President Stephen Beal's Trip to China

President Stephen Beal (second from right) on a tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing

My recent trip to China was fascinating. I was part of a small delegation of art school presidents (including representatives from the Rhode Island School of Design, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Art Institute, Glasgow School of Art, the University of Bern, and the University of New South Wales) invited to participate in an international symposium on art education. The invitation included participation in the celebrations marking the 90th anniversary of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and the 70th anniversary of the LuXun Academy of Fine Arts in Shenyang. I also attended the opening of LuXun's new campus in Dalian. The art academies in China are huge and the celebrations were very large events, with lots of official ceremony and spectacle—a bit like mini Olympic opening ceremonies!

The symposium included several forums and discussions focusing on the relative merits of the Chinese versus the American systems of art education in the context of today's globalized art market. Understandably, the current world economic conditions also attracted the attention of all involved. Few definitive answers came out of our discussions, but we did achieve a greater understanding of one other's educational approaches and increased familiarity among the heads of the schools. We enhanced our joint commitment to forge stronger partnerships and exchanges where possible. The leaders of the Chinese art academies were clearly pleased and moved by the attendance of the foreign art school presidents. Our presence was meaningful and set the tone for productive future collaboration.

Chinese students are keen to study in the United States. Their attitudes are very different from those of their American counterparts. I'm not used to having my speeches met with loud cheers, but in China, that appeared to be the required response to all of our remarks. Or maybe the students are all looking for full scholarships to American graduate programs!

Following are notes on the various schools and the events I attended.

1. Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), Beijing
Beijing's Central Academy has about 4,000 students. It was recently profiled in the New York Times and is getting lots of international attention. I attended the celebration of CAFA's 90th anniversary and the opening of its impressive new museum (designed by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki). I also delivered remarks and participated in a forum on international art education. The celebration was a spectacle typical of central-government-style celebrations, with numerous speeches, awards, et cetera. The entire student body attended, along with numerous alumni, faculty, and former faculty. Coinciding with our forum on art education was a conference on museums, attended by Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

President Pang Gongkai is familiar with American schools. He has been a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and received an honorary degree from the San Francisco Art Institute. Vice president Xu Bing is a recent addition to CAFA's executive team and is in charge of international relations. He is a very well known artist (represented in the Uli Sigg collection). He is a recipient of a MacArthur genius award and lived in New York for more than 10 years. Min Wang is dean of CAFA's School of Design. He did his graduate work in design at Yale and worked for more than 20 years in the United States, first at Adobe and then forming his own firm in San Francisco. He was drawn back to Beijing to work on the graphics for the Olympics and to head up the design school at CAFA. Min is familiar with many of our design faculty. With the recent additions of Min Wang and Xu Bing, CAFA has the leadership in place to be an excellent partner school for us.

While in Beijing I also joined Shiraz Chavan, CCA assistant director for international enrollment, in hosting CCA's first alumni and prospective student reception there. We had good attendance for an inaugural event. CCA alumna Sasha Liu lives in Beijing and also attended. She was very helpful, speaking with prospects and generally offering a strong international alumni perspective. I also visited with alumnus David Spalding, who is a curator at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, located in the heart of Beijing's thriving 798 Art Zone in the Chaoyang District. He lives in Beijing and is another great contact for CCA.

2. LuXun Academy of Fine Arts (LAFA), Shenyang and Dalian
From Beijing we flew to Shenyang for the celebration marking the LuXun Academy's 70th year. President Wei Ershen, though soft spoken, is ambitious and an adept showman. The LAFA celebration exceeded the CAFA festivities—perhaps because the initial opening of the school in 1938 was an occasion for a famous speech by Mao Zedong, and that history is immensely important in China. There were more people (7,000?) and more speeches. The celebration featured a live orchestra, the release of several thousand doves, and fireworks. Following the event we held an informal roundtable discussion with leaders from all of the Chinese academies. It was a lengthy and interesting forum with each leader advocating for their favorite ideology and pedagogy. The requisite banquet dinner followed.

