Reporting from San Francisco — It's a banner year for Shanghai — the World Expo has just opened in the city, the first on Chinese soil and the most expensive and largest world's fair ever. Superlatives come naturally to Shanghai, a city that rapidly recovered its sense of mission after the downtrodden days of the Cultural Revolution. Skyscrapers pierce the sky, fashionable Western-style shopping malls abound. Of course, all this came from a legacy — a legacy of international trade and cosmopolitan sophistication that reached a peak in the 1930s.
Some of the city's past glory is glimpsed in "Shanghai," an exhibition at the Asian Art Museum here, at a time when, appropriately enough, the museum is under the directorship of Jay Xu, a Shanghai native. "I think myself a lucky guy," says Xu, sitting in his office with a panoramic view of the Civic Center Plaza. "I come to work for our institution and realize there's a show about my hometown, in such a magnificent year as the World Expo."
Two years ago Xu (pronounced "shu") stepped in after the departure of Emily Sano, who had held the position for 13 years and shepherded the organization through its move from Golden Gate Park — where it had been a virtual appendage to the De Young Museum in a crumbling building — to a beautifully renovated Beaux Arts building. With a full-time staff of 140 and an annual budget of $17.3 million, the museum is one of the largest in the West dedicated to Asian art. The foundations of its collection were established by an extensive donation of art from Chicago industrialist Avery Brundage and it has been augmented in the last decade by gifts of art from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Japanese baskets from Lloyd Cotsen and Chinese painting and calligraphy from the Yeh family. However, programming has sometimes been perceived to be old-fashioned.
Xu is planning to change that, partly by connecting the dots of East and West in fresh ways and partly through collaboration with other institutions. Being Shanghai-born and bred, he's from a culture that loves to be up-to-date, open to the novel, while keeping an eye on the pragmatic.
Xu himself is a hybrid, having been trained and having worked in China and the United States. He studied Chinese literature at Shanghai University, becoming an expert in Chinese bronzes and archaeology while working at the Shanghai Art Museum, and later studied art history at Princeton University. In 2003, after stints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Seattle Art Museum, he went to Illinois to become curator of Asian Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. By the time he left for San Francisco, he was chairman of the Asian and Ancient Art department.
Xu, 46, belies the stereotype of museum director — he's chatty and ebullient. And he seems to have a wicked sense of humor — last year he donned a set of samurai armor to attend a monthly staff meeting, gripping a sword while giving his report. However, mention of last year's public brouhaha around the same time sends him simmering.
When their "Lords of the Samurai" exhibition opened, a guerilla collective launched a spoof website criticizing its promotion of the "gentleman warrior myth," as well as the exotic fantasy of the East. "Military prowess meets cultural connoisseurship in an ideal of masculine perfection selling militarism as beauty in a time of war," the website intro read. The website identified itself as the "Asians Art Museum," with the subhead "Where Asian Still Means Oriental." (Fliers conflating a samurai helmet with Darth Vader and Mickey Mouse were also passed around town.) The campaign was highly effective, and continues to net public talks by Majime Sugiru, the "communications director" for the Asians Art Museum collective.
"Certainly, it was a little bit painful, not only for me but my staff," Xu says. "We're always respectful to our critics even if we may not agree with them. They always give us food for thought. What was painful for us was that this show was very well-balanced. Of course, samurai have military gear and implements, but the large focus was on artistic excellence. As much as the samurai were warriors, many of them were also ardent patrons of art."
The current exhibition (through Sept. 5) has been hit with accusations of muddle-headedness and superficiality. Kenneth Baker, art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, panned it. "This exhibition never decides what it wants to be: travelogue, art history, social history, a celebration of San Francisco and Shanghai's 30-year-old official sisterhood?" he wrote when the show opened. "So it ends up telling visitors too little about too much."