Takashi Sugiura and his daughter, Kumi Kinoshita (née Sugiura), at work in the Freer Gallery of Art, March 9, 1967, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-008, Image no. OPA-1006-12A.

Smithsonian Spotlight: Takashi Sugiura

Between 1953 and 1980, Japanese conservator Takashi Sugiura restored and mounted Japanese works at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The Freer Gallery of Art needed an act of Congress to hire and retain Japanese conservator Takashi Sugiura. Following World War II, diplomatic relations between the United States and Japan had not yet been fully reestablished, so the Smithsonian asked Senators Theodore F. Green and Leverett Saltonstall to intervene and sponsor Sugiura. When he arrived, Sugiura was one of the first private Japanese civilians to immigrate to the United States since before the war. 

Why jump through so many hoops to hire a “picture mounter,” his title at the museum? Sugiura was one of only a handful of conservators qualified to restore Japanese national art pieces. He began his studies as an apprentice at the young age of 15 and trained for the next decade as a hyogushi, a master restorer of Japanese art. Sugiura’s job required the careful process of replacing the backing from a sometimes 1,000-year-old work, patching any damage, cleaning the piece with water, and mounting it on a brocade background. He used only Japanese-made papers, silks, brushes, and paints to restore these screens and scrolls.

Takashi and Kumi Sugiura smile at one another as they hold up art and fabric.

Sugiura’s studio at the Freer was unlike many conservation labs in the United States. He worked kneeling on a bamboo mat at low benches. Visitors to the studio removed their shoes at the door and sat with Sugiura on cushions on the floor. 

The conservation world paid tribute to Sugiura when he passed away in 2005, but the artist was also widely celebrated during his lifetime. In 1978, the Evening Star profiled Sugiura’s painstaking work and mentorship to future generations in an article titled “A master in restoring Oriental art recruits a new hand.” A decade earlier, editors of the Torch, Smithsonian’s staff newsletter, featured the conservator in a half-page spread.

The Sugiura's use paint brushes at a short work bench. Takashi Sugiura is using a magnifying glass a

And Sugiura’s legacy is forever cemented in the Congressional Record. In 1955, Senators Green and Saltonstall again intervened for the artist on behalf of the Freer when Sugiura’s family was delayed in joining him in the United States due to immigration complications. Freer director Archibald Gibson Wenley pleaded with Congress in a letter asking the government to take action before Sugiura decided to reurn to Japan. “We feel rather pressed, for it is urgent to the safety and preservation of our great collection of more than 2,000 paintings that Mr. Sugiura remain with us.” Wenley argued that “it would be almost impossible to get someone to take his place here.” 

Sugiura retired in 1980 after 27 years of service to the Smithsonian.

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