(April 7, 2000) — The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced today the retirement of Wen C. Fong, its first and longtime Consultative Chairman of the Department of Asian Art, and the Museum's Douglas Dillon Curator of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy. Dr. Fong's retirement will take effect at the close of the Museum's fiscal year on June 30.
In a career at the Metropolitan that spanned nearly 30 years, Wen Fong played a major leadership role in building the Museum's vast Asian Art collection, expanding and renovating its Asian Art galleries, modernizing the department's conservation program, organizing dozens of acclaimed special exhibitions, and supporting both publishing and educational programs. Today the Asian Art collection at the Metropolitan is the largest and most comprehensive in the West, with each of the many civilizations of Asia represented by outstanding works that provide — in both quality and breadth — an unrivaled experience of the artistic traditions of nearly half the world.
Commented Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan: "It is with profound regret that we learn of Wen Fong's decision to retire after three decades of extraordinary accomplishments at the Met. Wen Fong has helped to create a grand Asian Art museum within the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and his decades of scholarship, connoisseurship, and dedication have enriched not only the collections but the professional lives of his colleagues. Although his departure will leave an immense void, his legacy will endure in ways that are certain to benefit the Museum's visitors for generations to come. For even as Wen Fong leaves our staff, his legacy remains, for the benefit of the public, on full and glorious view in our galleries."
In announcing his retirement, Dr. Fong said: "Blessed with the generous support of the Trustees, especially that of Douglas Dillon and Brooke Astor, and under the wise and courageous leadership of Director Philippe de Montebello, the Asian Art Department has become a major center for the display and study of Asian Art in the Western world. I am proud to have contributed to that effort and honored by the many years of encouragement I have received in its pursuit."
When Wen Fong joined the Metropolitan Museum in 1971 as Special Consultant for Far Eastern Affairs in what was then known as the Department of Far Eastern Art, the
space devoted to the display of Asian art at the Museum consisted of just one gallery featuring early Chinese sculpture, and an installation of Chinese ceramics on the Great Hall Balcony. Over the next three decades, the Metropolitan dramatically shifted its priorities to the collecting of Asian art and undertook and completed a master plan for the display of the arts of Asia, creating what is today a suite of more than 50 permanent galleries encompassing 64,500 square feet of space exhibiting works of the highest level of artistic accomplishment from the fourth millennium B.C. to the 20th century.
Among the highlights of the building program initiated by the Museum during Dr. Fong's tenure were: the opening of the Astor Court and the Douglas Dillon Galleries for Chinese Painting and Calligraphy in 1981; the opening of The Sackler Wing Galleries for the Arts of Japan in 1987 (refurbished in 1999); the opening of the Charlotte C. Weber Galleries for the Arts of Ancient China in 1988 (refurbished in 1997); the opening of the Florence and Herbert Irving Galleries for the Arts of South and Southeast Asia in 1994; the renovation of the Dillon Galleries, expansion of the Chinese paintings galleries to include both the new Frances Young Tang Gallery for Chinese Painting and Calligraphy and the C. C. Wang Family Gallery for Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, as well as the opening of the new Florence and Herbert Irving Galleries for Chinese Decorative Arts, all in 1997; and, most recently, the opening of the new Arts of Korea Gallery in 1998.
Also during Dr. Fong's chairmanship, the professional curatorial staff of the Asian Art department grew from two to 13, and now includes specialists in Chinese painting, Buddhist sculpture, archaeology, decorative arts, ceramics, and textiles; Japanese painting and decorative arts; South and Southeast Asian art; and Indian and Tibetan painting, among other disciplines. The department also created annual internships for graduate and post-graduate fellows that today attract advanced students from all over the world to study the Met's collections. In addition, Dr. Fong's tenure saw the development of Asian Art Conservation, now regarded as one of the foremost centers for the conservation of Asian painting in the West.
