ECPN Interviews: East Asian Art Conservation

To promote awareness and a clearer understanding of different pathways into specializations that require particular training, the Emerging Conservation Professional Network (ECPN) is conducting a series of interviews with conservators in these specialties.  We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths, which we hope will inspire new conservators and provide valuable insight into these areas of our professional field.  We have an ongoing series for East Asian art and recently started covering Electronic Media.

We continue the East Asian art conservation series with Grace Jan, the Yao Wenqing Chinese painting conservator at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art of the Smithsonian Institution (Freer|Sackler).  She graduated from the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, where she studied paper conservation with a specialization in Chinese mounting from 2003 to 2007.  She received a BA in History and Art History from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Grace has already offered a lot of insight to her path in her blogpost for the Freer|Sackler and from NPR’s article with the Freer|Sackler conservators, so ECPN took this opportunity to dive deeper.  ECPN asked Grace to expand some thoughts and reflections about her training and to talk more about her involvement with the Andrew W. Mellon initiative on Chinese art conservation.  This is the first part of a two-part post; the second half can be found here.

Part I: Reflections on Training
Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN): What led you to pursue Chinese paintings? What were the known challenges of Chinese painting conservation when you began? What attracted you to them?
Grace Jan (GJ): My journey through Chinese art conservation reflects the unconventional nature of this evolving field. Visiting my grandfather in Taiwan at a young age, I saw the watercolor landscapes he painted. How could thin Chinese Xuan paper, wrinkled from the application of Chinese watercolors, be mounted flat into a framed painting or scroll? Noticing that his mounted paintings turned yellow from poor-quality materials and light damage, I wondered if there was a process of restoring beauty to an object without compromising its history and the hand of the artist. Could this be applied to my grandfather’s paintings and to the broader discipline of Chinese paintings?

Grace Jan remounting a silk painting at the Freer|Sackler.
Grace Jan remounting a silk painting at the Freer|Sackler.

This impression stayed with me through college, and led me down the career path towards art conservation. Following my undergraduate studies, I applied to the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University (NYU), but also explored other means of pursuing Chinese art conservation. A handful of Western conservators unfamiliar with Chinese paintings directed me toward the Japanese paintings conservation model, which is typically seven to ten years of apprenticeship training in a Japanese mounting studio. I found Mr. Andrew Hare, supervisor of East Asian Painting Conservation at the Freer|Sackler, through the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler website for East Asian Painting Conservation, who challenged me to consider the long-term impact and potential benefits of weaving together Western conservation training with a traditional apprenticeship.

I was accepted to NYU and studied paper conservation with Ms. Margaret Holben Ellis, Eugene Thaw Professor of Paper Conservation. At the time, there were only four museum conservators of Chinese paintings in the United States: Ms. Xiangmei Gu (Freer|Sackler), Mr. Jing Gao (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Ms. Hou Yuan-li (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Ms. Wang Ke-Wei (formerly at the University of Michigan Museum of Art and now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art). All four had traditional training from either the Shanghai Museum or the Beijing Palace Museum, and all four would be retiring around the same time. With no long-term plan in place to train their successors, it would lead to potential neglect or inappropriate treatment of Chinese artwork by non-specialists. Under the inspiration of my grandfather’s paintings, I now had a clear and undeniable mission to learn from these masters to serve the critical needs in the US.

ECPN: How has your training and position transformed over time?
GJ: My graduate internship gave me the rare opportunity to train under Ms. Hou Yuan-li, Ms. Sondra Castile, and Mr. Takemitsu Oba at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  However, I was required to speak Chinese, so I needed to improve my language skills. Growing up in an Asian-American family, my parents spoke Chinese, but I refused to speak the language in my attempt to be more “American.” In order to be able to communicate in the lab, I attended Middlebury College’s Chinese immersion program and found that in rebuilding that linguistic foundation, I also reestablished my relationship to the culture underlying my chosen career.

After graduation, I discovered there wasn’t a clear apprenticeship path for me. I pursued advanced training in traditional restoration methods under masters at the Shanghai Museum, the Beijing Palace Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This training was funded with the generous support of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Asian Art Council, and the Antonia S. Ranieri International Scholars Fund Grant.

My career path came full-circle to the Freer|Sackler, where I was hired in 2009 as the assistant Chinese painting conservator under Ms. Xiangmei Gu, Chinese painting conservator. I have since advanced to become the Yao Wenqing Chinese painting conservator, a position created through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Chinese painting conservation initiative.

