Beijing Beauties

Is Chinese 'Forbidden City' exhibition in tea leaves for Phoenix Art Museum?

How did a nice, quiet girl from a small town in upstate New York find herself learning to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese, traipsing all over China and other parts of Asia like Indiana Jones and eventually landing in Phoenix, Arizona?

Janet Baker, new curator of Asian art at Phoenix Art Museum, has taken the long Silk Road route to the Valley of the Sun via exotic ports of call that even most native Chinese admit they wouldn't be inclined to visit. Besides Japan, Thailand, Nepal and Tibet (with Burma and India on the boards for future intercontinental jaunts), she's been virtually all over the map in China, "including remote places that most people haven't heard of," says Baker. "Even Chinese people say, 'Uhhh, I haven't been there,' with the implication being, 'I'm not sure I want to go there, either.'"

Baker, who left her dual position at Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, California as Asian art curator and director of public programs, succeeded veteran Asian curator Claudia Brown at the Phoenix museum on May 1. At Bowers, Baker was the driving American curatorial force behind its current art extravaganza, "Secret World of the Forbidden City: Splendors from China's Imperial Palace."

Janet Baker is the new curator of Asian art at Phoenix Art Museum.
Paolo Vescia
Janet Baker is the new curator of Asian art at Phoenix Art Museum.

"Forbidden City" is a dazzling blockbuster traveling exhibit, showcasing the largest single loan of objects from the Palace Museum in Beijing's Forbidden City to any country in the world. "No institution in the U.S. had ever done an exhibit focusing on imperial arts of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) before the Bowers show," notes Baker, who has spoken in Mandarin numerous times on Chinese television and radio in L.A. to promote the exhibit. "All the objects have never been on view at the same time in Beijing, either. Who knows when it will happen again?"

According to Baker, there's a "fairly good chance" that "Forbidden City," which features mises en scène of elegantly appointed palace rooms -- including the Throne Room -- will end up in Phoenix. Baker's just returned from Beijing, where she presented a scholarly paper (in Chinese, of course) on the influences of Buddhist art contained in two manmade caves believed to have been created between the mid-sixth and mid-seventh centuries in Dunhuang, an important oasis stopover for travelers on the legendary Silk Road in the farthest reaches of northwest China's Gobi Desert. It's a subject in which she's considered a world-class expert, having written her doctoral dissertation on the murals and statuary of 100 of Dunhuang's 495 art-filled caves, all of which she's seen and studied on site.

Even more important to Valley art lovers, during this most recent trek to the Chinese capital, Baker also met with Zhu Chengru, the director and legal representative of the Palace Museum, to discuss making Phoenix the show's final stop after it travels to Oakland and Houston. If everything goes right, Phoenix Art Museum could be flinging open its doors to host the visually spectacular exhibition sometime in the early fall of 2001. "I have every reason to believe it can be done effectively here from a logistics standpoint," Baker says.

Janet Baker's longstanding love affair with the art of Asia, particularly of China, was instigated years ago by an art history professor she had as an undergraduate in New Palz, New York, 90 miles north of New York City. "I did not come from a family that visited art museums," she confides. "I did not visit an art museum until I was 19 and an art history major; then I went to the Met in New York. That was my first experience with real art."

Baker apparently didn't come from a family of ramblin' gamblin' wayfarers, either: "We went to grandma's house every summer. Every once in a while, we would do something like drive for the day to Niagara Falls -- that was travel. My Asian studies and world travels have all been as an adult. I spent the first half of my life going almost nowhere and then the next half making up for it."

Baker's revered professor encouraged her to go to graduate school for art history at the University of Kansas. Baker says the school had a great language program, and its art history department had a close link with Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City. That museum also happened to have one of the nation's best collections of Asian art, she says.

In 1981, just as Baker was completing her master's degree and three years of Chinese language study, the University of Kansas opened exchange programs with universities in China. It was a time when China had not been open to the rest of the world very long. Baker was in the inaugural group of 75 foreign students from 16 countries who descended for a year on provincial Nanjing University, where she was required to attend classes taught in Mandarin and to speak only in Chinese to the roommate assigned to her. "Once the foreign students walked out of the university gate, we were pretty much aliens from Mars, as far as the Chinese were concerned," Baker laughs, recalling how she wrestled with the Nanjing accent that made those first few weeks especially rough.

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