When The Chinese University of Hong Kong was founded in 1963, Chinese studies became the flagship program of the university. As China’s artistic legacy and material culture were central to understanding Chinese civilization, the university’s first Vice-Chancellor Prof. Choh-ming Li had the vision to build a university museum that would provide a platform for learning from cultural relics. Towards that end, the late philanthropist Dr. J.S. Lee of Bei Shan Tang provided critical guidance and support, and the duo recruited the Oxford-educated James Watt, who, at the time, was serving as a curator at the City Hall Museum and Art Gallery (later Hong Kong Museum of Art), to direct the museum. Designed by I.M. Pei at the behest of Dr. Lee, the centrally located museum opened in fall 1971 in the heart of the main campus, next to the university administrative building and university library. To this date, it is rare to find a museum that occupies a comparably central position in a university. The location of the Art Museum (then known as the Art Gallery) speaks volume of its value to the founding members of the university and their expectation of the museum.
The newly built museum with a storage facility paved the way for developing the collection. With limited resources, the museum’s original strategy was to acquire two types of objects: 1) specimens including shards and fragments for teaching and 2) objects that had special value for research purposes. A category of objects that attracted the attention of scholars for centuries but which remained affordable was rubbings. The rubbing Huashan Temple Stele was one of the earliest acquisitions, and it has been among the museum’s most prized masterpieces ever since (1973.0678). In 1973, the same year when Huashan Temple Stele was acquired, the collection of Jen Yu-wen became available, and it was deemed highly desirable for the new museum. Jen was a historian who worked for the Nationalist government during the Republican period. His interests, network and academic training allowed him to assemble a coherent collection of over a thousand works with particular strengths in Ming and Qing paintings by Guangdong painters and representative works by the Lingnan school founders, including over one hundred works by Gao Jianfu (1973.0611 and 1973.0831). To keep the collection intact, Jen was willing to sell it at a great concession, thereby making a substantial donation to the museum. Having long known the significance of the collection, Prof. Watt took advantage of this opportunity and raised necessary funds with Dr. Lee to acquire the entire collection, which formed the core of the university collection. The Jen Yu-wen collection remains a treasure trove for scholars to explore various themes and topics of Chinese art and history. Moreover, the presence of this initial collection also prompted the establishment of a conservation studio to remount paintings and calligraphy.
During the early years of the Art Museum, when the collection was modest in quantity, significant effort was made to acquire slides and photographs of artworks, as well as books and catalogues from various museums worldwide. If the 1970s represented the museum’s early phase of establishing a strong foundation, then the ensuing two decades can be regarded as the developmental phase that earned the museum widespread recognition and admiration. The post-Cultural Revolution period and China’s open-door policy created strong interests among national museums to collaborate with institutions outside of mainland China. As early as 1981, the Art Museum collaborated with the Guangdong Museum and the Guangzhou Municipal Art Gallery to organize several exhibitions on paintings and excavated relics, and by 1984, the Art Museum became the first museum in Hong Kong to partner with the Palace Museum, which lent a hundred masterpieces by renowned Yangzhou artists to be displayed at the Art Museum. Collaborations with mainland museums have multiplied ever since.
Meanwhile, the support base of the museum widened. In 1981, Dr. Lee founded the “Friends of the Art Museum” to engage a wider audience and galvanize community support. Members of “the Friends” served as volunteers and docents, and raised considerable sums to support educational programs, art acquisitions, as well as grants and scholarships for students. A bronze basin from the late Spring and Autumn to the early Warring States period, a 6th-century votive stele, a Yuan blue-and-white charger and a 17th-century coromandel lacquer screen are among important acquisitions made possible by the Friends’ support (1993.0354, 1991.0141, 1985.0121, and 2001.0660).
Similarly, local collectors have been highly supportive to the Art Museum. While it would be impossible to list all the names of the donors in this article, it is worth mentioning that Dr. Lee took the lead to build the museum’s collection, donating both masterpieces from his personal—Bei Shan Tang—collection, as well as providing funds for the museum to acquire additional works. Almost half of the museum’s collection was donated by Dr. Lee. Poems and Letters in Running Script by Ni Zan, Fruits and Flowers by Shitao, and Bamboo and Rocks by Zheng Banqiao (1996.0121, 1996.0068, 1973.0676) are among key works that have upgraded and enriched the collection, allowing the museum to provide and awe students and visitors alike with a full artistic experience and pure pleasure. Comprehensive collections such as ancient seals and Yixing teapots rival that of nationally and internationally acclaimed institutions (1990.0065 and 1983.0034). Simply put, Dr. Lee is not only credited for founding the university museum, but he also put it on the map, and despite all his contributions, he insisted on keeping a low profile. Other contributors to the Art Museum are passionate and specialized collectors who are regarded as experts in the field of their collecting interests. Often, their collections raise and elucidate questions regarding artistic development, technology, manufacturing methods, patronage, and cultural interactions. Therefore, exhibitions which featured local collections tended to be thematic, which differed from ‘vanity shows’ seen elsewhere. Through these constructive collaborations with learned collectors, the exhibition program of the Art Museum became a haven for scholarship and education. By the same token, the diversity of our collection also means that some exhibitions and their accompanying catalogues become a standard, if not the first and only, reference in their respective fields. It is through this eclectic and exploratory exhibition program that the Art Museum is distinguished from other museums. Acquisitions of great artistic and historical importance were made possible by supportive donors: a Ming huanghuali chair, a large blue-and-white vase with ten thousand shou characters, a landscape by Wu Li, a famille rose-decorated dish, an altar vase made under the supervision of Tang Ying (1990.0027, 1999.0611, 1999.0113, 1988.0103, and 2000.0083) are just a few examples.
The fact that the Art Museum of The Chinese University of Hong Kong is presently regarded as one of the best university museums in greater China can be credited to the exemplary leadership of the museum’s former directors James Watt, Mayching Kao, Peter Lam and Jenny So. Together with patrons and community partners, notably the Bei Shan Tang Foundation, the former directors of the Art Museum developed the museum’s rich collection of over 15,000 works that make up the collection today. Since 1971, the museum has made it easy to teach with works of art, curated diverse exhibitions, published erudite and bilingual catalogues, organized symposia regularly, and most recently, instituted a museum professional exchange program. In the short span of four decades, the Art Museum has had an incredibly strong impact on the academic community. Given the increase of local interests in the arts and rapid development of museums worldwide, the Art Museum recognizes the need to adapt to the evolving art scene that is simultaneously a site of creation, dialogue, and entertainment while keeping track of its core mission in art education. The Art Museum will continue to be committed to advancing scholarship and enriching the collection.