Asian Art Museum’s ‘Shanghai’ a taste of exhibits to come

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.”

Planning for the show was well underway before Xu arrived, and he diplomatically says he lacks curatorial expertise in the area, though he has lots of “personal experience.” He has, however, been instrumental in a Bay Area-wide initiative called Shanghai Celebration, in which more than 30 organizations have cross-promoted their various programs related to Shanghai (

“Shanghai” was a natural for this year. There was the timing of the World’s Fair, combined with the fact that San Francisco and Shanghai have been sister cities since 1980 — the first sister city connection between an American and a Chinese city.

It is arranged roughly chronologically, showing the city as trading port and burgeoning metropolis through 19th century paintings and early 20th century photographs and lithographs. Colorful posters show “modern” women in heavy makeup, Western dress or fitted cheongsam, sometimes perched before the skyline of the romanticized city. The Art Deco style is reflected in a suite of furnishings — a bedroom set (dress, wardrobe, vanity, bed frame) made of dark rosewood is decorated with a stylized bamboo design.

The exhibition also acknowledges darker forces percolating below the bright surface. One 1924 Chinese-style hanging scroll depicts Huang Jinrong and Du Yuesheng sitting in a garden midst bamboo and pine; dressed in traditional long gowns, they look like gentleman scholars. In fact, they were kingpins of the powerful mafia. Woodcuts show the growing restlessness of workers and peasants, oppressed by the regime and by colonialism — a scrawny man tied to a post is the subject of “Roar, China!” by Li Hua. And of course, there are propaganda posters and paintings from the Communist era, with workers and soldiers waving red flags and banners and holding up pictures of Chairman Mao.

Contemporary art is in two galleries and also scattered throughout. Many do a double-take on the past, such as the mesmerizing “Landscape — Commemorating Huang Binhong — Scroll” by Shen Fan. Made up of neon tubes mounted on the wall and shaped like mountainous cascades, the work lights up in different patterns to the sound of a qin, a plucked instrument.

Xu is enthusiastic about his slate of future projects. Some have to do with physical enhancements. “Once the economy really comes back in five or six years,” he says, “I’d like to look into a capital campaign for building expansion.” Though he acknowledges the footprint of the museum is limited, he notes “In the back, we can put up a building above the loading dock, three or four floors of space.”

Other projects focus on programming. “My overarching ambition with this job,” he says, “is really to promote the art of all Asia and to illustrate the contribution of Asia to the rest of the world — the interconnectivity is key for my vision for the museum.” He wants to actively present the work of contemporary Asian artists, as well as artists influenced by Asia. The “Maharaja” exhibition opens in fall 2011 and Xu wants a Bay Area-wide celebration of South Asia culture based on the Shanghai Celebration model. More exhibitions are in the offing, of course, but Xu hesitates to talk specifics this early in their planning.

“Things could change, right?” he says, with a quick smile that says he would be ready for any eventuality. Meanwhile, this month Xu heads back to Shanghai; he’s looking forward to a visit to the expo and the hometown still dear to his heart.