During his years at the Metropolitan, the expansion of the Museum's Asian Art collections was significantly enhanced by a number of milestone gifts and acquisitions, including masterpieces from the C. C. Wang Collection of Chinese painting, a purchase made possible through the generosity of Douglas Dillon; the Harry C. Packard Collection of Japanese art; the John M. Crawford, Jr. Collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy; the Edward L. Elliott Family Collection of Chinese painting; the Wan-go H. C. Weng Collection of Chinese painting; the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection of 19th and 20th century Chinese painting; the Ernest Erickson Collection of Chinese objects and paintings; the Oscar L. Tang Family Collection and the Kinmay Wen Family Collection of Chinese painting; and, most recently, the promised gift of a major selection of works
from the Mary Griggs Burke Collection of Japanese art. In 1972 the Museum embarked
on a major acquisition program in the area of South and Southeast Asian art, developing a collection that today ranks among the most comprehensive devoted to those cultures.
Major benefactors and supporters of the department during Wen Fong's chairmanship have included Douglas Dillon, The Dillon Fund, Brooke Astor, Mary Griggs Burke, Florence and Herbert Irving, Oscar L. Tang, Enid A. Haupt, Lita Annenberg Hazen, Walter Annenberg, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach, Samuel Eilenberg, and Jeffrey B. Soref.
Wen Fong also pioneered in the presentation of special exhibitions of Asian art, among them many critically praised and widely attended landmark shows that were accompanied by major scholarly exhibition catalogues and symposia. These included, in the area of Chinese art: The Great Bronze Age of China, which attracted 500,000 visitors in 1980, and Splendors of Imperial China: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, which drew 800,000 visitors in 1996 — attracting the largest average daily attendance of any art exhibition in the world that year; and The Artist as Collector: Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the C. C. Wang Family Collection in 1999.
In addition, many exhibitions and accompanying scholarly catalogues in other areas of Asian art were created by Dr. Fong's staff, including: in the field of Japanese art, the 1975 exhibitions Selections from the Mary and Jackson Burke Collection and Momoyama: Japanese Art in the Age of Grandeur, and the current show, Masterpieces of Japanese Art from the Mary Griggs Burke Collection; in the field of South and Southeast Asian art, Along the Ancient Silk Routes: Central Asian Art from the West Berlin State Museums (1984), The Flame and the Lotus: Indian and Southeast Asian Art from the Kronos Collections (1984), The Lotus Transcendent: Indian and Southeast Asian Art from the Samuel Eilenberg Collection (1991), and Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet (1998); and in other fields, East Asian Lacquer: The Florence and Herbert Irving Collection (1991), When Silk Was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles (1997-1998), the inaugural exhibition of masterpieces of Korean art, The Arts of Korea (1998), and Korean Ceramics from the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka (2000).
Born in Shanghai in 1930, Wen Fong received his M. F. A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University and began his career as a visiting curator of Oriental Art at the Yale University Art Gallery. He subsequently served as Chairman of the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University (1970–73) and eight years as chairman of the executive committee of The Art Museum, Princeton University, while joining the Metropolitan Museum as a special consultant in 1971. He became Consultative Chairman of the Department of Asian Art in 1990.
Concurrently, Dr. Fong was for more than 45 years a professor of art and archaeology at Princeton, serving from 1971 until his retirement in 1999 as Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Art and Archaeology, and establishing, in 1959, the first Ph.D. program in Chinese art and archaeology in this country. For his scholarship and profound influence on his students, he was named the College Art Association Art History Teacher of the Year in 1997. He has been a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Bollingen Foundation. In 1992 he was elected a member of both the American Philosophical Society and the Academia Sinica of the Republic of China. Dr. Fong is currently a professor emeritus at Princeton.
Over the last 45 years, Wen Fong has authored, co-authored, edited, and co-edited 18 books and catalogues, as well as numerous articles for all of the most prestigious journals and bulletins in the Asian art field. His books and catalogues include Sung and Yuan Painting (1973); Summer Mountains: The Timeless Landscape (1975); Returning Home: Tao-chi's Album of Landscapes and Flowers (1976); Images of the Mind: Selections from the Edward L. Elliott Family and John B. Elliott Collections of Chinese Calligraphy and Painting at The Art Museum, Princeton University (1984); the best-selling and critically acclaimed Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 8th-14th Century (1992); and, with James C. Y. Watt, Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei (1996).
Mr. de Montebello announced that a search would be instituted immediately for a successor to Dr. Fong to head the Department of Asian Art. He announced further that, with the enthusiastic consent of Trustee Emeritus Douglas Dillon, he would recommend to the Board of Trustees at its next meeting the election of Wen Fong as Douglas Dillon Curator Emeritus of Asian Art.
April 7, 2000