it arrives in my lab.”

Just as paintings take different journeys, the problems they present vary and, he said, “they can be very interesting,” such as one painting whose center was worn away by an errant vacuum. 

One satisfying project involved a 1948 mural by then-Joslyn Art Museum director Eugene Kingman, created for the New York Times headquarters. Kingman completed the work at Joslyn, and its cartographic depiction of the Western Hemisphere greeted Times’ staff and visitors for decades until it was taken down. A local interest group arranged for its return to Omaha, where Bé removed the grime. It now hangs in the W. Dale Clark Library lobby.

He cleaned “deeply discolored” varnish from the 1899 Thomas Moran painting “The Pearl of Venice” as an educational outreach in a gallery at Joslyn, where it resides in their permanent collection. “That was a first,” said Bé , who enjoys explaining his work to the public. Last winter he shared his livelihood with a statewide audience for an NET “Nebraska Stories” segment, taking viewers through the phases of cleaning and restoring the 1888 painting “The First Homestead” by Gusta Strohm. 

Most works he treats come from the metro. He’s also retained clients from back East. “They have stuck with me, so they still come to me with work,” he said. He sometimes travels to treat things, including a painted opera theater curtain in Kearney, Nebraska, various paintings in the Hallmark Art Collection in Kansas City, Missouri, a church altar mural in Kansas, and works at the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln.

Sheldon registrar Stacey Walsh said his calm, considered demeanor when assessing a work’s stability can allay fears it’s too far gone for display or travel. She said his trained eye sees just what needs care, and his trusted hand makes repair or treatment without leaving a trace.  

The Joslyn also defers to Bé’s expertise. “Kenneth has been a terrific resource for the museum,” said executive director and CEO Jack Becker. Bé conserves select Joslyn works or assesses their travel-worthiness.

Bé estimates he’s completed 1,200 projects during his Omaha tenure. Typically, he juggles 40 to 60 projects in different stages. 

“Unfortunately, the work flow is a little down right now,” he said, due to pandemic disruptions. “I would love to have more work.”

It’s vital his lab and the adjacent paper and objects labs stay busy, since the Ford Center depends on the revenue their projects generate. 

Bé unwinds by sampling the area arts scene. He also indulges a love for flying kites. Not just any kites, but giant, vividly colored dragon kites. A large open field off Abbott Drive is his go-to site. He’s also participated in Kite Flight, a Callaway, Nebraska, festival that attracts aficionados from around the U.S. and world, known for its wind currents and eclectic entries. “It’s a very special place,” he said.

Omaha has become home for this cosmopolitan conservator. “I’ve made some close friendships since I’ve been out here,” he said. “It’s been a good life.” 

Editor's Note: This story has been altered from the print version to correct factual errors. 

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This article was printed in the March/April 2021 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe. 

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