During its venture of four decades, the Center’s programs expanded and evolved as the world changed and professionals identified emerging new needs. In 1988, after directing the Center for the first ten-year period, Chou Wen-chung published an essay outlining his personal philosophy of the theory of cultural exchange, which had emerged from his own hands-on experience.

Programmatic Structure

When Chou Wen-chung established the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange at Columbia University in 1978, he envisaged a program that included all the visual, performing and literary arts and was simple in structure. Programs were organized in both directions as areas of need and interest were identified. The term “exchange” did not indicate a quid pro quo reciprocity as was customary among government-funded programs. Originally, three programmatic categories were announced: exchanges of materials, exchanges of specialists, and clearinghouse services.

Exchanges of Materials

During China’s thirty years of isolation from the West, and more intensively during the Cultural Revolution, both western art forms and traditional Chinese genres were restricted or banned. Many libraries, publications and artifacts were destroyed. To address the need for materials, the Center sought donations from museums, music and art publishers and corporations, and carried music scores, recordings, art publications and literature to conservatories and arts academies. Chinese institutions provided the Center with publications about recent developments in China’s arts world and the Center assembled these into a resource library on contemporary arts in China.

Exchanges of Specialists

The core of the Center’s program was arranging for qualified professionals in the arts, teachers, research scholars, students, and arts administrators to take part in long- and short-term programs. Visitors typically offered lectures and master classes, held discussions with teachers and students, and visited local cultural institutions to enhance their knowledge about recent trends in the host country.

Clearinghouse Services

The Center provided free consultation and information to the Ministry of Culture and other arts organizations in China, as well as to American individuals and organizations establishing self-funded programs in China on their own.

Programs for Master Artists

In 1979, China’s sudden accessibility to American visitors sparked enormous enthusiasm in the arts world. Once the opening of the Center was announced, the office was inundated with requests from both the general public as well as from many of the nation’s most distinguished artists and cultural luminaries who were eager to be among the first to go. Few people were able to make arrangements on their own and the Center was the “go-to” place for expertise in the arts of China.

During the first few years of operation, the Center accommodated many requests from celebrity artists who were received in China with great excitement. In 1979, violinist Isaac Stern performed in China with pianist David Golub; the Center assisted in the production of the award-winning documentary “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China.” Arthur Miller directed the first Chinese-language production of “Death of a Salesman” with the Beijing Peoples’ Arts Theater; opera star Luciano Pavarotti performed in China to vast audiences of a size unfathomable at opera performances in the United States. George White of the O’Neill Center directed Chinese-language productions of Broadway hits “Music Man” and “The Fantasticks.” The legendary ballet works of George Balanchine, “Serenade” and “La Valse,” were performed by the Central Ballet in Beijing for the first time. These performances and productions reached massive audiences in China and ignited a spirit of goodwill and hope that had been in short supply for many years. 

Arthur Miller directed the first Chinese-language production of “Death of a Salesman” with the Beijing Peoples’ Arts Theater

To accommodate large numbers, the Center organized “delegations” that could accommodate twenty-five visitors at a time. Prominent figures in the arts world, although not accustomed to travelling on group tours, made the adjustment and signed up. Early visitors included Lincoln Center Chairman Martin Segal, choreographers Anna Sokolow and Alwin Nikolais, literary artist and critic Susan Sontag, sculptor George Segal, writers Hortense Calisher and Herman Wouk, set designer Ming Cho Lee, and dance legend Jacques d’Amboise. Visitors from China were equally prominent, although their names were new to most Americans: playwright Cao Yu, actor Ying Ruocheng, writer Ding Ling, qin master Wu Wenguang, costume designer Li Keyu, composers Chen Gang and Mao Yuan, and conductor Chen Xieyang were among the first batch for which the Center created programs.

Planting Seeds for the Future

The Center’s ultimate goal and priority was to initiate long-term and ongoing programs of greater depth that would have significant results in both China and the United States. These projects were on the docket in the early days of operations. The programs listed below are examples of groundbreaking projects that were launched to inspire and equip participants to incorporate new ideas and methods into their own future work as practitioners, administrators or researchers. 

