Profile: Melissa Chiu

There are those who develop a global outlook through professional experience, and then there are those, like Melissa Chiu, to whom it comes naturally. “I grew up in northern Australia,” says the 36-year-old museum director of New York’s Asia Society,who has an Australian mother and a Chinese father. “So Indonesia wasnearer than any of the cities in the southern part of the country.”Chiu’s ability to look in unexpected directions has often put her aheadof the game.

Take her early enthusiasm for Chinese contemporary art, which hasmatured into an expertise for which she now enjoys a singularreputation. Years before this field took the art world by storm, Chiuwrote a dissertation on it at the University of Western Sydney. Since then she has authored two books—the pioneering Breakout: Chinese Art Outside China, published last year by Charta, and the popularizing Chinese Contemporary Art: 7 Things You Should Know, just released by AW Asia. Chiu has also curated some 30 major and very varied international exhibitions at theAsia Society, from a reconsideration of the art of New Zealand and the Pacific Islands to solo shows of artists as diverse as Shirin Neshat and Ah Xian. Her current show, organized with the independent curator Zheng Shengtian, is the controversial survey “Art and China’s Revolution” on view at the society this fall.

Chiu came to the society in 2001, leaving her post as the founding director of Sydney’s Asia-Australia Arts Centre.In New York, she became the first curator of contemporary Asian art inthe U.S. She was named museum director in 2004 and also serves as theinstitution’s vice president of global art programs and oversees itsnascent permanent collection.

All this means she spends “more time than I like to think about” onairplanes, says Chiu. “Meeting someone face-to-face and building arelationship is incredibly important. It’s still the primary way to getthings done.” Globalization without a human element tends to flattenand homogenize, she explains, to make it too easy to “misunderstand theimportance of cultural specificity.”

By supporting artists like Zhang Huan, Cai Guo-Qiangand their contemporaries in a museum context, Chiu has contributed totheir commercial success and to the reshaping of the international artmarkets of which they are a part. She is passionate about the new meansof expression that are employed by artists who are emerging fromrepressive regimes or who were simply overlooked by an art world longfixated on the U.S. and Europe. In the previous era, self-expressionwas discouraged: “Artists were going against the grain. But todayparents in China are encouraging their children to become artists,” shesays delightedly.

"Melissa Chiu" originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's December 2008 Table of Contents.