Last December, Dr. Andrew Walker, Director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Dr. Ming Dong Gu, Director of the Confucius Institute at UT Dallas, and I went to Nanjing to meet Dr. Zhou Xian, an eminent scholar and Director of the Institute of Art at Nanjing University. For Andrew and me, the whole trip was a revelation, especially since it was our first trip to China. While there, a great fact became painfully clear: that, although American universities and museums have taught and collected Chinese art for nearly two centuries, little is known in China about the history of American art before Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. Although our art history is almost painfully short compared with the multi-millennial history of Chinese art, it is of vital importance to an understanding of our nation and its history.
Given the fact that the US and China are the two largest economies of the early twenty-first century, it is important that we understand each other fully, and, as we walked on the historic campus in central Nanjing (I call it a college town with a population of 14,000,000 people!), we came upon the home of Pearl Buck, the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Learning about her relationship with Nanjing University inspired us to work together to create a new institute called ISAAC, The Institute for the Study of American Art in China. ISAAC will bring together the library and collections of The Amon Carter Museum, the Confucius Institute, and the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History at UT Dallas, and the Institute of Art at Nanjing University.
Our aim for ISAAC is threefold: to train three Chinese art historians annually for three years in American art history through an ambitious travel and study program centered in Dallas-Fort Worth; to mount an annual summer Americanist symposium in Nanjing; and to start with the Nanjing University Press a series of translated books on American art history for Chinese readers. This does not come cheaply, but the commitment was so strong that we applied to the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago to join with UT Dallas and the Amon Carter to fund the program for three years. We were honored to receive from Terra a grant of $250,000, which, with the commitment to fund one senior scholar (Amon Carter) and two junior scholars (EODIAH), funds the program for three years.
Within nine months, we went from a dream to a reality, and already two assistant professors and a representative of Nanjing University Press have arrived in Dallas-Fort Worth. In a few short weeks, they will be joined by Dr. Zhou Xian, who has taken time from his very busy life at Nanjing University to spend more than a month with us in the United States. The two Assistant Professors, Dr. Gao Xin and Dr. Liu Yi will be with us for a full year, traversing the United States and studying with colleagues in Dallas-Fort Worth. Dr. Zheng Weili of the Nanjing University Press will be with us for a month as well and is about to undertake a multi-year program of translation and publishing of major books on American art and architecture before World War II.
This project has the aim of bringing a profound knowledge of American art, architecture, and landscape to China, training teachers and publishing books so that a new generation of students will know American art at its finest and most wide-ranging. Lauren LaRocca, from the Institute’s staff, has taken on the duties of planning the wide-ranging travel for the scholars—to Chicago, to Washington D.C., up the Rockies from Santa Fe to Cody, up the Mississippi from New Orleans to Minneapolis, and to Arkansas and Oklahoma—with the goal of understanding America through its great center regions and its capital. We know that, when they return to China, the scholars will be able to teach American art history in new and exciting ways and help us to select scholars for the next two years.
Richard R. Brettell, Ph.D.
Founding Director, The Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History and the Margaret McDermott Distinguished Chair
EODIAH’s University of Nanjing Fellows filling out their immigration papers. From left to right: Dr. Liu Yi, Dr. Gao Xin, Ms. Zheng Weili.