Art for All

Professor Sarah Fraser uses the latest in digital technology to give ancient Asian masterpieces new life — and a worldwide audience.

by Elizabeth Canning Blackwell

First, forget the stereotypes. Heading into a meeting with the chair of the Department of Art History, you expect to enter a world somewhat lost in time — an office filled with musty, well-worn books and aged reproductions of great works of art. You prepare yourself to step back into the past.

But not this time. The bright, streamlined office of professor Sarah Fraser doesn’t feel all that different from the headquarters of a tech startup company. A large flat-screen computer monitor sits on one side of a sleek, far-from-overcrowded desk. Fraser herself is busy burning some digital images from her hard drive onto a CD. Sure, the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are filled with obscurely titled academic publications, and piles of memos and notes — a constant of academic bureaucracy — are piled at the edges of the desk. But the overall impression is of a place that is relentlessly modern.

And once you start talking to Fraser you realize that cutting-edge technology and art history are far from polar opposites; in fact, one can be used to enhance and revitalize the other.

Fraser speaks carefully and deliberately, her relaxed manner seemingly at odds with the packed schedule of her life. An expert in Chinese and Tibetan painting, as well as pan-Asian Buddhist art, she teaches both undergraduate and graduate students, publishes articles regularly in scholarly journals, travels to China every few months to continue on-site research, and — as if she weren’t busy enough — is in the process of transforming the art history department by expanding its coverage of non-Western art.

Author of Performing the Visual: The Practice of Buddhist Wall Painting in China and Central Asia 618–960 (Stanford University Press, 2004), she’s currently working on the book Chinese Modernism: Ethnic Difference and National Identity in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art and Archaeology, which examines the formation of the field of archaeology in China from the 1920s to the 1940s. Besides regular visits to China, she’s traveled extensively for her work, including a stint as a fellow of history and art at the Getty Center in Los Angeles and as a visiting professor at Stanford University and the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris.

“I’d say Sarah is one of the most rigorous and dynamic scholars I know. She’s a tough teacher, very demanding on grad students, and someone who really cares about maintaining standards of excellence,” says Brook Ziporyn, a Northwestern associate professor of religion and philosophy who co-taught a junior research seminar with Fraser. “Also, Sarah is what I’d describe as a genuine ‘mover and shaker,’ someone who is proactive about getting things done. She has great organizational skills that allow her to bring together disparate groups of scholars and create encounters among them, inspiring courses of research and projects that would certainly never take place otherwise.”

One constant underlying all of Fraser’s work is the belief that new technology shouldn’t be feared — it should be embraced. She’s bringing art history into the 21st century, and other academic disciplines can learn from her example.

The popularity and growing sophistication of digital photography has had an enormous impact on the field of art history. “We tend to think of the humanities as dusty,” she says, smiling. “But the benefits of these technologies are becoming more apparent. Before, pictures were in a book, or you had to come here to the department and spend hours looking through the slide collection. Now that databases of images are available online, the whole world is open to you.”

But she cautions that this new wealth of resources hasn’t made art history a do-it-yourself endeavor. And that’s why art historians will continue to be in demand. “Materials are so dispersed, you still need an academic framework,” she warns. “You need guidance. You can’t just plug in images; you have to learn how to analyze and understand them.”

In addition to guiding students, Fraser has worked as a museum consultant to help the general public understand more about Asian art. In 2002, when the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco was designing new galleries for its collection of Chinese Buddhist art, Fraser was brought in to write educational materials covering a huge range of chronology and materials: from paintings to textiles to sculpture, dating from as early as the early 300s to as late as the 19th century.

Fraser’s fascination with Chinese language and culture began in college. Growing up near Morristown, N.J., the daughter of a high school teacher and a newspaper printer, she wasn’t exposed to Asian culture in any significant way. While putting together her schedule for her first year of college, she signed up for Spanish, the same language she’d studied in high school — only to discover that the class would be using the exact same textbook she’d used previously. Almost on a whim, Fraser decided to challenge herself instead. Scanning the foreign language course schedule, she narrowed down her choices to Greek, Swahili or Chinese. “Chinese is one of those classes that’s intensive by definition,” she says. “You have classes every day. It seemed like it would hold my interest for a lifetime.”

Although her initial interest was in the Chinese language, spending her junior year abroad in Taiwan reinforced her growing interest in the region’s culture. “I think I knew the first week I was there that this was what I wanted to do,” she says. Visiting Buddhist and Hindu monuments in India and Sri Lanka was the beginning of her fascination with Asian art. By the time she graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she already had five years of Chinese and extensive course work in Chinese, Indian and Japanese art history.

