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Beyond Their Comfort Zones

Luce grant will fund Minnesota/China collaboration
November 21, 2014
Students and faculty of the 'Transition' project at a group dinner in Beijing. Tom Rose is seated in the front row on the left.
Students and faculty of the "Transition" project at a group dinner in Beijing. Tom Rose is seated in the front row on the left.

What began as a vague idea during a lunch conversation in Beijing seven years ago has become the cornerstone of a $300,000 Luce Foundation grant awarded to art professor Tom Rose and his multi-collegiate colleagues.

The four-year grant, announced in March, could be seen as a celebration of the collaborative potential within the humanities as well as among disciplines, institutions, and countries. Participants include scholars and artists, not only from the University, but also from six private Minnesota colleges and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, who will partner with scholars and artists from China.

Art as a means of defining transitions

"The participants will not all be artists, but the program will be 'art-centric' as we study how art reveals, explores, reflects, or instigates transitions," says Rose, who led the grant proposal called Mapping Transitions Through The Vehicle of the Arts.

"We'll also take the theme and look at how art is central to articulating and defining transitions at key points in China's history," he says. "This is the first generation of artists born after the Cultural Revolution to come of age in a fully functional art system. We're interested in how students position themselves between the academy, the market, and the Party, how the political economy of artistic production impacts young artists."

The grant will fund residencies for Chinese scholars or artists, multi-dimensional team-taught classes, capstone experiences in exhibitions and internships, and outreach to K-12.

The University has had connections with China since the first Chinese students enrolled here a century ago. But the germ for developing a more focused art exchange didn't take root until that lunch in Beijing in 2006, when Rose and his Chinese associates tossed around ideas about how they might work together and engage students in new media, fine arts, and photography.

What emerged was a partnership between the U's art department and the Beijing Film Academy (BFA), China's only professional film school.

"It was a slow process of, 'Well, how's this going to work?" says Rose. "It had a lot to do with patience and trust--and deciding if we were really serious about this. We wanted to expose our students to world culture and to develop a relationship between our multidisciplinary art and theirs--which at the time were centered in photography."

Since then, under Rose's direction, the BFA program has flourished with exhibits, symposia, and seminars in both countries. Chinese students travel here in August, while Minnesota students go to China for a similar experience in May.

"I'm sure there are other universities that have a lot of cross-cultural programs," says Rose. "The U itself has a large number of study abroad programs, but no privately funded exchange programs. As far as I know, this is unique."

An idea worth fighting for

With the BFA partnership thriving within a few years, Rose began talking with colleagues about a grant application that would widen the scope of collaboration.

"We felt this was an idea worth fighting for," he says. "China has a particular character about its development. I like to have students experience something outside their comfort zone. We wanted real collaboration among students--not 'you hold my camera while I arrange the picture,' but a real collaboration of ideas."

Clearly, the groundwork is already laid. In each of the past three years, the BFA partnership has produced a collection of Minnesotan and Chinese student photographs. In these collections, students portray their own interpretations of a theme selected for the year. Last year, for example, for a theme also called "transitions," students produced stunning images of manicured parks and refugee tents, vivid landscapes and muted sunsets, chiseled new buildings surrounded by fields of wheat.

Also striking, however, are the students' written thoughts about the theme and their own photographs. The words, written in both Chinese and English, sometimes seem to capture the essence of the growing partnership in the arts. "Images of the real world," says one student, "unite the mysteries."