Asian art conservation effort imperiled by upcoming retirements

 
Loading...

By Tish Wells McClatchy Washington Bureau

The Freer Gallery of Art in Washington hopes to save Asian artworks for future generations. But first, it has to save Grace Jan’s job.

Jan is the assistant Chinese-painting conservator in the museum’s Chinese Painting Conservation Program. A lack of funding imperils her position.The museum wants to see Jan develop into a senior Chinese-painting conservator, like her colleague Gu Xiang-mei. There are only four in the U.S., and they are aging.

“We are at a critical point here, because Gu and other conservators working here in the States are reaching retirement,” said W. Andrew Hare, the supervisor of East Asian painting conservation, whose specialties are Chinese and Japanese paintings. “So it’s very important that we pass that knowledge, that information, on to the next generation. Unfortunately, up to now there hasn’t been that much opportunity because of lack of funds.”

A $1 million challenge grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will go to endow the position of an assistant Chinese painting conservator in the Freer Gallery of Art’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, which oversees the Chinese painting program. The Freer needs to match the grant with $750,000 by 2016.

In 1904, Charles Freer gave his personal collection of American and Asian art to the Smithsonian Institution; the gallery opened in 1923.

Even with careful handling, 100 years take their toll on delicate artwork. The Freer rotates its art; every six months the works are swapped out for new pieces and the originals won’t appear again for five years.

“Once you’ve faded an image, you can’t bring it back,” Hare said. “So that ongoing care is very important to what we do.”

The museum started the East Asian Painting Conservation Studio in 1932. Grants have funded the Chinese Painting Conservation Program, which began in 2001. It offers practical instruction in restoring and remounting Chinese paintings, replacing or restoring the silk on scrolls, and other museum operations, including working with the curators on exhibits.

For example, some of the older paintings were mounted on acidic paper backings, which deteriorate eventually. They’ll be remounted on new Red Star rice paper bought in China, which is not acidic.

Senior conservator Gu Xiang-mei, who arrived in 1991, trains her apprentices the way she was trained, with traditional, hands-on, practical, and sometimes tedious, work.

The Shanghai Museum chose Gu when China restarted its arts programs after the Cultural Revolution. “From 1966 to 1972, no any work, all stop,” she said. “So that’s a pity.”

Gu said she was lucky to be considered for museum training. “They were looking for a younger generation,” she said. She started working with scrolls and paintings in 1973. “We work eight hours a day, six days a week,” she said of her training years. “We work like a team.”Teamwork also is key to the conservation efforts taught at the Freer.

“These are skills that are learned through hands-on practice,” Hare said. “It takes years and years of experience working with a trained individual, working with actual art objects, to learn all the important details, all the methods, to get all the knowledge you need to carefully take care of these objects.”

Jan, the assistant conservator, studied at The Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, then went on to graduate work. In her final two years, she did an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then went to China. She spent seven months at the Shanghai Museum and four months at Beijing’s Palace Museum working with the conservation staff there. She started at the Freer in 2009.

“I’m the first student to do Chinese paintings but . . . there’s no position,” said Jan, who added that other students at the Freer studied Japanese art conservation. “The Freer has been really great to support me the last couple of years. It’s been a great experience.”

Email: twells@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: TishWells1

Read more World Wires stories from the Miami Herald

  • Lawyers in 9/11 at Gitmo case seek to question FBI

    Lawyers for five men charged in the Sept. 11 attack are seeking to question the FBI about an apparent investigation of defense team personnel in the case.

  • uFly fires flight simulator who appeared on CNN

    A Canadian flight simulator business fired an instructor who figured prominently in CNN's coverage of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, saying he showed up late to his regular job and "shamed Canadians" by dressing like a teenager.

  • Nigeria: 100-plus kidnapped students free

    Scores of female students kidnapped by Islamic militants from a northeastern Nigerian school are free, Nigeria's military reported Wednesday.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category