ECPN Interviews: East Asian Art Conservation

This is Part II of the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network interview 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 (Freer|Sackler).  This post focuses on the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation initiative in Chinese Art Conservation; please read Part I to find out more about her background and reflections on her training!

Part II: Freer|Sackler and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Chinese painting conservation initiative
Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN): Can you describe the Freer|Sackler and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Chinese painting conservation initiative?
Grace Jan (GJ): In 2008, the Mellon Foundation, in collaboration with Julian Raby, director of the Freer|Sackler, established a long-term plan to preserve and advance the fields of Chinese art history and painting conservation. As part of this program, the Freer|Sackler committed to train the next generation of conservators, uphold the heritage of Chinese painting conservation in the United States, and support the development of a holistic approach to their treatment and care. The result of concurrently supporting training, education, and research has been a global exchange that advances Chinese painting conservation and the preservation of our Chinese painting heritage.

 Xiangmei Gu, Grace Jan, and fellows, He Qian and Yi-Hsia Hsiao, remounting a folding album at the Freer|Sackler.
Xiangmei Gu, Grace Jan, and fellows, He Qian and Yi-Hsia Hsiao, remounting a folding album at the Freer|Sackler.

The Mellon Foundation initially brought together directors, curators, and conservators from US-based museums having major Chinese paintings collections to discuss the current state of Chinese painting conservation. Recognizing the importance of integrating traditional mounting and restoration techniques with Western-influenced preservation and conservation, they identified three tiers of conservation: (1) preventive care, (2) minor and intermediate conservation treatment, and (3) complete remounting.

In addition to these conservation tiers, three training levels were recognized: senior conservator, mid-career conservator, and fellow.  Having this type of infrastructure within an institution upholds the traditional apprenticeship model in Chinese painting conservation and provides a young conservator with long-term training under the senior conservator.  Ms. Gu, who is at the forefront of combining traditional mounting skills with Western conservation techniques, is the senior conservator at the Freer|Sackler responsible for passing these skills to the next generation.   To establish a permanent system across the three levels, a fellowship for advanced training and an assistant-level position for a mid-career conservator in this specialization were also created.

The Mellon initiative has since been extended to include collaborative efforts to establish assistant-level or comparable positions at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and to provide funding mechanisms to train conservators within the three levels, both individually and as a cohort. In addition, the Mellon initiative is funding residencies for Chinese conservators in the US, and with the planned launch of the Asian Paintings Conservation Center at the Seattle Art Museum, there will eventually be increased opportunities for research and exchange with a previously underserved region of the US that holds a large body of Chinese paintings. The success of the program over the past eight years has been the result of a combined effort to create permanent support for the next generation of conservators and to advance the field of Chinese painting conservation.

ECPN: How have you benefited from and contributed to the success of the program?
GJ: In 2016, my assistant-level position became fully endowed, largely through a generous matching endowment grant from the Mellon. This is a milestone for the program. My apprenticeship combined with my academic training puts me in the unique position to contribute to the Mellon initiative and play an integral role in advancing the field. Through this position, I have been able to apply my technical training and understanding of cultural differences into developing and furthering the goals and vision of the Mellon for training and treatment.

From training in China and in a Western conservation program, I understand both systems, their inherent strengths and weaknesses, and how the field can evolve. I learned the value of preserving the skills passed down from generation to generation and the importance of their underlying cultural heritage for future conservators. An understanding of both unique and common issues in training across the US, China, and Taiwan motivated me to share my experiences and commit myself to this specialized work.

Undergraduate program in Chinese mounting and conservation at the Shanghai Institute of Visual Art. Photo courtesy: Xiangmei Gu.
Undergraduate program in Chinese mounting and conservation at the Shanghai Institute of Visual Art. Photo courtesy: Xiangmei Gu.

Art conservation in China is undergoing growth and advancement, yet there continues to be inconsistency in the level and quality of education and training. Traditionally, new students were hired by museums as permanent staff and provided on-the-job training. More recently, emerging undergraduate level conservation programs train students in Chinese paintings, focusing on painting and mounting skills, and introduce conservation principles.  While these programs increase access to the field for future conservators, larger student-to-teacher ratios often do not allow for the personalized, traditional apprentice-style training that provides more advanced skills. Masters at the Shanghai Museum and the Beijing Palace Museum have had to retire due to still-changing government policies. This allows for opportunities for younger staff, but it is apparent there is a lack of trained young conservators to fill these positions. Therefore, both museums still must rely on training a new generation themselves.

My experience with the graduate-level programs in Taiwan demonstrated that they more closely resemble Western institutions. Students learn more comprehensive applications of foundational preservation and conservation principles. Chinese paintings majors study under a master, but as with the programs in China, they find it challenging to receive consistent and personalized mentorship. Students in Chinese and Taiwanese programs are required to practice on their own, without the constant tutelage provided by apprenticeship training.

ECPN: Since you are growing with this collaboration, what would you like to see happen now with this initiative? In what direction is this going?
GJ: Moving forward, I see so much potential for growth in all the training programs, both Eastern and Western models. Chinese painting conservation is in need of a hybrid approach to training where students are able to grow in a setting that teaches traditional restoration balanced with Western sensibilities.

The infrastructure through the Mellon program is striving to foster this balance. The Mellon Fellowship program at the Freer|Sackler has allowed Ms. Yi-Hsia Hsiao, our first fellow (now at the Cleveland Museum of Art), and Mr. Lyu Zhichao Lyu, our current fellow from China, to also train under Ms. Gu. The three of us, as well as other Mellon supported colleagues, are working to build relationships and connect traditional studios and Western conservation institutions through a number of workshops and programs. For instance, with Mellon support, we will be participating in the Association of North American Graduate Programs in Conservation (ANAGPIC) conference for the next four years, which allows us to establish ourselves within the community of emerging Western conservators.

It is a privilege to be a part of this groundbreaking initiative, and I am thankful for the Mellon Foundation and the dedication of those at the Freer|Sackler who continue to work towards these goals and vision. In addition, I am grateful for the Henry Luce Foundation, the Stockman Family Foundation, and the Robert H. N. Ho Foundation for their many years supporting my work, their belief in these endeavors, and their efforts to advance the field.