Chinese and U.S. officials are hailing an exhibition at Beijing's World Art Museum as a milestone in Sino-American cultural exchanges. The exhibit was made possible by a renovation at the Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio.
What does a major museum do with its masterpieces when it closes for a four-year renovation? One option is to put the collection in storage. But the Cleveland Museum of Art decided to organize a series of traveling exhibits to share some of its treasures with museums around the United States and the world.
Charles Venable, the deputy director of the Cleveland Museum collection, traveled to China for the opening at the Beijing World Art Museum at the end of May. He says the Chinese audiences were excited to see the works of artists whose names are magic in the world of western art: Matisse, Monet, Modigliani, Renoir, Rodin, Van Gogh.
"I was surprised how many people from the Chinese public who were there for the opening really have read books on Modigliani, even if they haven't seen them," he said. "These are very well educated individuals and some of them, in fact, have been reading things in Western languages, particularly English. They do not have that much literature on Western art that has been translated into Chinese, so our catalogue is one of the first big survey books that is in Chinese."
The 60 works on exhibit in Beijing, 47 paintings and 13 sculptures, cover the years from 1860 to 1945, encompassing the rise of Impressionism through early modern art. Experts say the exhibition is the finest selection of modern European masterworks ever seen in China.
The exhibit will also travel to Korea and Japan, where Cleveland's Asian art collection is well-regarded.
"For years, decades, we have had very strong relationships with the major Northern Asian countries, so we have always had a long-standing personal relationship with colleagues there," he added. "Also, the fact that they all have been building new museums over the last 20 years that meet every kind of climate control and security issue that we have from a Western point of view. It means that now there are facilities that Western museums can be perfectly confident working in."
Venable says Asian colleagues requested Cleveland's modern masterpieces, not the Asian collection.
"All the major museums are feeling the need to become more inclusive of the entire world's cultural legacy and since they do not have any museum in China that has a major collection of Western Art, they asked us to bring a major Western-oriented show," he added. "And since we were organizing this one and since they also thought it would be very popular with Chinese audiences, they asked us if they could work to sponsor this Impressionist and Early Modern show."
In a world where globalization is a key theme, officials on both sides of the Pacific perceive the show as more than just an art exhibit.
The director of the Beijing World Art Museum, Wang Limei, says thousands of Chinese citizens will benefit from seeing masterpieces of the highest caliber with indelible Western cultural characteristics.
She says the exhibition allows Chinese citizens to experience a panoramic view of the modernization of western European art. Wang adds that while the individual works vividly reveal personal perspectives, they also provide excellent opportunities for Chinese audiences to learn more about western art.
The head of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Timothy Rub, says the collaboration is playing an important role in promoting cultural and academic exchanges between China and the United States and broadening their citizens' understanding of each other.
"We also believe, as you clearly do, that institutions such as the Beijing World Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art will have an increasingly significant role to play in helping us to understand and value other cultures, and in providing a common ground in this era of globalization as the world and its peoples come more closely together," he said.
After touring Asia, the Cleveland exhibit will travel to museums throughout the United States. The Beijing Museum is also planning on exhibitions of art from other U.S. museums, leading up to the 2008 Olympics.