The specialist history of Chinese Art in America is now more than a century old, and we have important collections of Chinese Art and concomitant art historians who specialize in Chinese art in virtually every American city. Yet, with Maoist China, both commerce in Chinese art and active scholarly interchange was in hiatus. Now, with the openness of China and with the competitive edge in the world economy swinging in its direction, any serious art history institute must reckon with China.
Fortunately, we at UTD have one of the first Confucius Institutes in the US, and its Director, Dr. Ming Dong Gu, is a native of the great imperial and university city of Nanjing (which we used to call Nanking). Through Dr. Gu’s efforts, we at the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History were invited by the Institute of Art to the University of Nanjing.
Our idea was simple, to introduce for the first time in a major Chinese university (whose origins go back to the third century of the common era!) an Institute of the Study of American Art in China (ISAAC). Our partner in this endeavor is the Amon Carter Museum, whose collection of American Art and whose unparalleled library and archive of American Art history is one of the great resources of North Texas. Dr. Andrew Walker and I went to China under Dr. Gu’s expert guidance and spent several days in Nanjing.
It was, for both of us, our first trip to China and was in every way life-changing. We landed in Shanghai, took the fast train to Nanjing, and were immediately immersed in the graduate school campus of the University of Nanjing. Our tour of the beautiful old campus included the Pearl Buck House, where the first American Woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature lived in the 1920’s and early 1930’s when Nanjing was the capital of Republic China. This block-like, grey brick house now stands empty in the center of the campus and is, for Americans, an architectural talisman of a time when Americans played a vital role in the international understanding of China.
In our conversations with Dr. Zhou Xian, the distinguished Director of the Art Institute of Nanjing University, the graduate students in its distinguished program of aesthetics and art history, and the undergraduates at the new suburban undergraduate campus of the University of Nanjing, both Andrew and I were impressed by the rare combination of knowledge and curiosity that is essential to the most important scholarship.
We began to conceive together an Institute for the Study of American Art in China that has four components: 1. Systematically training Chinese Art historians to teach and research the history of American Art, 2. Publishing an evolving series of important titles in American Art History in Chinese, 3. Bringing distinguished American art historians to Nanjing for a series of Summer Courses in American Art History, and 3. Imagining with colleagues at Chinese museums a program of exhibitions of American Art in China.
Before we left and in more intensive conversations after our return, we discussed these efforts with Chicago’s Terra Foundation for American Art, who will become the fifth partner in an initial three-year joint funding of this institute with the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History and the Confucius Institute at UTD, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, and the University of Nanjing.
This program of cooperation among a Chinese and an American university, an American museum, and an American foundation committed to promoting knowledge of American Art history outside our borders, can—and will—have a profound effect both on China and on the US. American Art historians have contributed so much in the past century to the art historical knowledge of European, Latin American, African, and Asian institutions. With ISAAC (our felicitous acronym), we will create a fertile context for US in the United Sates to learn about ourselves from Chinese scholars.
With wonderful direct flights from DFW airport to China, the work already accomplished by our Dean, Dr. Dennis Kratz, and the director of our Confucius Institute, will take on a new dimension and add the University of Nanjing to the highly “curated” international alliances of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History. We will have active programs in Nanjing and Naples, in Munich and Zurich, and, perhaps, in France. Edith O’Donnell has allowed us at UTD to spread our wings, and we have flown far and wide.