Jay Xu: Mu­seum head prac­tices art of giv­ing BIO

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By QI­DONG ZHANG in San Fran­cisco

fa­mous scholar of an­cient Chi­nese bronzes, Pro­fes­sor Robert Ba­gley at the Depart­ment of Art and Ar­chae­ol­ogy of Prince­ton Univer­sity, came to the Shang­hai Mu­seum as a vis­it­ing scholar. Xu served as an in­ter­preter be­tween Ma and Ba­gley dur­ing his visit. Six months later, Xu re­ceived a let­ter from Pro­fes­sor Ba­gley invit­ing him to study in Prince­ton as his PHD stu­dent.

“I had only heard of Har­vard and Yale at that time and had never heard of Prince­ton, then I learned that (Al­bert) Ein­stein worked at Prince­ton, so I went ahead,” Xu laughed. “Look­ing back, my di­rec­tor at the Shang­hai Mu­seum may have seen po­ten­tial in me and maybe he has sensed that one day I could play a mean­ing­ful role in USChina re­la­tions. I didn’t know what it meant to get a de­gree, but they (Ma and Ba­gley) did, which changed my life for­ever.”

His study at Prince­ton gave him rig­or­ous train­ing as a scholar in art his­tory and ar­chae­ol­ogy, spe­cial­iz­ing in an­cient Chi­nese bronzes, and his work­ing ex­pe­ri­ence at Shang­hai Mu­seum helped make him a bi-cul­tural ex­pert on an in­ter­na­tional scope.

Af­ter Prince­ton, Xu spent two years of re­search fel­low­ship in the depart­ment of Asian Art at Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art in New York, and he be­came a cu­ra­tor of Chi­nese art at Seat­tle Art Mu­seum in 1996 and worked there till 2003. He be­came head of the Depart­ment of Asian Art at the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago and later chair­man of a depart­ment cov­er­ing not only Asian art but also an­cient Egyp­tian, Greek and Ro­man civ­i­liza­tions, be­fore he came to Asian Art Mu­seum of San Fran­cisco in 2008.

“A friend of mine once said I am in charge of the largest ter­ri­tory of long­est his­tory, which is prac­ti­cally true,” said Xu, “our mu­seum has the very best collection in the western world on Asian arts, even com­par­ing to mu­se­ums in Asia. It is in­com­pa­ra­ble be­cause there is not a sin­gle mu­seum in Asia that is so pan-Asia. So in the sense of cul­ture and ge­og­ra­phy, we cover much larger ter­ri­tory and di­ver­sity of cul­tures.”

De­scrib­ing San Fran­cisco as a gate­way to Asia and man­ag­ing 150 staff mem­bers from cu­ra­tors, de­sign­ers, artists, re­searchers, ed­u­ca­tors, se­cu­rity, mar­ket­ing and pub­lic re­la­tions, Xu be­lieves in lead­er­ship and en­hanc­ing on cul­ture diplo­macy at the mu­seum: “True lead­er­ship is in­spi­ra­tion, you have to in­spire your troops and get­ting the right staff is get­ting the job done with dou­ble ef­fi­ciency.”

“I am a ben­e­fi­ciary of the Ping Pong diplo­macy be­tween US and China,’’ Xu said. “Be­fore nor­mal­iza­tion of our two coun­tries, there were cul­ture ex­change and sports. Art and cul­tural un­der­stand­ing can help na­tions re­duce con­flict or ease ten­sion with each other – when you un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate each other, it’s eas­ier to com­mu­ni­cate. Mu­seum not only helps to ap­pre­ci­ate the arts, but also un­der­stand each other’s cul­ture, tra­di­tion and his­tory, which is


Di­rec­tor and CEO, San Fran­cisco Asian Art Mu­seum Age: 50 Born: Shang­hai • Art and Ar­chae­ol­ogy of An­cient China MA, Prince­ton Univer­sity (1993) • Art and Ar­chae­ol­ogy of An­cient China, PHD, Prince­ton Univer­sity (2008) • Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture, BA, Shang­hai Univer­sity (1983) • Re­search Fel­low Asian Art depart­ment, Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art (19951996) • Cu­ra­tor, Chi­nese Art, Seat­tle Art Mu­seum (1996-2003) • Head, Asian Art depart­ment, Art In­sti­tute of Chicago (2003-2006) • Chair­man,Asian and An­cient Art depart­ment, Art In­sti­tute of Chicago (2006-2008) • Di­rec­tor and CEO, Asian Art Mu­seum, ChongMoon Lee Cen­ter for Asian Art and Cul­ture, San Fran­cisco (2008) re­ally the root of mu­tual un­der­stand­ing. Our mu­seum brings Asia and US closer, and en­hances the cul­ture diplo­macy.”

The Asian Art Mu­seum pre­sented Shang­hai in 2010, a spe­cial ex­hi­bi­tion that fea­tures more than 130 works of paint­ings, fur­ni­ture, posters, fash­ion, movie clips and con­tem­po­rary in­stal­la­tions. Xu said the ex­hi­bi­tion ex­plores the tu­mul­tuous his­tory that has re­sulted in one of the world’s most dy­namic and cos­mopoli­tan cities.

“I am a Shang­hainese my­self, and was so proud of putting this fan­tas­tic art show to­gether to co­in­cide with China’s World Expo in 2010, which show­cased great sup­port from both Shang­hai and San Fran­cisco may­ors,” said Xu.

Xu said that ap­prox­i­mately 50 pro­grams were cre­ated to en­rich vis­i­tors’ ex­pe­ri­ence and pro­vide additional con­text to Shang­hai, in­clud­ing per­for­mances, evening events, dis­cus­sions and lec­tures, Asia Alive demon­stra­tions and film screen­ings through­out the ex­hi­bi­tion’s seven months to honor re­la­tion­ship with Shang­hai.

“We ar­ranged a large Chi­nese con­tem­po­rary sculp­ture given by people of San Fran­cisco to Shang­hai people, pre­sented by then-San Fran­cisco Mayor Gavin New­som (now Cal­i­for­nia’s lieu­tenant gover­nor). The sculp­ture was placed in a pub­lic park next to the expo and re­ceived a lot of at­ten­tion; now years have passed but I am still emo­tion­ally con­nected with that pro­gram.”

Be­ing the only and first Chi­nese Amer­i­can who be­came the di­rec­tor of a ma­jor US mu­seum, Xu at­tributes his suc­cess to “giv­ing 120 per­cent or more‘’ at ev­ery­thing he does.

And be­cause he learned the im­por­tance of men­tor­ing from his own ex­pe­ri­ence, Xu is an ac­tive mem­ber of the Com­mit­tee of 100, which he was in­vited in 2010 for his achieve­ment as a Chi­nese Amer­i­can.

In a re­cent Com­mit­tee 100 an­nual meet­ing, Xu called on fel­low mem­bers and com­mu­nity lead­ers to “think about giv­ing early, giv­ing more, giv­ing of­ten”.

“Giv­ing is it­self a gift for all of us to cher­ish,” he said.


Shang­hai na­tive Jay Xu, di­rec­tor and CEO of the Asian Art Mu­seum, in his San Fran­cisco of­fice. “Giv­ing is it­self a gift for all of us to cher­ish,” he said.

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