Liu Yang, PhD
Curator of Chinese Art
Asian Art Department Head
Department: Asian Art
Yang came to the MIA in 2011 and oversees one of the finest wide-ranging collections of Chinese art outside China itself. A native of Zhejiang province near Hangzhou, the capital and one of China’s most scenic cities, Yang taught briefly at the International Studies University in Beijing before studying for his PhD in Chinese art history and archaeology at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). After receiving his PhD in 1997, he became the senior curator of Chinese art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia. There, his exhibition of Chinese terracotta warriors set an attendance record, and three books he authored (two exhibition catalogs and a collection study) won awards. Among his first projects at the MIA was assembling another terracotta warriors exhibition, which similarly became the most popular show at the museum in 20 years. Yang’s research into the collection has yielded important discoveries, including new insights into the origins of the museum’s prized Chinese bronzes. And his help in facilitating relations with Chinese museums has resulted in an unprecedented exchange of art and personnel.
Q: The MIA has so many striking examples of Chinese art. Can you pick favorites?
LIU YANG: Alfred Pillsbury’s bronze wine vessel in the shape of an owl. The jade mountain commissioned by the Qianlong emperor—the largest jade mountain sculpture outside China. The two Chinese buildings are also very unique, as the MIA is one of only three museums in the United States to have buildings like these, and ours are much older. Since we acquired them, the Chinese government has banned the import of whole buildings like this.
Q: How would you compare your Australian museum experience to here?
LY: First of all, the weather there is better. I bought a winter coat before I left London and never used it until I moved to Minneapolis. Also, the Chinese food is better: there’s a much larger Chinese community in Sydney. But museums in general in the U.S. have better collections, particularly at the MIA. After walking through the galleries and storage here, the breadth and depth of the Chinese collection really surprised me. It covers almost every aspect of Chinese art history.
Q: There have been many exhibitions of terracotta warriors—you’ve done two. How did you distinguish them?
LY: I wanted to focus not just on the warriors but on the history, art, and archaeology preceding the first emperor, who commissioned these sculptures. In both exhibitions, we showed 120 sets of artifacts, but only 10 were warriors (the new Chinese policy is 10 warriors per show). I tried to present a panoramic view of the history behind the rise of the Qin Empire, how the northwest frontier turned into a superpower under the first emperor, who unified China in 221 BCE. And how his quest for immortality resulted in the creation of the warriors.
Q: China has been investing a great deal in its own museums. What have you learned from your travels there?
YL: On a recent trip to China, we were told that more than a hundred museums are opening there ever year. When the American Alliance of Museums held its conference in Minneapolis in 2012, more than a hundred Chinese museum professionals attended. They have these new buildings and are eager to collaborate with Western museums on exchanging ideas for best practices. The MIA has talked to several Chinese museums, and we can expect not just an exchange of art but staff.
China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy (Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2012)
Homage to the Ancestors: Ritual Art from the Chu Kingdom (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2011)
The First Emperor: China’s Entombed Warriors (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2010)
The Lost Buddhas: Chinese Buddhist Sculpture from Qingzhou (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2008)
Translucent World: Chinese Jade from the Forbidden City (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2007)
The Poetic Mandarin: Chinese Calligraphy from the James Hayes Collection (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2005)
Fantastic Mountains: Chinese Landscape Painting from the Shanghai Museum (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2004)
The Asian Collections: Art Gallery of New South Wales (co-author) (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2003)
Masks of Mystery: Ancient Chinese Bronzes from Sanxingdui (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2001)
Fragrant Space: Chinese Flower and Bird Painting of the Ming and Qing Dynasties from the Guangdong Provincial Museum (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2000)