Visual Arts

Beijing Beauties

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."

"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.

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."

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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Kathleen Vanesian