I have the unique privilege to work and train under Ms. Gu as I learn the range of skills necessary to carry on this tradition, and my responsibilities and autonomy have progressively grown under her guidance. This training goes beyond the required technical skills to an understanding of the reciprocal impact of the intersecting cultures in the field.  When I began working with Ms. Gu, I did not anticipate the great benefits of the global exchange available through her professional connections and efforts.  Over the last eight years, we have hosted nine visiting fellows from Hangzhou, Shaanxi, Fujian, Beijing, Shanghai, Taiwan, and Hong Kong through the generous funding of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation and the Mellon Foundation. This provides an invaluable cultural exchange and exposure to conservation approaches. Ms. Gu’s dedication to outreach has allowed Chinese conservators from these different regions in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan to collaborate with us and gain exposure to conservation in a Western museum setting. This has expanded my knowledge of regional differences in training, techniques, and the use of materials, with direct application to the treatment of paintings.

Mr. Andrew Hare, who has devoted himself to establishing guidelines for the preservation of East Asian paintings, has also mentored me and provided opportunities for me to lead workshops on these preservation guidelines. I teach an introductory lesson on Chinese painting conservation and a hands-on workshop on the care and safe handling of East Asian paintings to art history and conservation graduate students and to museum staff at institutions with East Asian collections. Providing these workshops has opened up dialogue with Western conservators about these fundamental techniques.

Teaching care and safe-handling of East Asian paintings at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation.
Teaching care and safe-handling of East Asian paintings at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation.

ECPN: What do you feel are your next professional steps?
GJ: First and foremost, it is crucial for me to maintain and build upon my hand skills and treatment skills; constant discipline and practice cannot be replaced. If the opportunity arises, I’d like to collaborate with other conservators and museums on the treatment of large-scale or more complicated projects.

Beyond treatment, I’m interested in pursuing a few history-related projects. I’d love to document the history of the four senior conservators working in US institutions. The glimpses I’ve had into each teacher’s story, which are set against the backdrop of the post-Cultural Revolution, are fascinating portraits of apprenticeships in China and are testimonies to their resilience and dedication.

Another project would be exploring the history of Chinese mounting styles. Most paintings have been remounted multiple times as part of their life cycles, but historical texts and documentation of untreated paintings could help us recreate past mounting styles.  This research on formats would inform the historical accuracy of future remounting campaigns.

I intend to be an advocate for Chinese painting conservation among our professional associations, such as the American Institute for Conservation for Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and the International Institute for Conservation for Historic and Artistic Works. The importance of the conservation community as a whole cannot be overstated. Our community has a remarkable breadth and depth of experience, skill, and talent. We can accomplish so much to raise the profile of Chinese painting conservation by strengthening connections to our colleagues in the United States and abroad. One current initiative is spearheaded by my colleague, Ms. Hsin-Chen at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. We hope to establish a uniform and consistent English glossary for Chinese mounted paintings, available as a resource on the AIC wiki. This would help our fellow Western conservators in institutions with Chinese paintings communicate issues more effectively.

ECPN: What would you tell emerging conservators who are considering this specialization in Chinese art conservation?
GJ: First, it is crucial for a conservator to build a strong foundation in mounting the various painting formats (i.e. hanging scrolls, handscrolls, albums) and their complex structures. Training can be acquired through a number of places including museums, conservation programs in China and Taiwan, commercial mounting studios, or a teacher’s private studio, but there is not one prescriptive path. It is important to be aware that the level of techniques and approaches vary, but emerging conservators must be exposed to these foundational skills in order to have realistic expectations of the work and know whether it’s something they want to pursue.

It is important for conservators considering pursuing Asian painting conservation to understand the Western practices that are now being woven into traditional Eastern art conservation, including preventative care, scientific research, art history, and conservation theory. I’d recommend acquiring this training through one of the North American conservation graduate programs or through equivalent programs because they are established institutions that provide training for the current professional landscape. As the integration of East and West grows, it is even more important to establish a breadth and depth of knowledge and experience.

Valentina Marabini and Grace Jan (trainees) with Zhu Pin Fang and Shen Hua (staff) at the Shanghai Museum in 2007.
Valentina Marabini and Grace Jan (trainees) with Zhu Pin Fang and Shen Hua (staff) at the Shanghai Museum in 2007.

The order in which apprenticeship and academic trainings are pursued can be tailored to one’s stage of life and how opportunities arise. Training opportunities can be found close to home or abroad. I recommend beginning Chinese language study early on and, if possible, spending some time training in a conservation studio in China. Whatever the opportunity, the emerging conservator should fully appreciate and take advantage of the skills and knowledge being taught, while carefully discerning the subsequent steps they need to take to become a well-rounded conservator.

There are so many aspects of Chinese painting conservation that require attention to advance the field. For example, there is very little technical art history, including research and scientific analysis, done on Chinese paintings. One could research any number of materials and degradation issues to provide context to the treatment being pursued.

Above all else, form relationships in the wider conservation community! These relationships provide the support and guidance that enable the field to progress, evolve, and thrive. Over the years since graduating from NYU, I still turn to my classmates and my broader network of Chinese and Western conservators, many of whom are in other areas of conservation. As the needs and direction of conservation continue to evolve, we will need one another to refine the approaches that shape our profession.