Wenda Gu: from middle kingdom to biological millennium Essay06/06/2003 - 07/12/2003
In cities and towns across the United States, university museums and college galleries offer a unique resource for informed or inquisitive audiences. Public programs presented at these institutions are inextricably linked with creative, questioning communities and dynamic environments of learning and share a common, two-fold mission: to expand educational opportunities through innovative, quality programs and to extend these resources to public audiences in a relevant and thought-provoking manner. Ideally and at their very best, these institutions present exhibitions and educational programming to serve a multitude of constituencies – students, educators, professionals, and an increasingly diverse public – and they do so in a distinctive way.
In a recent article published in The New York Times, Stephen Kinzer cites the new role that university museums have assumed in recent years. As an alternative to the trend of blockbuster exhibitions hosted by large civic museums to draw very large audiences, or in regions that lack these public museums altogether, he points out that university museums are filling a unique niche and have gained higher and wider regard locally, regionally, and nationally. They are doing so by organizing and presenting more innovative, multidisciplinary exhibitions that take full and creative advantage of their resources. 1
The University of North Texas Art Gallery, the ICA at Maine College of Art, and the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute, working together to organize and present Wenda Gu: Art From Middle Kingdom to Biological Millennium, have formed a model partnership. An altogether ambitious endeavor, the intended aim of this partnership is multifaceted. As both an example and prototype for innovative approaches to creating public programs, this exhibition suggests a standard that provides greater access to audiences, expands the project scope beyond the ambition of one university museum or college gallery alone, and combines the expertise and resources of regarded university museums across the nation.
Often, it is an ambition and situation born of necessity, including small staffs and prescribed budgets, that leads university museums to further develop a penchant for creative, expansive thinking. To the benefit of many, collaborative efforts such as this one sometimes present an opportunity to expand the scope of a given program and stretch the reach of collective resources.
As our individual and collective sense of community broadens, a shift in perspective encourages a different kind of consideration, one that is less defined by immediate and imaginary boundaries, both geographic and conceptual. In a cultural era dominated by a focused discourse on issues of globalism and its impact on economics, politics, art, and fostering a better understanding of the world we live in, it seems entirely fitting for an exhibition such as Wenda Gu: Art From Middle Kingdom to Biological Millennium to be organized in precisely this way at just this time.
A Chinese-born artist now living and working in the United States and exhibiting internationally, Wenda Gu creates imaginative and compelling art. His work is an intelligent fusion of historical and contemporary influences from eastern and western spheres alike. In his work, we see blended ideas of cultural isolation and assimilation. Ultimately, Gu is inviting notions of a metaphoric narrative that dares to speak of a brave new identity where differences of race, religion, language, tradition, culture, and geographical divisions begin to collapse and suggest something new.
These ideas are indeed timely and well suited for thoughtful and contextual consideration within more than one community. As university museums, serving as destinations and purveyors, strive to be relevant and add value to their immediate communities, they also look to absorb lessons, and cooperate with their peers within a larger, more national community. Timely meetings between issues and ideas, both local and global, begin and converge in the most likely and appropriate of settings.
Research centers, laboratories, studios, and other learning-oriented environments like university campuses, classrooms, and museums enjoy and are by design positioned to capitalize in a positive way from the benefits and freedoms associated with innovation, experimentation, and the pursuit of new ideas. As quoted in Mr. Kinzer’s article, Ann Philbin, director of the U.C.L.A. Hammer Museum, a nationally-admired program focusing on recent contemporary art, claims this as exactly the unique purview of university museums. 2 In their aim to produce public programs, they are afforded license to explore and stretch boundaries within an environment that fosters dialogue, collaboration among colleagues, and a dynamic exchange of ideas.
 Stephen Kinzer, “More Ambitious Art Shows and Catalogues on Campus.” New York Times, December 11, 2002.