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A museum director's trajectory from Shanghai to San Francisco

May 22, 2010 | 10:10 am

Xu 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 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 in San Francisco, 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.   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.

To read my Arts& Books section profile of Xu and more about the museum's current show -- "Shanghai," naturally -- click here.

-- Scarlet Cheng

Photo Credit: Robert Durell/For The Times