The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Maxwell Hearn speaks with Scarlett Zuo
Today, the Metropolitan Museum of Art holds one of the largest collection of Asian art in the Western world, with over 35,000 objects that date back to the third millennium B.C. But just forty years ago, the Met barely had an Asian art presence. "In 1971, the only Chinese art on view at the Met was the ceramics around the great hall balcony, and a room of early Buddha sculptures and the big mural," recalls Maxwell "Mike" Hearn '71, the Met's Douglas Dillon Chairman of Asian Art.
Things changed when Douglas Dillon, former Secretary of the Treasury, joined the Met as president in 1970. According to Hearn, Dillon initially had no real interest in Asian art, but "he recognized that the Met could not afford to ignore Asia, and [that Asian art] was the weakest department in the museum." Dillon became personally involved with building up the Chinese galleries, hiring renowned art historian Wen Fong to recruit staff members and expanding the collection of Chinese paintings and calligraphy. As a result of his efforts, the Met now boasts ten curators specialized in various aspects of Asian art.
According to Hearn, the support of New York collectors was also key to the success of the Met's Asian collections. "In 1981, we opened the Astor Court, and the Dillon galleries on either side. As soon as we did that, a man named John Crawford, who had the greatest collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy in private hand, said, 'At last, a place big enough for my collection!' That situation has been replicated over and over again." This kind of response from the New York art collecting community, coupled with Dillon's intense commitment to expanding the Chinese art collection has transformed the museum.
Hearn describes how Chinese art is meaningful to the U.S. public, "I think Chinese art, like Chinese culture, offers a very different perspective on the world. To the degree that art belongs to all people, it is a way of enlarging who we are and how we understand the world."
The son of a businessman, Hearn's journey into Chinese art was serendipitous at best. Although he had taken an introduction to art history class at Yale, it was only during his sophomore summer that he visited the Nelson Gallery in Kansas City - which holds one of the world's greatest Chinese collections, and fell in love with Chinese art. "I got so moved that I ended up taking a seminar on Nan Song Shan Shui ("Southern Song Dynasty landscapes"). The teacher, Dick Barnhart, was very eloquent, and we talked a lot about Zen. He was a chain smoker, so as we looked at these misty landscapes, the room would fill up with cigarette smoke. It was very atmospheric and I was completely won over."
After graduation, Hearn had no idea what to do with his art history degree, so he started working on a friend's farm. Meanwhile, he wrote to Barnhart's teacher, Wen Fong. "When I met [Wen Fong], after thirty minutes, he said, 'Would you like to work at the Metropolitan Museum?' To which I said no, because they had no Chinese art." Wen Fong insisted that Hearn try the job because "things are going to change." After working at the Met for three years, Hearn studied Chinese language in Taiwan for two years and earned his PhD from Princeton. He then returned to the Met in 1979, where he has remained ever since.
"The very gratifying thing is that the Met now can show Chinese art at the same high level that people expect to see in American art, European art, or Greek and Roman art," says Hearn. "I feel very proud of the fact that we have works of art that are worthy of China. I hope our visitors from China will feel very proud to see their culture represented here at a high level."
Recently, Hearn curated "Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China," the Met's first big contemporary Chinese show. "One of the motivations for doing the show was really to say Asian art has a future and a present. I wanted people who are really fighting the tradition, or transforming it in novel ways. But you recognize in their work that they are still Chinese artists, and that they know something about their own past and are using it."
Before we conclude, Hearn says that three sentences from Qiu Zhijie's triptych selected from 30 Letters to Qiu Jiawa in the show best summarized his vision:
"You need to go back in the past often.
But don't try to leave the present.
The future they say is just imaginary."
Scarlett Zuo is a sophomore at Yale University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article also appears in China Hands.
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