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Artistic Connections Between China and Maine

I am sitting at a banquet table in the ancient city of Xi’An as glasses are raised and “gambei” is hollered by all. It’s mid-January, the week before Chinese New Year and celebration is in the air.

To my left is my good friend, the Beijing-based art critic Karen Smith—who has been at the forefront of the Chinese contemporary art scene for two decades. On my right is a young design professor from Xi’An Academy of Fine Arts (XAFA); she has a Mohawk, wears awesome sculptural earrings and is talking about her recent residency in London. On the opposite side of the circular banquet table are the big shots: He Dan, the Vice-President of XAFA and an acclaimed oil painter in his own right, flanked by the legendary art critics Peng De and Wang Lin.

The reason why I am here, apart from eating this delicious northern Chinese food, is as a representative of Fox Intercultural Consulting to forge relationships between XAFA and the Maine College of Art (MECA).  My trip is a preliminary one—to plant seeds before a formal delegation travels from Portland to China at the end of March.

My own story blends art, China and Maine in a curiously circular way. I spent a decade working in Hong Kong as an arts writer for the South China Morning Post newspaper and Time Out Magazine. My beat was the avant garde art scene that was kicking off north of the border: a tremendously lucky space to be in as a young writer.  In 2009, I moved with my Maine-born husband to Portland—and despite being on the other side of the planet, have remained connected to China’s art scene: project managing the annual Time Out Hong Kong Art Guide, editing for the Asia Art Archive and the novelist and artist, Hu Fang. A string of good fortune then brought me to work with Suzanne Fox, who pioneers educational programs between Maine and China. When we entered discussions with MECA, the stars were truly aligning.

Art is an ideal vehicle to connect Maine with China—in part because it offers such a level playing field. The U.S. has for many years been the home of the art world yet the contemporary art scene in China and Hong Kong is ablaze with growth and many of the world’s leading galleries are forging bases there. For Chinese students to spend time in the pristine air and great artistic tradition of Portland is proving to be very compelling. Equally, for American students to set off for study opportunities in the burgeoning Chinese art scene is simply stuff of the future.

Here in Xi’An, they will find a city that mixes an ancient past with a bafflingly busy present. In the North West of China, Xi’An is home to the Terracotta Warriors. It is a city of such history that large sections still don’t have underground railway lines because there are too many treasures still buried underneath. Yet, Xi’An also has a startlingly modern and dusty face: there are Rolls Royce showrooms on the streets, neon is everywhere and cranes hang atop endless new residential towers.

This March, Don Tuski the President of MECA is traveling to Hong Kong, Xi’An, Hangzhou and Shanghai with Suzanne Fox in an official delegation to create connections with art institutions and forge pathways for art students to exchange. It’s the beginning of an exciting series of programs to deepen and explore the vast cultures of China and the United States through the prism of its artists. We can’t wait to see the cross-cultural, visual art forms and conversations that will emerge.