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Rising From Obscurity, Asian Art Reflects New York Success

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

Standing before a graduate art history class at New York University one February morning, Melissa Chiu recounted how little more than a decade ago as a doctoral student in Australia, a professor raised questions about her choice of specialty: Chinese contemporary art.

"She told me I was crazy, and that I should really consider subjects that had a greater degree of professional opportunities," Ms. Chiu said, her usual calm broken by a giggle. "She tried desperately to convince me otherwise. She told me I would never get a job."

Her concern proved unfounded. Ms. Chiu moved to Manhattan in 2001 when the Asia Society recruited her as its first curator of contemporary Asian and Asian-American Art — at the time, the only position of its kind in the United States.

In 2004, after curating exhibitions like "Paradise No! Contemporary Art From the Pacific" and "Cai Guo-Qiang, an Explosion Event: Light Cycle Over Central Park" and helping to found the Asian Contemporary Art Consortium, the society promoted her to museum director.

Last September, the museum announced a new acquisition program, built on a gift of 28 works of video and new-media art and an endowment goal of $10 million toward the care and conservation of the Asia Society Contemporary Art Collection.

More recently, she organized the show "Zhang Huan: Altered States," the artist's first museum retrospective, and Ms. Chiu is curating a historical overview of 30 years of contemporary Chinese arts for the American Federation of the Arts. She has become such a hot ticket on the lecture circuit that she decided to write a book, "7 Things You Need to Know About Chinese Contemporary Art," which is due out this month.

"The scene has reached a critical kind of tipping point," Ms. Chiu, 36, said in an interview in her corner office at the society, overlooking Park Avenue. (Her husband, Benjamin Gennochio, is a regular contributor to The New York Times.)

"I think it's a convergence of factors," she continued, citing China's rise as a global power and the rapid maturation of its art scene, spurred by the international market and frenetic interest from Europe and America. "And with the Chinese Olympics this summer, it feels like it's kind of our moment."

Though the society's attention-getting entry into contemporary Asian art began in 1998 with its "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" shows at the society and the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, Ms. Chiu dates the current boom to 2005, when Christie's folded Chinese contemporary art into its Asian art auctions in Hong Kong.

The next year, Sotheby's held its first contemporary Asian art auction in New York, where Zhang Xiaogang's "Bloodline Series: Comrade No. 120" sold for $979,200, more than double the estimate. Since then, Chinese artists, particularly painters, have entered mainstream auctions. In November, Mr. Zhang's "Family Portrait," also of the "Bloodline Series," brought $4.4 million.

Some major museums have broadened their contemporary Asian art efforts within existing departments. Others have established new departments, like at the Guggenheim, where Alexandra Munroe was hired as the first senior curator of Asian art two years ago.

"I don't think there's a boom so much as that the market has suddenly migrated for all sorts of obvious reasons to looking to China," said Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art. "You're looking at cultures that have had rich contemporary art practices. It's not that they just started making art, it's that we've suddenly started looking at them."

Ms. Munroe of the Guggenheim said: "It's a very interesting story of how a field gets born,. "These artists are coming from cultural and political realities that we cannot even fathom. I think the temptation too often is to focus on market trends and to miss the cultural and political and aesthetic system, and even the poetic system."

"I think people are finally waking up," she added. "This is brilliant, wonderful, innovative, exciting and important work. It's not just a phenomenon; it's the way the world is going."

That response erupted even earlier in Australia, Ms. Chiu said, when in the 1980s and '90s the country recognized that its economic future lay with Asia and invested heavily in the cultural sector. From 1996 to 2001, she worked as the founding director of the Asia-Australia Arts Center in Sydney, a contemporary art center that focused on the exchange between Asia and Australia through exhibitions, performances and film festivals.

She was well suited to the task, having a Chinese father and an Australian mother and reared as a child in Darwin.

"It was kind of a Crocodile Dundee existence," Ms. Chiu said, recalling her home, which faced the beach, and a crocodile that ambled down Main Street. "It's so far north that it's out on its own, and it has a really diverse Asian and indigenous population. In the early years in its history, it was a Chinese settlement."

In 2001, when she was recruited by the society, her first task was to figure out how to bring contemporary artists into the museum. One undertaking was to help create the Asian Contemporary Art Week, a citywide venture of museums, galleries and curators who came together "to look at how we could push the discussion," she said of the event. This year's gathering will be held March 15 through 24, with more than 100 artists presenting their works in 60 special events at 46 galleries and museums.

Her next step was to establish the acquisitions program, which will concentrate on new-media art, video and photography, fields, she said, where some of the most compelling works are being made nowadays. "Artists in Asia often feel like it's the medium that best suits the fast-paced changes in China, Korea, Tokyo and India," she said. "There's a kind of immediacy to it."

The effort has demanded perseverance. "Most museums don't undertake new collections today," Ms. Chiu said. "It required a lot of groundwork for us as an institution to decide to collect in contemporary art. I do think that when one thinks of art, immediately one thinks of painting. So for the museum to focus on new art and photography is kind of a bold statement."

She has also traveled with Harold and Ruth Newman, trustees whose gift helped establish the collecting initiative. "I asked Melissa, 'If you had your druthers, what would you want to do in terms of forming a contemporary art collection?' and she told me, and I said, 'You've got it,' " Mr. Newman recalled.

Because the museum is centered in the Asia Society, an institution that studies policy, history and contemporary life, it is well placed for art that bridges not only Asia and the United States but also the old and the new, Ms. Chiu said.

"I think one of the important elements of what we do at the Asia Society," she said, "is to connect the traditional and the contemporary — not to always look at the contemporary as a ruptured kind of tradition."

By Kathryn Shattuck
For The New York Times

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