The vaulted ceiling of the newly renovated Kemper Art Museum is awash with bombs — 43 full-scale weapons of mass destruction. The monumental site-specific installation is a holdover from “Ai Weiwei: Bare Life,” an eclectic showing of China’s most celebrated dissident artist that reopened the museum, located on the eastern tip of Washington University’s campus, in St. Louis, Missouri, last September.
While the steel archway of 700 bicycles and provocative photographs of Ai Weiwei smashing a Han dynasty urn are long gone, the exhibition’s successful run drew unprecedented numbers of local Chinese and visiting students, sparked by an engagement that Kemper hopes to nurture and develop long into the future.
Although US museums are experiencing a surge of Chinese visitation as travel habits shift from shopping to culture, St. Louis remains somewhat beyond the traditional tourist trail through America — though not, it merits mentioning, on account of a lack of arts institutions. However, as this trend is only projected to increase, the first logical step for cultural institutions in mid-sized US cities should be to connect with local Chinese organizations, clubs, and schools.
With Chinese students making up an estimated 15 percent of Washington University’s student body and a sizeable Chinese-American community nearby, there was an audience eager to discover first-hand the work of a leading contemporary Chinese artist.
“Community outreach is about building relationships,” says Meredith Lehman, Head of Education at Kemper. “We have started momentum around the [Ai Weiwei] exhibition and it would be disingenuous to stop as the exhibition closes.”
This outreach centers around applying a China-focus onto already existing programs. On campus, the museum targeted its academic outreach to relevant professors and made sure its student educator program included Chinese students. For the public tour program, it added weekend visits guided in Mandarin, an offering it will continue for its permanent collection throughout 2020. But beyond the shadows of Washington University’s grand Gothic Revival buildings, Kemper is also broadening its partnerships with Chinese organizations and schools.
“We are strengthening our connections with the Chinese population in St. Louis,” says Lehman. “We have a new educator on staff who speaks Mandarin and she’s building ties with local associations and Chinese immersion schools.” The intention is to develop these connections and possibly use their Chinese staff and students to build a digital presence on WeChat and Weibo.
Indeed, the initial efforts appear to be working. According to Dr. Sabine Eckmann, the Chief Curator who developed the exhibition concept in coordination with Ai Weiwei, the museum has never welcomed so many Chinese visitors and Chinese students. While replicating the level of interest generated by the designer of Beijing’s Olympic Stadium will be challenging, creating awareness and positive museum experiences among previously disconnected Chinese communities is a strong platform to build from.
Asked about the ways in which the multimillion dollar renovation has changed the scope and mission of Kemper Art Museum, Dr. Eckmann stressed the museum’s newfound centrality on campus and the hope of becoming increasingly global. Yet, as the success of “Bare Life” demonstrates, a global outlook also means executing a smart strategy locally.