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Chinese Object Study Workshops

The Program

Sophisticated visual analysis is a hallmark of art history and depends on skills acquired through the direct study of objects. These skills must be taught and practiced. Yet as graduate art history curricula have expanded to include training in methodology, historiography, and theory, training in object study has all but disappeared. The problem is exacerbated for students of Chinese art history, whose graduate curricula must also include language courses and related subjects such as religion, literature, and history.

Chinese Object Study Workshops is a pilot program that provides graduate students in Chinese art history an immersive experience in the study of objects—in particular, those belonging to the great collections of Chinese art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Freer|Sackler). The workshops will help students develop the skills necessary for working with objects, introduce them to conservation issues not readily encountered in typical graduate art history curricula, and familiarize them with important American museum collections.

Four weeklong (Monday–Friday) workshops have already taken place, with two occurring during each of the two academic years:

  1. Freer|Sackler, June 3–7, 2013
  2. Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 26–30, 2013
  3. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, June 9–13, 2014
  4. Freer|Sackler, August 25–29, 2014

Each workshop was intended for around ten graduate students, selected from across North America through an open application process. These students studied and worked with a team of faculty and curators from the host museum. The program will conclude with a two-day conference at the Freer|Sackler on November 21st and 22nd for all participating students and faculty.

The program is funded by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and advised by a steering committee (Jonathan Hay, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU; Stephen Allee, Freer|Sackler; Patricia Berger, University of California, Berkeley; Joseph Scheier-Dolberg, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Hui-shu Lee, University of California, Los Angeles; Colin Mackenzie, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; and Nancy Micklewright, Freer|Sackler). The Freer|Sackler is administering the program

2014 Workshops

Chinese Object Study Workshops is a pilot program that provides graduate students in Chinese art history with an immersive experience in the study of objects—in particular, those belonging to the great collections of Chinese art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Freer|Sackler). The workshops help participants develop the skills necessary for working with objects, introduce them to conservation issues not readily encountered in typical graduate art history curricula, and familiarize them with important American museum collections.

Participants in each workshop spend the week engaged in intensive object study, discussion, and research with a small group of other graduate students, two faculty members, and curators and conservators from the host museum. Participants are required to complete assigned reading in advance of the workshop. Afterward, they are expected to complete a potentially publishable research project based on an object or objects they encountered.

The program is open to students enrolled in a graduate art history program at a North American university and pursuing a doctoral degree in Chinese art. Graduate students from other art history-related programs and/or working closely with Chinese art objects are also welcome to apply, although the priority will be given to those in art history programs. Applicants may be of any nationality and may apply for more than one workshop. Transportation, lodging, and some meal support will be provided.

Workshop One: Seeing Chinese Paintings
Host: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.
Workshop Leaders:

  • Jonathan Hay, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU
  • Colin Mackenzie, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Dates: Monday–Friday, June 9–13, 2014
This workshop concentrated on skills of seeing that precede comparison. Specifically, the workshop focused on two skills that can be taught and developed only in the presence of the paintings themselves. The first skill is discerning the full range of an artist's craft—technical, formal, and conceptual—as seen in an individual painting, with particular emphasis on reconstructing the visual and material thinking behind the painting’s creation. The second, equally necessary skill is that of articulating what has been discerned in clear language. Students practiced these two skills using a wide variety of paintings belonging to different historical periods and artistic traditions in the Nelson-Atkins collection.

Workshop Two: Zhe School Painting
Host: Freer|Sackler Galleries, Washington, DC
Workshop Leaders:

  • Kathleen Ryor, Carleton College
  • Jennifer Purtle, University of Toronto
  • Stephen Allee, Freer|Sackler Galleries

Dates: Monday–Friday, August 25–29, 2014
This workshop introduced object-oriented approaches to Chinese painting by examining works of the so-called Zhe School, court and professional painters of the Ming dynasty working in styles of the Song academy. The Freer has one of the world’s leading collections of Zhe School paintings (approx. 130–40 works). The properties of Zhe School paintings make them perfect for learning sophisticated visual analysis, including dating works on the basis of signatures and seals, style, and format. Their stylistic relationships to earlier works and to literati paintings (despite criticism that denies this relationship) and the fact that they include many problematic works make Zhe School paintings an ideal subject for developing skills essential to understanding larger connoisseurial problems of Chinese paintings.

