Despite growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution when freedom of artistic expression was prohibited, Jay Xu, director and CEO of the Asian Art Museum, has spent his entire professional career in
museums. And he wouldn’t have it any other way. Xu’s first job, as secretary to the director of the Shanghai Museum, led to stints at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Seattle Art Museum and the Art Institute in Chicago. In 2008, his arrival at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco made him the first Chinese American director at a major art museum in the United States.
In Xu’s view, museums are “hubs of humanity,” places where people from all backgrounds come together to connect with art in its many forms, to gain a greater understanding of history and cultures and, at their best, help us heal. (Our Arts & Culture department’s peek at Ala Ebtekar’s upcoming installation, on page 26, is a great example.)
I sat down with Xu last month at the museum, where we talked about the past, the future and the power of art.
Meet Jay Xu.
You grew up in Shanghai. What was it like growing up in China in the 1970s?
I was born in 1963, about three years before the Cultural Revolution. So as a small child, I experienced its trauma. It was a very, very difficult time. Some terrible things happened during the Cultural Revolution. I can still see it in front of my face, because a childhood memory is a very strong memory. I was lucky enough, when it was time to go to high school, that it was over. The education system gradually came back. I went to college, and in 1983 I had my first job at a wonderful museum called the Shanghai Museum. So that’s the beginning of my journey in my professional career. I’ve never had a day I wasn’t with a museum.
Tell me about your family.
My grandfather was a village schoolmaster, so I come from a background of education. My grandpa was in the countryside, not far from Shanghai, so he sent his brightest son [there] for education. And my father was meant to be a scholar, but he never had a chance because of the Cultural Revolution. He was sent to a factory — a glove factory — as a laborer. He was in a so-called “reform camp” several times. But then, because he was a very smart person, after the Cultural Revolution they actually made him general manager of that factory. He’d already worked [there] for so long, falling in love with the people who suffered there together. And then he made a good business out of it.
What inspired you to pursue a profession in the arts?
I came from a family background with a strong interest in history. So I really approached the museum for history, for ancient artifacts. And I was a very curious person. Gradually, I fell in love, just like I fell in love with American cuisine, such as salad. I remember the first time I came to this country in 1988 as a courier for the Shanghai Museum. My colleague took me to an American diner. Big salad, full of dressing. I nearly threw up — I’d never eaten such a thing. Nowadays, more than 30 years later, every time I go to Asia, the first thing I want when I come back is a wholesome bowl of salad.
An acquired taste.
Yes, an acquired taste. But acquired taste is not something necessarily external to you. It’s something inside you that has not yet been awakened. I realized I actually have artistic sensibility. I don’t think I’m good enough as an artist, and that’s why I’m an art historian. This artistic sensibility was really awakened at the Shanghai Museum. Then, of course, I had a wonderful opportunity in 1990 to go to Princeton for my Ph.D., which has one of the best programs in East Asian art and archaeology. It was not so surprising that after Princeton, I wanted to work in museums.
What was it about San Francisco and the Asian Art Museum that made you want to move to the West Coast?
First of all, it’s the art. The Asian Art Museum has one of the best collections of Asian art in the world. The second is the location. San Francisco is a gateway to Asia, no doubt, right? The Golden Gate Bridge is the bridge of understanding. I think location is so important. Sometimes we need to change our perspective to understand how important it is. People typically say San Francisco is located on the West Coast of the United States. I say, at the same time, we’re the East Coast of the Pacific. Asia is so essential in American life, and we’re in the right spot. Certainly, not only the geographic location, but also the history. This community has a deep, deep historic relationship with Asia, but also a wonderful, large population of Asian Americans. I feel like this is home; that I belong here.
The core collection at the museum initially came from a gift to the City in the 1960s from Chicago millionaire Avery Brundage, a major collector of Asian art. Why was San Francisco the recipient of such a gift and what was Brundage’s wish for the collection?
I never met him in person, so what I know is only through readings. I think, first of all, the collection would have the largest impact in San Francisco. I believe he said in his opening speech [after giving the collection to the City] that he hopes this museum will be a bridge of cultural understanding. He insisted there be a building built for the museum. He was a person of huge ego. He was not necessarily an easy person to deal with. But at the time, people focused on the art.
What is the mission of the Asian Art Museum today?
The mission is to make Asian art for all people. That’s the long story short. And we do it by making connections. We make Asian art relevant, engaging and interesting, no matter who you are. Our audiences come in with all different interests and backgrounds. Some have a tremendous knowledge about Asia and our very rich display will help satisfy that thirst.
What about people who may not have that kind of knowledge?