Arts Education East and West

In 1980, Vice Minister of Culture Lin Mohan led a Music and Art Delegation to the U.S. that made the crucial contacts needed to launch a ten-year arts exchange program in arts education, which sent numerous teams of art teachers and scholars in both directions. On-site experience was combined with an extensive research project supervised by educational psychologist Howard Gardner and Harvard’s Project Zero research lab on creativity and leadership. The program led to new research topics among scholars in the United States as well as the creation by the Chinese government of a cabinet-level State Sub-Commission on Arts Education.

Music Mends the Rift

The rapprochement between the governments of the United States and China did nothing to diminish the bitter animosity between Taiwan and Mainland China; artists also bore long-engrained rancor and suspicion of their counterparts across the Taiwan Strait. To address this rift in the music world for the first time, the Center convened a groundbreaking conference at Columbia University in 1988 that brought together composers from both Taiwan and Mainland China, together with composers and music scholars from New York and other parts of the United States. Ending almost forty years of estrangement, ten composers from Mainland China and ten composer from Taiwan discussed issues of mutual interest and concern around the topic of “Tradition and the Future of Chinese Music.”

Pacific Music Festival

In 1990, the Center organized the groundbreaking Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan. The first event to bring together young musicians and composers from the Pacific Rim, the event centered around a youth orchestra, whose members were chosen from all over Asia, with the legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein at the podium. The Center’s 1988 Composers’ Conference provided the groundwork to organize a series of workshops for emerging Asian composers. These events were moderated by Chou Wen-chung himself and other seasoned composers from the region.

Beyond the Urban Centers

In its second decade of programming, the Center expanded its scope beyond the arts institutions of urban centers to include folk genres in rural areas. The new program of cultural conservation focused on the indigenous people of China’s southwestern province of Yunnan, which is home to twenty-five ethnic minority groups. (In China, this term is translated into English as “minority nationalities.”)

The projects mobilized thousands of Yunnan’s artisans and craftsmen, as well as provincial scholars in anthropology and other fields. Specialists from Yunnan conducted research in the United States by observing a wide range of approaches and styles in conservation, education and presentation. They visited institutions dedicated to the culture and arts of diverse minority groups in the United States, including Native Americans, Latinos and African-Americans, as well as leading museums of art, design and natural history. American specialists in the fields of museum administration, arts education, archival management, anthropology, archaeology and ethnography visited Yunnan to learn about the cultural realities in China and to share best practices from the United States.

The exchange experiences of the first few years  brought a new awareness to the western-educated participants, namely that indigenous people viewed nature as an intrinsic element in artistic and cultural expression.

The efforts of the first five years (1990-1995) resulted in the establishment of a new ethnography museum in Kunming, called the Yunnan Nationalities Museum, representing all of the indigenous ethnic groups in the province; the first indigenous arts department for teaching music, dance and visual arts, at the Yunnan Nationalities University; mentorship programs in rural areas through which masters of art forms passed on living traditions to young artists; and a research group of young scholars that resulted in the “Center for the Studies of the Arts of Minority Nationalities” at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences.

In 1999, the Center and other organizations sponsored a “Leadership Conference on Conservancy and Development” in Kunming that led to a new trajectory in the Center’s work. The exchange experiences of the first few years brought a new awareness to the western-educated participants, namely that indigenous people viewed nature as an intrinsic element in artistic and cultural expression. It was decided, therefore, that the projects should integrate the field of environmental preservation with that of cultural conservation.

The following years saw large-scale projects in the regions of Weishan City, Heritage Valley and Gaoligongshan. Representatives from American environmental agencies and institutions, including the Field Museum and Openlands in Chicago, worked in tandem with Chinese ecologists and scientists from the Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve, Yunnan’s Southwest Forestry College and the Kunming Institute of Zoology to spearhead groundbreaking projects, where both the environment and cultural lifestyle were jeopardized by modern developments.