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VMFA’s Terracotta Warriors Leaving Soon


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"Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China," is in its final days at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It's the second most-visited exhibition in the museum's 83-year existence: 180,706 visitors as of Sunday, March 4.

After the show closes March 11, it travels to the Cincinnati Art Museum, which collaborated with VMFA on the exhibition that includes 130 works of art, including 10 near life-size clay warriors crafted to guard the tomb, still unexcavated, of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259 B.C.-210 B.C.). The figures were among some 8,000 discovered in 1974 within a necropolis complex considered one of the most important archeological finds ever.

The museum's director, Alex Nyerges, spoke with Style about the show's popularity and the public's fascination with a 2,200-year-old culture.

Style: Why is the American public so drawn to the "Terracotta Army" exhibit?

Nyerges: Two reasons. First, like the Picasso exhibition that drew 232,000 visitors to our museum, this exhibit presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Then, there's the mystery of Emperor Qin and the sheer magnitude and magnificence of his mausoleum. That the site was buried for 2,200 years adds to the mystique.

Secondly is the fact that every human has his or her ideas on the issue of mortality. We all find ways to deal with what comes next. Emperor Qin shared the same fate. Of course, he addressed it on a scale unparalleled in human experience.

What new light does this exhibit shed on the understanding of ancient Chinese art and culture?

No one had ever looked at pre-Qin dynasties and how they lay the groundwork for what Qin accomplished. And our exhibition catalog will be a lasting legacy.

I understand you are keenly interested in Asian art and have visited China some 25 times. How are museum officials in China alike or dissimilar to your American associates in approaching museum methods, best practices and funding?

We are always comparing notes with our Chinese colleagues on how best to serve our respective publics. We've learned from Chinese museums and they've gotten ideas from us. The Palace Museum in Beijing's Forbidden City took from us the idea of issuing timed tickets to alleviate congestion. The deputy director of the Palace Museum suggested his institution might issue 100,000 tickets a day. I tried not to laugh because the scale is so different from that of the U.S. I think his museum is issuing 80,000 tickets daily.

Chinese as well as American museums raise funds from individual sources and from government. There is a certain degree of competiveness [among institutions in each country]. Funding goes to certain museums partly because they've been successful in expressing and building the case for support. It is a process and a journey.

Executing the Terracotta Warriors exhibition is a major team effort that includes the Cincinnati Art Museum. How did the Virginia Museum envision, develop and execute this ambitious show?

Li Jian, curator of East Asian art, and Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. - TRAVIS FULLERTON/VMFA
  • Travis Fullerton/VMFA
  • Li Jian, curator of East Asian art, and Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Li Jian, our museum's E. Rhodes and Leona curator of East Asian art is the best curator of Asian art in America. She has curated more exhibitions on art from China that any other American art historian [on this project she worked with a close colleague, Hou-mei Sung, curator of Asian art at the Cincinnati museum]. Li Jian and I have worked together since 1994 when she came to the Dayton Art Institute where I was director. "Terracotta Army" would not have remotely worked without her eye, knowledge, scholarship and endless focus on the final product — both the exhibit and the catalog. The question she most often gets is 'What's next?'" She's always working on three or four things at once.