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How Museums Are Combatting a Shortage of East Asian Art Conservators

While American collections of East Asian art have grown tremendously, the specialized conservation laboratories that maintain these collections have not.

Tanya Uyeda, Associate Conservator in Asian Conservation and Philip Meredith, Higashiyama Kaii Conservator of Japanese Paintings (image courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

Beginning around the 7th century, artists in East Asia worked with elaborate painting techniques and materials unlike any others used in the history of art. Early Japanese, Chinese, and Korean artists painted on thin sheets of silk or paper, using pigments of carbon-based inks, mineral colors, and vegetable dyes particular to their geographical regions. They framed paintings with mounting silks, which were bonded together by layers of backing paper. They displayed their delicate works using hand scrolls or hanging scrolls with roller bars affixed to each end.

Because early East Asian art is made of such specific materials, its upkeep requires specially trained conservators. While American collections of East Asian paintings have grown tremendously in the past several centuries, the conservation laboratories dedicated to maintaining these collections have not.

Conservator Pinfang Zhu training Yi-Hsia Hsiao with an ancestor portrait (image courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art)

The crisis in conservation of East Asian paintings became evident about a decade ago. All the conservators in the field were approaching retirement, and there were no identifiable up-and-coming practitioners to fill their hyper-specialized positions.

In 2012, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation arranged a meeting with the major American collections of Chinese paintings to discuss how to prevent the breakdown of these invaluable art objects.

The response to this meeting was unprecedented in the conservation field. In 2018, the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) established the Center for Chinese Painting Conservation, which will train Chinese painting conservation fellows starting next year with funding from the Mellon Foundation and a matching gift of $1.5 million from June and Simon K.C. Li. After the preservation of CMA’s permanent collection, the Center will help restore objects from other museums’ Asian art collections as a service to the field and as training for their resident fellows.

The Freer | Sackler, Museum of Fine Arts Boston and The Metropolitan Museum of Art are also expanding their teams of East Asian painting conservators by offering fellowships endowed by The Mellon Foundation, matching grants or private aid. A new Japanese painting fellow started working at the Freer | Sackler last week, funded by the Hirayama Program. The search for a new Mellon Chinese painting conservator will begin this fall to replace the current fellow leaving in May. The MFA Boston has secured conservators through Mellon for over five years. This is the second year for The Met’s Chinese painting fellow position, sponsored by Mellon and a matching grant.

“It’s a huge investment,” Dr. Maxwell Hearn, The Met’s Chairman of Asian Art, told Hyperallergic. “The space, personnel, materials, and expertise alone are hard to sustain. The tradition of Asian painting conservation is an artisan-like craft you learn through apprenticeship, which is not an easy system to maintain. We, the older conservation studios in American museums, have historically relied on bringing talent from Asia.” The presence of only one US-born conservator of Chinese paintings in the field, Grace Jan, currently at the Freer | Sackler, underscores that point.

Chinese conservator Xiangmei Gu and Japanese conservator Jiro Ueda work together to line a large painting while Mellon fellow Zhichao Lyu observes (image courtesy the Freer | Sackler)

Training for East Asian painting conservation is daunting for American students. There are currently four conservation graduate programs in the US that require three to four years of training. A student with appropriate language fluency may enter a 10-year apprenticeship program at a studio in Japan, China, or Korea. In addition to teaching traditional conservation methods, American training centers must acquire supplies from silk weavers and traditional paper makers, most of whom are based in Asia.

These Asian supply chains are made up of “small cottage industries carried out by generation by generation in the country of origin,” Dr. Hearn says. He predicts that the West will always rely on Asia for the essential papers, silks, mounting brocades, and even brushes and tools: “We are beholden to how these crafts are sustained in Korea, China and Japan.” Cleveland’s Center for Chinese Painting Conservation plans to send its fellows to meet suppliers in China, accompanied by museum’s current conservator, Yi-Hsia Hsaio.

Tanya Uyeda, Associate Conservator in Asian Conservation and Philip Meredith, Higashiyama Kaii Conservator of Japanese Paintings (image courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

What about museums that have collections of Chinese, Japanese or Korean paintings but don’t have a specialist trained to conserve them? “Some museums will send paintings to conservators working privately, which, frankly, there are very few,” says Andrew Hare, supervisory East Asian conservator for the Freer | Sackler. “Some will send them to Korea, China, or Japan for treatment. Some will have conservators with basic training apply a remedial treatment.”

Two conservators carefully remove the paper lining from the back of a Buddhist painting on silk (image courtesy the Freer | Sackler)

It was that response and a meeting with The Mellon Foundation that inspired the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) to establish an Asian painting conservation center after securing a $3.5m Mellon grant in 2017. Seattle’s chief conservator, Nick Dorman, told Hyperallergic the museum is currently looking for two Japanese conservators, one with mounting expertise — which could prove difficult, given the scarcity of conservators with adequate training. Unlike The Met, MFA Boston, Cleveland, and Freer, Seattle’s primary interest is in treating objects that belong to other museum collections.

Asian Painting Conservation Studio in development at the Seattle Asian Art Museum (image rendering courtesy of LMN Architects and Seattle Art Museum)

Bringing curators, conservators, and paintings into the same studio instead of sending an art object abroad for treatment enables deeper conversations about how to approach restoration.

“Our curators are responsible for the aesthetic appearance of the object,” Dr. Hearn notes. “For example, it is up to them to weigh in on a color of a silk mounting that accompanies a work of art. Typically, our conservators would help the curator by creating various dye samples and presenting them next to the painting. The intimate relationship between curator and conservator is important.”

The fruits of such relationships are on view at the recently opened Freer | Sackler exhibition, Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912. When very large paintings arrived from Beijing without traditional mounts, Freer conservators and curators collaborated with Palace Museum conservators to produce innovative display methods.

In 2014, CMA hosted all the US-based East Asian art conservators under one roof for the first time ever. This summer, that network of practitioners will meet again at The Met to compare findings and share resources. The ultimate test of these investments and interventions will come when one generation of conservators retires and the next generation comes up, notes Hare: “Then we will get a sense of where we really are.”

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