The following day we all went via bus to Dalian to witness the official opening of the LAFA campus in that city: more speeches, celebrating, and the unveiling of a huge statue. Like Shenyang, Dalian is a city of about seven million people. The campus in Dalian is immense—approximately one million square feet! There are currently about 2,000 students there, but they expect to accommodate 5,000 or even 6,000 within two years.

3. Shanghai University, Shanghai
Qiu Rui Min, dean of the College of Art at Shanghai University, accompanied me on the flight from Dalian to Shanghai. Min has visited San Francisco several times and his daughter teaches part-time at the Academy of Art University. Wang Da Wei, executive dean, joined us for lunch, further discussion, and a tour of the campus. The university is comparable in size to a large state university in this country, but the art program is larger than many of its American counterparts.

The Shanghai 2010 world exposition will include pavilions from 200 countries. On the heels of CAFA's successful involvement with the Beijing Olympics, Shanghai University would like to partner with international schools to provide some design work for Shanghai 2010. There may be opportunities for CCA to participate in this effort. I also met with the American consulate's cultural affairs officer, Alys Spensley, who is available to offer assistance in exchanges or faculty visits. Shanghai University has ample accommodations for visiting faculty and students.

4. Fudan University, Shanghai
At Fudan University I met with Ding Yi, a professor in the School of Communication Design, and Chen Yao Ming, vice dean. Ding Yi was recommended to me by Xiaoyu Weng, a student currently enrolled in CCA's Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice. I spoke with students in Ding Yi's class, toured the school, and conversed with several faculty members. Fudan's program is most advanced in the areas of interactive media and experimental design. It has impressive resources and is also involved in sponsored projects with businesses. Fudan University could be an interesting partner school for CCA.

While in Shanghai I toured the Shanghai Biennale and some commercial art galleries. I also spent time with two CCA alumni, Anita Luu and Sing Lin. They are both designers and partners in Affiche Design, which has offices in the Bay Area, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. They joined me for dinner and also took me to Stir Art Gallery, which is owned by CCA alumnus Jianwei Fong. CCA is fortunate to have such extraordinary alumni in China—Anita, Sing, and Jianwei in Shanghai, and Sasha and David in Beijing. They are all productive and professionally engaged—great ambassadors for CCA.

Brief Summary Thoughts
China is investing enormous resources in its art academies and university art programs. Competition among applicants to the art academies is fierce. One of the distinct differences between the Chinese and American systems of education is the admissions process. All of the young applicants to art schools in China take a two-day, on-site exam that is unique to each academy. The exam is highly focused on traditional skills and techniques and students take courses in their high schools (and sometimes independently) to prepare for it. The Central Academy in Beijing has its own high school. Many students apply to multiple academies and take several of these entrance exams.

Faculty committees make selections based on the work done in the exams. Consequently, the skill level of all admitted students is consistently high and there is a noticeable similarity to the student work—students in the Chinese academies all draw very well. This is in marked contrast to American schools, where we see a wide range of skill levels and we encourage and support broad, diverse conceptual approaches to art and design thinking and practice.

Moving forward, I see several possible opportunities for CCA:

1. Increase undergraduate applications from China. This is a long-range goal, but I believe we need to establish and maintain a higher profile in China to prepare for this effort.

2. Support graduate study opportunities for select Chinese students. Virtually every academic leader (president, dean, program head) of the important Chinese art academies earned a graduate degree from an American or European school. A graduate credential from CCA is a valuable tool for success in China. We would be wise to seek resources to support graduate work at CCA for select Chinese students. This will increase the visibility of CCA in China.

3. Seek opportunities for faculty and/or student exchanges and partnerships. Many Chinese academies and universities are interested in exploring specific, project-based collaborations with American art schools. We should explore opportunities associated with Shanghai 2010, the international exposition.