After working at the Asia Society in Houston for almost five years, she went on to receive her doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley (she also did research abroad at Peking University in Beijing and Kobe University in Japan). She arrived at Northwestern in 1996.

“It was Northwestern’s first tenure-track position in Asian art history,” she says. And in many ways, she was on her own. Across the University, professional colleagues in her field were few and far between, giving her little opportunity for cross-departmental collaboration. “When I arrived, there was one professor in Chinese history, one in Japanese history,” she says. “That was about it.”

She also found the art history department sorely lacking in the basic resources she needed to teach her subject; slides and reference books on Asian art were limited. But Fraser relished the challenge of creating a new aspect of the department practically from scratch: “It was an opportunity to do something really new.” She established the department’s curriculum in Asian art history and in 2004 became chair of the department.

As chair, one of her priorities has been to transform the kind of art history being taught. There have been five new hires in the department in the last two years, including specialists in African, Byzantine and Russian art. “I’d like to change the focus so we’re not so divided in terms of geography,” she says. “I want to have more of a cross-continental dialogue, then ask students to do the same, to find commonalities.” The undergraduate program is thriving, with more than 60 majors (compared with 25 in 2001). Fraser is optimistic about those degrees being valued after graduation. “There’s been a merging of entertainment and art in museums,” she says. “There’s more of a focus on business management. There are more opportunities for undergrads to use this as a training ground for lots of different options.”

Certainly her expertise in melding art and technology should make graduates more valuable than ever in the modern job market. Of the 285,000 slides in the department’s current collection, about 10 percent have been digitized and are now available online through the library catalog. Fraser sees this easier access to images as empowering for both faculty and students. “Now pictures can be just as available as text,” she says. Students can study works of art on their computers at home, as can professors putting together lectures and presentations. 

And Fraser herself has shown how digital technology can bring art to a broader audience. From 1999 to 2004 she oversaw a groundbreaking project in Dunhuang, in northwestern China, where a series of cave temples were painted and carved from roughly the fifth to the 13th centuries; the resulting 492 caves, filled with 45,000 square meters (450,000 square feet) of wall paintings, form one of the largest collections of Buddhist art in the world. But a site like Dunhuang, impressive as it is, remains remote and hidden to most people. In order to make its art more accessible — while protecting the site itself — Fraser undertook a massive archiving project. With a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, she first selected the best 10 percent of the paintings to be photographed, then organized 17 full- and part-time staffers to take detailed pictures of each section. Anywhere from 20 to 900 photographs were then melded together digitally to form an image of each cave wall. Photographs were also taken from different angles (up, down, side-to-side), to create 3-D images of the caves. “It gives you a sense of being there and walking around,” Fraser says.

All told, the project took about five years to complete (a few manuscripts from the site’s extensive library of texts have yet to be digitized), but all the artwork can now be viewed online through the database ARTstor, although access is limited to academic institutions and libraries. “Creating the 3-D images and incorporating technology into archaeological practice has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career in Chinese art,” Fraser says.   

A project such as the Mellon International Dunhuang Archive took her away from campus for up to three months at a time, and Fraser credits Northwestern with giving her both the resources and encouragement to make it happen. “Northwestern has a real focus on interdisciplinary work,” she says. “You’re encouraged to reach out to other organizations. Innovative work is rewarded, and the resources are made available for you to do that work.”

Because she believes so strongly in working across institutions, Fraser is also the driving force behind the newly formed Chicago Consortium for Art History, a partnership among Northwestern, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Newberry Library and the Art Institute of Chicago. “We have so many resources spread throughout the city, and our collections complement each other,” says Fraser. “The goal is to make Chicago a destination for the study of art history.”

It’s yet another example of Fraser’s ability to bring together like-minded colleagues and convince them to work toward a common goal. James Cuno, president and Eloise W. Martin Director of the Art Institute of Chicago and adjunct professor of art history at Northwestern, gives Fraser all the credit. “Sarah’s been the driving force behind the formation and initial direction of the consortium,” he says. “Quite simply, it would still be only an idea if not for her. Her commitment to it — and to a greater collegiality among Chicago-area art historians — has made all the difference.”

Despite her many priorities at Northwestern and in the greater art history community, Fraser still travels regularly to China, a country that has undergone enormous changes since she first visited more than 25 years ago. “The clash between traditional and modern presents itself in almost every interaction,” she says. “China itself is radically transforming its relationship to its own past on an international stage. That makes the study of Chinese contemporary art exciting. Chinese art couldn’t be in any more of an exciting period than what we are experiencing now.”

With the influence of technology, the same could be said for the field of art history. Which means that Sarah Fraser should have no trouble finding inspiration in the years to come.

Elizabeth Canning Blackwell (C90) is a freelance writer in Skokie, Ill.

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