Beijing Beauties

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

On her second academic trip to Beijing in 1984, this time to research her dissertation, she met -- and married -- Gao Xaio Hua, a university-trained painter. ("He's trained primarily in European Soviet Socialist-inspired realist techniques.") Gao grew up during China's notorious Cultural Revolution and was teaching painting at Beijing's premier Central Art Academy. "There was an office in Beijing for processing marriages between foreigners and Chinese; it entailed a great deal of paperwork," says Baker.

"The Chinese invented bureaucracy -- they've had 2,000 years of practice. We had to get permission from our work unit, the Central Academy, a very liberal organization in China as organizations go. After a few weeks, everything was processed and we were duly stamped, fingerprinted, paid our fees, walked out and said, 'I think we just got married.' I spent my wedding night in room 613 of the dormitory building at the Central Art Academy."

In December 1985, the newlyweds left Beijing and went straight to L.A., sight unseen, where Baker worked for an Asian antiques dealer who arranged for her husband's work to be juried into several major art fairs and festivals. After two years, both received offers to work in the New York area, where Baker became gallery director at the China Institute of America, a bicultural, nonprofit organization based in Manhattan. It was there she met noted Asian art collector Lillian Schloss, an avid supporter of the China Institute. "When I met her, I had just finished my dissertation and was looking for a new major project to sink my teeth into, and she was looking to do something in terms of exhibiting her collection."

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.

In 1992, after taking a tenure-track teaching position in the art history department at Baruch College in New York City, Baker curated "Appeasing the Spirits: Sui and Tang Dynasty Tomb Sculpture From the Schloss Collection." That year, she also accepted a curatorial position at Bowers Museum and organized "Seeking Immortality," a much larger traveling show of impressive Chinese tomb art from Schloss' collection dating from 200 B.C. to A.D. 800.

Baker's eight-year tour of duty at Bowers was not without its bumps. In 1999, the museum exhibited a show of contemporary Vietnamese art from both North and South Vietnam, organized by the Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C. Baker and museum director (and Vietnam veteran) Peter Keller were confronted with protests and picketing from Orange County's large and vocal expatriate Vietnamese community.

Besides work that visually referred to Red Army uniforms, one of the sources of controversy was a painting depicting rats worshiping the Buddha painted on newsprint. "The protestors said it was very degrading to the Buddha. What they didn't realize is that I'm a specialist in Buddhist art and knew exactly what Buddhist sutra, or scripture, was being illustrated. My remarks on it were then quoted in Chinese, Vietnamese and English in the Buddhist press. That ended that discussion pretty quickly," says Baker.

Though she's only been in Phoenix since May, Baker already has ambitious plans for PAM exhibits and events. Besides looking at a number of outside-curated shows (possibilities include a private collection of art primarily from India, Tibet and Nepal; a show of contemporary Japanese ceramics; and an exhibit of Korean art from the 17th through 19th centuries), she's working on two group trips in conjunction with PAM's Asian Arts Council. One, which she led for Bowers Museum several years ago, would trace the artistic legacy of Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road as it wends its way through northwestern China; the other would concentrate on ancient monuments of Southeast Asia in Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia and Thailand.

Baker is also in the seminal stages of organizing what could easily be another blockbuster. "I've had some preliminary meetings and discussion with some other curators in the U.S. about the possibility of a show that would be jointly curated with probably at least four curators. It would draw from numerous cultures -- Latin American, European, Asian and African -- on a common universal theme of death.

"I can't tell you more," says Baker in the coyly secretive manner of a savvy Chinese imperial courtier floating delicately through a painting she might have studied in the past. "And it won't appear any time soon."

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