Q&A Series – AAPI Heritage Month – Jay Xu

Over the past twelve months, the rise in anti-Asian hate and xenophobia, combined with a global pandemic have made this 2021 AAPI Heritage Month more important than ever. In celebration and recognition of AAPI Heritage Month, the staff of Committee of 100 sat down with some of our members and asked them about their careers, what the past year has been like as a Chinese American and their hopes for the future.

This week, we spoke with Dr. Jay Xu, who is the CEO and Director of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, a position he has held since 2008. We asked Jay about his career, the year of 2020, and what the future holds for Chinese Americans.

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Committee of 100: As a Chinese American, what are some of the challenges you have encountered to become a leader in your respective field?

Jay: I was born and raised in Shanghai, where I also happened to work at my first museum: the Shanghai Museum. I am a specialist in Asian art, ancient Chinese bronzes to be specific. So as an Asian American with an Asian specialty, I actually feel pigeonholed when it comes to leadership opportunities, and it has always been a challenge to break through the invisible walls around how I am perceived. While I am proud to be the director and CEO of one of the most important museums of Asian art in the world, I also understand that at this moment, no matter how much I accomplish, I may likely never be a serious candidate to lead a more general or encyclopedic museum. I say this knowing that, for instance, a white China specialist, of which there have been quite a few, would never have faced the same questions about how their scholarly background impacts their abilities and interests in leading general or encyclopedic museums. Before leading the Asian Art Museum, I was running two curatorial departments, covering a majority of the world’s ancient civilizations, at the Art Institute of Chicago—arguably the most important art museum in the country outside of New York City—and yet despite that experience there were opportunities for which I was never considered. I am not bitter, because I am passionate about my field and where I am now, but it is human nature to wonder what else might have been.

Committee of 100:  There are more than 5 million Chinese Americans in the United States today and it is one of the fastest-growing populations in the U.S. Do you feel that Chinese Americans are well represented in government, business, and other parts of society?

Jay: Chinese Americans are not well represented across every part of the society. However, while there are structural roadblocks like the ones I described in my own area, I sometimes see the responsibility as mutual. Our community has to make efforts to seek representation outside of the expected areas of business, law, science, medicine, and now tech. Culture, the arts, these do not feel like a priority yet for the Chinese American community despite our extraordinary contributions in these areas—think of Yuanyuan Tan for ballet, Yo-Yo Ma for classical music, I. M. Pei for architecture, and Maya Lin for visual arts, and the list goes on to the artists we feature at the Asian Art Museum. The experiences and aspirations of these artists reflect many of the concerns I am expressing—from entrenched anti-Asian racism and society’s need to address the issue, to the importance of visibility and a place at the table. I do believe strongly in the intrinsic value of the humanities to confront these challenges, yet even in an organization like the C100, which is doing its part to foster awareness and pride and celebrate achievement, as a museum director I do not always have the same voice or clout as my peers in the business world. We have a great opportunity to broaden representation, starting here.

Committee of 100: For those Chinese Americans and AAPIs who are getting ready to graduate college here in the month of May and June, what advice would you give to them? 

Jay: My daughter graduated last year, during the height of the pandemic. This year, graduation takes place during AAPI Heritage Month, but also during a time of increased anti-Asian violence and hate. This reality shades what should be a happy moment with poignancy, transforming it into one of reflection: Who am I? What do I want to contribute? What do I want to change? What I would tell graduates today is what I have always told my daughter—“Believe in yourself, but don’t take anything for granted.” Go out into the world with the mentality that you are an underdog, but one who can overcome obstacles. You can only do this by participating and by building allyship, because you need fellowship in this world to accomplish change. If you’re curious about what that looks like, see what arts, culture, and community organizations are doing to honor AAPI Heritage month and join those programs. For my part, I’m speaking on many panels all month long! Experience what others are passionate about and get a taste for what you might be passionate about. I was not actually born with a passion for art. Growing up during a very hard time in China, I had little art education, and my father always said—“you are less likely to get into trouble if you work in technical fields”—so I studied mathematics and physics despite my interest in literature and history. But analytical ability is important to art history and especially archaeology, and so I eventually “forged” an expertise in ancient bronze-casting and interplay between artistic creation and technological innovation. I understood something interesting was happening in a seemingly unrelated field, and I took my skills there. What I realized is that behind every advancement in technology is always culture, and it’s this interplay that makes an artwork an artwork. Art is really the most inspired form of human expression. It comes from the constant pursuit of new methods and new ideas. It is beyond definition—I am thrilled to hear see my friends in Silicon Valley using “state of the art”—my phrase so to speak—to express those qualities of being new, different, and the best in their industries. Passion is something only you can feel for yourself at first, that you are intuitively attuned to and it is always something to pursue.

Committee of 100: What do you most want to be remembered for in terms of making your mark on this world?

Jay: For me, success would be that I helped transform the nature and experience at the Asian Art Museum and bring it securely and sustainably into the 21st century. A big part of that sustainability is that we made the museum “Asian for all,” as we like to say. The scope of this “all” emphasizes making meaningful connections with those previously underserved by the museum, such as Asian American artists and other AAPI communities. I want the museum to be as inclusive, as diverse, and as accessible as possible. Part of making the museum accessible is also getting others excited about what excites you. Having spent my precious vacation time conducting research, I would also hope to leave behind a body of scholarship that advances the field of Chinese art, particularly on the Sanxingdui civilization, of which new archaeological discoveries have been totally re-energizing. It just shows that, like a child, you should never lose your curiosity and you should never stop learning and researching. People say necessity is the mother of invention, but I say No! Curiosity is. It’s through exploring without materialistic objective that we make our most important discoveries. Kids enjoy this innately, but we lose it as we grow up in exchange for professional skills. So prolong childhood as long as possible. Part of this is giving other people opportunities. There have always been people in my life who gave me an opportunity and saw the potential that I did not always see. These included other museum directors I served, whose dedication to their work inspired my curiosity and desire to be the first Chinese American to lead a major U.S. art museum. There is tremendous pride in that, but also sadness that it took nearly two hundred years for a Chinese American to become so for the first time—there’s still a dearth of Asian American leaders in my field and I feel lonely in that. My hope would be that by leading in this role with distinction and by sharing my experiences and lessons, I can make others less lonely and help pave way for a new generation of leaders. In the end, I’m an optimist; the optimism that change is possible has carried me through.

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