It's all about CHINA: Cultural programming on the rise in Indianapolis as local Chinese population rises, country opens up

August 4, 2008

When Dr. Zao C. Xu moved to Indianapolis in 1986, there were only a handful of other Chinese immigrants working at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Now, there are more than 20.

Xu's wife works at Eli Lilly and Co. When she started there in the mid-1980s, she was one of about 20 Chinese immigrant employees at the pharmaceutical giant. Today, there are more than 500.

"Many people who came from China started working in the East or West coasts, but now are working here," Xu said.

And the city's cultural programming-from art exhibitions to film series-has grown with the population base. Locally based Chinese immigrants can keep close ties with China, and there are more choices to introduce outsiders to Chinese culture.

The U.S. Census asks people to identify their race with the catch-all category of "Asian," so accurate numbers on the local

Chinese population are tough to come by, accord- ing to Xu, executive director of the Confucius Institute at IUPUI. But he estimates that about 10,000 Chinese immigrants live in the Indianapolis area. And that doesn't count the many local families who have adopted children from China and are looking for ways to teach the children about their heritage.

Also, the general public is starting to value China as a growing market and economic force, with savvy business students flocking to Chinese classes and trying to educate themselves about customs.

"There's a broader demand to learn and understand Chinese culture," Xu said. "The reason we can do all this programming is that people need this."

As China becomes more open to travelers and to letting its citizens travel to study and work, personal ties are also building arts connections.

Art partnership

At the Indianapolis Art Center, it was an honorary board member's travels in China that resulted in a partnership with Shandong College for Arts in Jinan, China.

The center's leaders traveled to the college last fall for about 10 days and met faculty. That turned into a broader exchange when the center brought 60 prints and paintings from more than 40 faculty artists to Indianapolis for an exhibition that opened June 28 and runs through Aug. 23.

The works range from traditional Chinese pieces in calligraphy to Western-European-inspired modern works.

"The reception has been tremendous," said David Thomas, the center's vice president. "People have been incredibly enthusiastic."

The opening gala's 400 tickets sold out three weeks in advance, and the center has seen strong attendance for a related film series and workshops on cooking, calligraphy, paper cutting and painting.

"China has been in the public eye for quite some time, often in a negative sense," Thomas said. "What this program is about is what we have in common [rather] than our differences."

It's a connection the center hopes to continue, eventually developing it into a regular student and faculty exchange program.

University museum

Similar personal ties also led the University of Indianapolis to become the home of a collection of 46 traditional calligraphy, painting and poetry works by a renowned Chinese artist, Master Au Ho-nien.

Dr. Phylis Lan Lin, UIndy's director of Asian Programs and professor of social work, struck up a friendship with Master Au while hosting several of his exhibits and escorting him to other shows to help with interpretation.

After numerous visits, the artist donated works to establish an on-campus, free museum that opened in 2004. The 6,000-square-foot space in the student center hosts pieces valued at more than $1 million.

The museum is just one effort in a push to make the university home to more international learners and to send more UIndy students abroad.

"The university's becoming very international," Lin said.

Welcoming Ming

The Indianapolis Museum of Art's strong permanent collection has been the tie-in that's helped it regularly bring traveling exhibits of Chinese art.

This year, it will host "Power & Glory: Court Arts of China's Ming Dynasty," from Oct. 26 to Jan. 11.

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco put together the show, which includes more than 240 artifacts from the Ming Dynasty that ruled from 1368 to 1644. The show's producer worked with three Chinese museums to include some recently excavated pieces in the exhibit, including a gun from 1377 that had never been photographed before.

"What attracted me to [the exhibition] most is that it has all sorts of materials in it," said Jim Robinson, IMA's curator of Asian art. Works include everything from paintings to hairpins and feature gold, jade, porcelain, lacquer and textiles.

"And it comes from a major empire in Asia that influenced the entire world," Robinson added.

The IMA will also use the exhibit to highlight its strong collection of ceramics and paintings from the Ming Dynasty.

Parents of children adopted from China are excited to see the broader offerings as they work to connect with their child's home country.

Kathy Johnson, president of Families with Children from China-Indiana, said she's seen a huge difference since 1999, the year she adopted a daughter from China.

"This growth has certainly benefited our community," Johnson said. "We have more options for language classes and celebrating holidays."

Add on the fact that China's hosting the Olympics, and interest will likely continue to spike this year.

"This is the year that China will really shine in the public spotlight," she said.
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