We are about to finish a project we call the “Masterpiece” series, where we call out only 15 masterpieces. We have a focused treatment of one [masterpiece], which is an ancient bronze vessel made in China 3,000 years ago in the shape of a rhinoceros [as seen above]. It’s very charming and cute. And there are benches all around it, and we have an object and a label — the traditional museum experience — but we also added video to show you what the rhino looked like in the natural environment. We have interactive media to showcase how the bronze vessel was cast 3,000 years ago… You develop layers and layers of information for someone who is not familiar with Asian art, but may be very concerned about the environment. A rhino in ancient China? I don’t see rhino in China now. Why did it become extinct? This is an issue that is universal to all of us and happening everywhere. Extinction of species.
Museumgoers’ expectations have changed so much since you arrived in 2008. Have you made adapatations?
Art alone won’t work. It’s about experience. The experience economy, right? This phenomenon has a lot to do with the millennial generation, so we really focus on experience. For example, the teamLab exhibit [teamLab: Continuity]. It is futuristic. It is immersive. It is interactive because as art, of course, you can see it, but, also, you can touch it. But, beyond that, it has a song you can hear. And, some people may not notice, but it also has a smell. It has a scent. So it engages all your senses, except you can’t eat anything off the wall, but you can go to our cafe [Sunday at the Museum]. We have a wonderful fusion cafe by a young Korean American chef [Deuki Hong]!
Do you think the museum, through its exhibitions, enhances your audience’s understanding of this country’s sometimes complicated relationship with certain parts of Asia?
I think the more understanding generated by artistic experience will help create more empathy between people. And that empathy will help reduce hate. Our focus is people to people. And art provides a unique value because it is the utmost expression of human creativity. We can all have a common denominator: our appreciation for creativity, even if the Chinese and American styles are different. That creates conversation, which helps us create empathy and understanding. In my view, the more difficult a political situation is, the more essential our function is to achieve that understanding.
Relations between the two countries have been strained, notably under the prior White House administration. Does that make your job, on any level, more difficult?
Yes. Using one word to describe everything that [Donald] Trump does, he demonized people who don’t think like him. So he demonized China and he demonized Chinese culture. I’m not in any way intimidated by that demonization of other people. Actually, we’re more energized to do our fair share, to counter that demonization. We want to showcase culture and showcase creativity. It’s certainly more difficult, but it also makes our mission even more important.
Art is often a reflection of what’s happening in the world at any given time. What kind of art do you see coming out of China today?
Because the population [of China] is very large, you have so many artists. One area people are very interested in is high-tech knowledge. Like how AI will be utilized, and the installation with sound and lights and so on. But on the other hand, there’s a group of artists who are very, very interested in the tradition. They feel that tradition is always at risk of losing out. So how to preserve that tradition, how to have meaningful dialogue in the 21st century with tradition. I think that’s very exciting.
My biggest regret is … Because this job is so consuming, I never had enough time to spend with my family.
I’m happiest when … I like to travel, and traveling with my family is the best.
If I had a magic wand, I would … Conduct the orchestra.
The biggest risk I ever taken is … The Asian Art Museum. I’ve never been a museum director.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned here … No matter how difficult a situation is, never lose sleep. After a good sleep, you’re always in a better position to address it.
Over the past 18 months with COVID-19, we have seen a significant uptick in anti-Asian sentiment and even violence. How have you used art to defy that?
Our largest asset and our strength is art. We really want to tell the story of Asian American artists and create a platform for them. That’s why, before the pandemic, we already had a strategy to “turn the museum inside out.” The museum’s walls should be our first galleries. There are three layers and murals [the new Lawrence and Gorretti Lui Hyde Street Art Wall]. At the pedestrian level [there is a mural] by a Filipino American artist, Jenifer Wofford [Pattern Recognition]. Above that level, on the first floor, at the end of our new expansion, we showcase a Chinese American artist, Chanel Miller, who was a victim of sexual violence on the Stanford campus [I was, I am, I will be]. She became a very effective spokesperson for women’s rights and the fight against sexual violence. Very few people know she’s also a visual artist, so we debuted her art and she chose the theme of healing. This society, this nation, needs so much healing right now. And above that, the art terrace, which we’re still constructing, but some work you can already see. It’s by Indian American artist Jas Charanjiva [Don’t Mess With Me]. Again, [it’s] women’s power fighting against sexual violence. So in this case, we’re activating Asian American artists and through their art we showcase the value.
You have a very stressful job — it’s never-ending, with fundraising, closing and reopening, and thinking about the next exhibition. What do you do to recharge and get inspired?
I mean, it’s a very tough job. I have learned so much during the process. I have wonderful support from the City and our board. The job is certainly very stressful, but I’m also very motivated, because, as I say, art is the best form of human expression. And I believe I’m a people’s person. Meeting people like you, and others, energizes me. But at the same time, I find those moments of quietude. Fundamentally, I’m a scholar. I would love to have more time, I believe, to think. And I love music. That transports me to a whole different universe.