2013 Workshops

Workshop One: Chinese Bronzes
Host: Freer|Sackler, Smithsonian Institution
Workshop Leaders:

  • Jenny Fung-Suk So, Chinese University of Hong Kong
  • Guolong Lai, University of Florida
  • Stephen Allee, Freer|Sackler

Dates: Monday–Friday, June 3–7, 2013
The collection of ancient Chinese bronzes in the Freer and Sackler Galleries was at the center of this workshop, designed to give students an understanding of different types of bronzes, methods of manufacture, stylistic evolution and iconography, and inscriptions. The religious and social significance, role of antiquarianism, connoisseurship, and collecting history in the study of archaic bronzes was also considered.

Emphasis was placed on close observation of the bronze objects so that students would learn how to look and understand what they are seeing. Workshop participants were also exposed to technical analysis of Chinese bronzes in the Freer|Sackler Department of Conservation and Scientific Research.

Workshop Two: Writing and Chinese Art
Host: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Workshop Leaders:

  • Qianshen Bai, Boston University
  • Peter Sturman, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • Maxwell Hearn, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dates: Monday–Friday, August 26–30, 2013
Drawn from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Chinese collections, a range of calligraphy and classical paintings that incorporate textual elements introduced students to various approaches to Chinese writing. The workshop covered topics such as reading different calligraphic forms (scripts), calligraphy as an art historical subject, and the role of writing in larger text-image programs. Through close visual analysis of the objects, students became better well equipped to read signatures, inscriptions, and seals, and to understand the important ways in which writing informs the aesthetic, historical, and expressive dimensions of objects. Emphasis was also given to issues in connoisseurship, exploring materials, techniques, and questions of authenticity.

How to Apply

The deadline for applications to the 2014 workshop has now passed.

Applications must be submitted in English and include:

  • Application cover sheet
  • Curriculum vitae
  • Graduate school transcript (unofficial is acceptable)
  • 500-word statement discussing why the workshop is of interest; relevant previous research, classroom work, or teaching experience; and the impact the workshop will have on future research and professional development
  • One letter of recommendation from a professor of Chinese art history in a sealed envelope signed across the flap. The letter of recommendation may be included with the application or sent directly from the reviewer. Email is also acceptable if the letter is sent directly from the reviewer. In either case, it is the responsibility of the applicant to ensure that the letter of recommendation arrives by the application deadline.

If applying for both workshops, please submit two separate applications. The same referee may submit a letter of recommendation for both applications.

Email complete applications to wengk@si.edu.

Mailing Address
Object Study Workshop
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Smithsonian Institution
MRC 707, P.O. Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012

Address for Express Delivery Services
Object Study Workshop
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Smithsonian Institution
1050 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20560
TEL 202.633.4880

Contact information
Please direct questions to wengk@si.edu.

Contact Information

Curators
Stephen Allee, Freer|Sackler, alleest@si.edu
Joe Scheier-Dolberg, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Joseph.Scheier-Dolberg@metmuseum.org             
Colin Mackenzie, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, cmackenzie@nelson-atkins.org

Academics
Jonathan Hay, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, jh3@nyu.edu
Patricia Berger, University of California, Berkeley, pberger@berkeley.edu
Hui-shu Lee, University of California, Los Angeles, hslee@humnet.ucla.edu

Project director
Nancy Micklewright, Freer|Sackler, micklewrightn@si.edu

Project administrator
Sana Mirza, Freer|Sackler, mirzas@si.edu

Above left: Participants in the 2013 Bronzes Workshop at the Freer|Sackler. Above right: Participants in the 2013 Calligraphy Workshop in the Wen. C. Fong Asian Art Study Room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.