The Ringling just broke ground for its new Center for Asian Art, thus begins a yearlong transition period until the early 2015 completion date. Fan Zhang, the Wall-Apelt curator of Asian art, is also in transition. The new wing and his position will be named in honor of Dr. Helga Wall-Apelt, the collector and philanthropist.
The 36-year-old (or in his third horse year according to the Chinese zodiac, he says) moved here the last week of August, and, as of mid-January, he almost feels settled. He’s in the market for a new home for his wife and two children, who will move to the area from Northampton, Mass. Zhang was the Freeman/McPherson post-doctoral curatorial fellow in Asian art at Smith College the past three years.
One surprise in his new city was the Canadian license plates, and that people would drive all the way to the Gulf Coast of Florida for a visit. But Zhang understands after learning about the local arts here and seeing the beach for himself.
There is no beach in Wuhan, China, where he grew up. It’s a modern city in the middle of the mainland, and, because it’s a transportation hub, people refer to it as the “Chicago of the East.” This was his first attraction to ancient Asian artifacts.
Somewhere locked in the back of a closet of his old home in Wuhan is his childhood coin collection. He thinks it’s this collection of old coins that turned him on to other artifacts his ancestors made, such as bronze vessels, ceramics and painted landscapes.
When he was 18, he spent all the money his parents gave him for the New Year’s holiday on what he was told was a Han Dynasty bronze mural. The softball-sized circular plate sits on a bookshelf in his new office at The Ringling.
“I got my lesson from this interesting piece,” he says with a chuckle. “I learned there are lots of fakes and reproductions in the art market.”
His wasn’t real, after all. The experience taught him to pursue, examine and investigate. That’s how he became interested in art history and decided to study archaeology as an undergraduate student and also obtain a master’s and doctorate in art history. But, instead of teaching, his passion brought him to The Ringling.
“I regard myself as some kind of an ambassador to introduce Asian art to this country,” he says.
He has a lot to accomplish before the 20,000-square-foot center’s completion. He hopes to secure longterm loans from the Lowe Art Museum in Miami, the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, The Field Museum in Chicago and the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation in New York City. He’s working on bringing traveling exhibitions from the Hubei Provincial Museum in China and art of the samurai from the Stibbert Museum in Italy. In addition to getting those out-of-house exhibitions, he hopes to highlight The Ringling’s Koger Collection, a ceramic donation from Nancy and Ira Koger — specifically, the Blanc-de-Chine pieces, or all-white Chinese porcelain.
“In terms of Blanc-de-Chine, maybe we have the best collection in this country,” he says.
He hopes to expand what he describes as a “small but refined” collection by filling in the gaps with more traditional Japanese artworks, such as scrolls and medieval sculpture. Of course, he’d also like to pursue more modern and contemporary works. For instance, he hopes to bring a contemporary Chinese art exhibition of photography and video art focusing on stunt performance; that exhibit is tentatively planned for the summer.
“I pretty much imagine myself as a big chef trying to use limited ingredients to present the best cuisines to my visitors and mixing different tastes,” he says.