Eastern premise

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 September, 2008, 12:00am

Jay Xu Jie has long had a connection with the Asian Art Museum (AAM) in San Francisco - it was the first museum outside China that he learned about while working as a young curator in Shanghai. So when 45-year-old Xu was named director of the AAM earlier this year, a member of the museum commission described the appointment as 'destiny'.

Securing the top job at one of the west's largest institutions devoted to Asian art was no mean feat. Formerly head curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, Xu was chosen after an international search that at one point included 100 candidates.

But he has been something of a high-flier since arriving in the US in 1990 to pursue a doctorate at Princeton. His meteoric career, leapfrogging from one prestigious institution to another, is a tribute to his heart and mind, says Jane Chang Tom, secretary of the Asian Art Commission, which runs the museum. 'There is a Chinese saying that translates something like this: 'The right time, the right place and the right person [doing] the right thing'. That's how I see Jay.'

Xu's first public role in his new job was to open an exhibition of Ming court art put together in a collaboration with three of the mainland's most important institutions - the Palace Museum in Beijing, the Nanjing Municipality Museum and the Shanghai Museum. Even though he didn't have a hand in the show, it points to where some of the AAM's attention will be directed: training.

Since 2003, Xu has served on the Mellon Programme for Chinese Museum Professionals, which helps develop expertise for the mainland's rapidly expanding museums.

'During the past 20 years, China has had arguably the fastest economic development in the world. This has seen construction going on everywhere, and wherever you dig, you find ancient objects. As they keep coming up, you need to build museums to house them,' Xu says. 'They're building museums in just about every county in China as we speak, and there are a lot of counties.

'When building museums at such a fast pace, it's difficult for the cultural infrastructure to keep pace,' Xu says. 'China needs seasoned curators, directors and managers.'

In his new role, Xu hopes to plug the AAM into the teaching loop with a curator-in-residence programme. 'I envision inviting one or two people a year to see how our curator works, because stylistically and organisationally, it's a little different,' he says.

The AAM's galleries and curatorial structure are organised into seven large, loosely defined cultural areas - South Asia, West Asia, Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, China, Korea and Japan. Xu, who studied Chinese literature at Shanghai University, is widely schooled in art and antiquities, and says achieving balance in the AAM's exhibitions will be a focus.

He jokingly describes himself as Shanghai 'born and riced'. He began his career in the 1980s as secretary to the director of the Shanghai Museum, Ma Chengyuan, who soon encouraged him to move into curating. A brief secondment in 1988 to assist visiting Princeton professor and Chinese antiquities scholar Robert Bagley yielded an invitation to study in the US.

'Six months later he wrote to ask if I was interested in the doctoral programme in art history and archaeology at Princeton,' Xu recalls.

He arrived in the US in 1990 with wife Jennifer Chen, a specialist in Chinese ceramics whom he met working at the Shanghai Museum.

'As you might imagine, we were a little bit younger, with wide-open eyes and full of the spirit of exploration. I'd been to America once. My wife had never been,' he says.

He was determined to make the most of Princeton even if plans beyond that were a little vague. But he told himself he would apply total dedication to whatever post he got, 'and that once I had the first job, I would never apply for another'.

It was an attitude he got from his parents, he says. 'I learned from them that effort is more important than results. They instilled in me the value that I should achieve the best I am capable of, even if it is modest.'

After his doctorate, Xu took up the offer of a fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York before landing his first major post, as head of Asian art at the Seattle Art Museum. Seven years later, the Art Institute of Chicago asked if he was interested in the head curator's job. He couldn't refuse such a post at what he calls 'one of the best museums in the world', so he relocated to Chicago, expecting to stay until retirement.

But five years into the job, a call from a headhunter eventually sent Xu and his family back to the US west coast, to the AAM.

Mimi Gardner Gates, the director of the Seattle Art Museum who appointed him to his first big job, reckons San Francisco is fortunate to have Xu. 'Jay has good judgment, intelligence, diplomatic skills and as much of a passion for people as for museums and Asian art. He's a superb scholar and, when he needs to be, a tough negotiator,' she says.

'He knows how to assess what will appeal and be meaningful to the community.'

Xu says contemporary art has been an important focus at the Chicago Art Institute, which has acquired some fine work by Asian artists, including Hong Kong's Wucius Wong, for its permanent collection. And the AAM is even better positioned to support contemporary art, he says.

Increasing international interest in young mainland artists over the past decade has raised fears Chinese antiquities may be neglected, but Xu says there's no danger of that.

That said, Xu is excited about what he calls the 'tremendous enthusiasm and momentum in contemporary Chinese art'. Viewing the boom as an art historian, he says, 'It calls on us to be very selective and focused and to do our homework and to make sure the art we show as a museum - and the great contemporary artists - survive the test of time.'

Xu divides Chinese contemporary art into two genres. 'One is very conceptual: artists commenting visually on political history, for example. You see many artists using Mao's likeness and motif. This art is shoulder to shoulder with international development all over the world.'

Then there is what he calls 'tradition-inspired contemporary art' - work that shows a strong connection with tradition but which is internationalised. 'This art is less visible but equally important and wonderful,' he says.

Personal passions aside, Xu will be channelling his energy towards other goals at the AAM. 'Museum work is fundamentally creative,' he says. 'Directing a museum is like conducting an orchestra, and every colleague is ike a musician.'

Museum commission vice-chairman David Lei says it's too early to tell what kind of influence Xu will have internationally, but that he has 'the desire, ability and willingness to collaborate'.

But the AAM's new director is already making his presence felt in the institution. 'Within a couple of months,' says Chang, 'he has instilled in the museum culture a dynamic sense of change, optimism and a strategic vision.'