Patron of Asian Art, Smithsonian Join Forces

By Rauschart, Lisa | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 17, 1999 | Go to article overview

Patron of Asian Art, Smithsonian Join Forces


Rauschart, Lisa, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Akihiro Kato, a conservator of East Asian paintings at the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery of Art, is picking apart a puzzle.

He carefully directs a steady stream of water vapor at specific points on the work before him. Using tweezers, he painstakingly removes pieces of the past - shards of silk that, though aged, are not nearly as old as the 500-year-old Buddhist iconographic image before him.

To the untrained eye, the cracked and torn pieces of cloth seem to be without pattern, lacking any shape or form to identify them. For Mr. Kato, however, the essence of the carefully worked Japanese image is still there. He and another contractor at the Freer will spend three, four or even five years to piece the work together. Now, however, conservation projects such as this one have the promise of becoming easier.

This month, the Freer announced two important events: the induction of Professor Ikuo Hirayama, president of the Japan Art Institute, into the Order of James Smithson - named for the founder of the Smithsonian - and the receipt of an additional endowment from Mr. Hirayama for a new conservation program.

The order, created by the Board of Regents in 1983, is bestowed upon those who have made "transcendent donations" to the Smithsonian.

Mr. Hirayama recently retired as president of the Tokyo National University of Fine Art and Music. He is well-known in Japan as both a painter and a philanthropist.

He has donated more than $11 million over the years, enabling the Freer and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian and Near Eastern Art to send nearly 40 works to Japan's state-of-the-art studios for conservation.

When Freer officials wanted to upgrade the security and display of the gallery's Japanese screens, Mr. Hirayama arranged and paid for the importation of special high-quality, low-glare glass without seams or rims. This costly material allows the viewer to appreciate the delicate tracery and workmanship of the screens.

The difference is readily noticeable to visitors accustomed to viewing the screens without any glass. The new display underscores the aesthetic and practical commitments the Freer has made to the conservation of its holdings.

With the April 5 announcement, Mr. Hirayama gave $2.5 million to endow the Ikuo Hirayama Conservation Program for the Conservation of Japanese Painting. This new program makes the Freer and Sackler together a center for training U.S. nationals in traditional Japanese painting and conservation techniques.

The long-term apprenticeship program also will help Americans in Japanese studios and assist in placing them in public museums across America. The program enables short-term exchanges between conservators in this country and the East. Most important, it helps with the interaction of conservators within the Japanese studio system, providing a sort of social restructuring that will speed the conservation of pieces at risk.

Mr. Hirayama views the entire exchange as a way to improve cross-cultural understanding. In accepting the honor, he talked about the need for a "Red Cross for cultural heritage" that would identify and preserve art in both developed and developing countries.

"The Red Cross for cultural heritage puts emphasis on preserving cultural assets not merely as objects, but as things still valuable to mankind," says Mr. …

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Patron of Asian Art, Smithsonian Join Forces
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