Jay Xu *08 is the Director of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, California. He earned a Ph.D. in Art and Archeology in 2008.
"You go to the doctor when you think you’re sick, but you come to the museum when you want to feel better, too.
My title makes it sound like I sit on the top of a pyramid, but to accomplish any goals, I have to think about myself more as a link in a chain. What I really do all day is identify how to make connections. Connections between very different museum departments, between audiences and our collections, between benefactors and exhibitions or programs they might want to support. At the end of the day, a museum can have the most spectacular art, but if audiences don’t see it as relevant and don’t feel engaged, then you haven’t fully connected with them.
Scholarship of course is also about synthesis — bringing together and seeing the connections between diverse strands of evidence or experience, or thinking about how two elements might spark together. I am constantly conducting research, and while I’m not able to publish everything, I look forward to my “retirement” when I can start to synthesize what I’ve uncovered. Do research like you are going to live forever.
I’m actually proud that there is a 15-year gap between my Ph.D. candidacy and the defense of my dissertation. I worked in museums that whole time, but I knew that before I took on a leadership role here, I wanted to complete what I had begun. That taught me the persistence that I needed to get me through a series of major challenges, including navigating the global financial crisis in 2008 soon after I started my job.
Academia teaches you to stay observant and stay curious, which is essential when you work with art and artists. You can never learn everything, and allowing yourself to be a little humble about that means you are open to growth. Contemporary art teaches me new things by raising new questions and by pushing boundaries. In this way, art almost supersedes science. I know people might not agree with me, but I’m here in Silicon Valley, and part of my job is to raise funds from entrepreneurs who work in these sectors. I ask them to describe their products, and they have to use my words: “state of the art” or “a work of art.” Art is a level of human creativity beyond expression or articulation."