Saturday, January 23, 2010

The City's Chinese Art Coup

by Tom Emch

When the exhibit of the Archaeological Finds of the People's Republic of China opened yesterday morning at theAsian Museum, it proved the impossible sometimes can be accomplished with perseverance and time.

It took two years of delicate behind-the-scenes negotiations by dozens of people to find the key to this incredibly complicated Chinese puzzle, to solve it and bring perhaps the world's foremost collection of antiquity to San Francisco.

You see, the People's Republic had never intended the exhibit be shown here. The U.S. State Department had never intended to recommended inclusion of the city on the exhibit's itinerary; at one point, the State Department had even attempted to discourage San Francisco's private negotiations with the Chinese government.

But San Francisco prevailed, and therein lies the story. It is a story with a large cast of characters that includes the director-curator of the museum, its commissioners, the Mayor, an architect, some bottles of California wine, and the city's indefatigable chief of protocol, Cyril Magnin. Add to this a half dozen Chinese art curators, the Chief of the Chinese Liaison Office in Washington, D. C. and several Asian experts in the State Department, and you have a fine brew of personalities.

The priceless collection - 385 art objects and artifacts ranging from the paleolithic time to the fourteenth century - was originally scheduled to be exhibited (one city to a country) in Paris, London, Stockholm, Vienna, Toronto and perhaps Washington, D. C. and then return to Peking, never to leave China again.

April, 1973. Enter Bernice Behrens, director of the State Department's Reception Center here, and Cyril Magnin. As official representatives of the U.S. and San Francisco, respectively, they are at the airport to meet the Chinese delegation on the way to Washington to set up the Chinese Liasion Office.

Both of them mention to the Chinese chief of delegation, Han Hsu, that San Francisco would very much like tohave the exhibit and the Chinese nod non-committally. The Chinese stay overnight at he St. Francis Hotel and are escorted back to the airport he next morning. At this point even Washington, D. C. is not on the exhibit's itinerary.

August, 1973. Yvon d'Argence, director-curator of the Asian Art Museum, is on vacation in Paris where the collection is being shown. "I made contact with the U.S. Embassy for help to see the Chinese curltural attache at the Chinese Embassy in Paris," says d'Argence. "I had heard that there were twelve cities in the U.S. who were on the State Department list, all competing for the exhibit." Again the Chinese were polite but non-committal.

September, 1973. By this time it was learned that not only Washington was getting the exhibit, but Kansas City, also Mayor Alioto asks Cyril Magnin to get involved and find out why San Francisco was being excluded. Magnin travels to the capital with William Goetze, chairman of the Asian Art Museum commission and a vice president of the Bank of America.

They arrange a luncheon at the Madison Hotel for some State Department protocol people and ask the White House curator to set up a meeting with the Chinese, who are at the Mayflower Hotel.

A meeting with Han Hsu is arranged and Magnin and Goetze have tea with the Chinese. More politeness but no commitments. Before leaving Washington, the San Franciscans go to see John Richardson Jr., Assistant Secretary of the State for Cultural Affairs. They are told "there is no chance" of San Francisco getting the exhibit.

"It is not possible," says Richardson. "Anything's possible, Mr. Richardson," replies Magnin. There is no visible progress, but they learn that the Chief of the Liaison Office, Ambassador Huang Chen, will be coming to San Francisco.

Also in the fall of 1973, d'Argence writes to Peking requesting the exhibit, and Charles Yost, the president of the National Committee on U.S. China Relations, visits San Francisco, and his help is enlisted.

But in May, 1974, the roof falls in. The museum receives a letter from John Richardson indicating that he exhibit will definitely not come to San Francisco, but will return to Peking from Kansas City's William Rockhill Nelson Gallery after conclusion of the show in June of 1975.

"I must tell you that most people gave up," says d'Argence. "But Cyril didn't."

In the fall of 1974, Magnin kept up the pressure with letters to Washington. Haydn Williams, one of the museum's commissioners and the U.S. Ambassador to Micronesia, traveled to Washington to apply pressure to State. Then Magnin goes to Washington to meet with Huang Chen, the ambassador. His letter of introduction is from William Goetze.

In December, there is a turnabout. The curators of the exhibit arrive suddenly in San Francisco and are entertained by the museum commissioners, the Mayor and Magnin.

Goetze recalls: "There was a luncheon at the museum, a typical American buffet: corned beef sandwiches, beer and wine." There were several toasts exchanged by the Mayor and the head of the delegation Liu Yang-ch'iao. "They went away impressed with the competence of our museum staff," says Goetze.

But the answer was still no. And as a matter of fact, one course says that the curators sent a negative report to Peking.

Both Goetze and Mrs. Berhens of the State Department say the reason given for the choice of Kansas City was that it was felt the East and West Coasts had Asian art collections available to the public and the Midwest had relatively little exposure to Chinese culture. Thus Kansas City.

The breakthrough came in January of 1975, when Ambassador Huang Chen came to San Francisco at the invitation of Magnin. On January 22 Magnin hosted a party at the Top of the Mark in a closed off section of that room.

In attendance were seven Chinese, the Mayor, Mrs. Behrens, William Dauer, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, Tommy Hsieh, the architect, Magnin's daughter and son-in-law and the host.

The Mayor was dazzling, recalls Mrs. Behrens: "He presented the key to the city to the ambassador and offered a toast." She says she remembers the toast as follows. "We suggest to the ambassador that inanimate objects might get tired on their long journey back to China and we would suggest that a place be found were they could rest."

She says that everyone in the room began to applaud and say, "San Francisco, San Francisco." In reply the ambassador said that enjoyed the warm hospitality of San Francisco, and called it the Golden City.

At the end of the party, Magnin announced that the ambassador had told him "there was a good chance" San Francisco would, after all, get the exhibit. But there was still no commitment.

The following day, a tour of the wine country was arranged by Tommy Hsieh. The seven Chinese, Hsieh, Mrs. Behrens and Magnin boarded a charter bus, complete with stocked bar, and went to the Franciscan Winery for a barbeque. They ended up at the Inglenook Winery sampling California vintages, which the ambassador took a liking to.

During the day, Magnin kept hammering away at the ambassador about how both San Francisco and China needed each other. And sometime that day Ambassador Huang Chen told Magnin that he would see to it that San Francisco would get the exhibit.

Less than a week later the chairman of the Chinese Archaeological Exhibition delegation wrote to Goetze:

"...I conveyed to the proper authorities your desire to show the Chinese exhibit in San Francisco and to strengthen the ties of friendship between the people of San Francisco and the people of China.

"Everybody agrees that you should be given full consideration. Consequently, I would suggest you take the matter up with your government. Your government would then approach, formally, our minister of foreign affairs through our representative in Washington. It is my belief that if you follow this approach, there is a good chance that he hope of the people of San Francisco will materialize..."

The letter was signed: "Liu Yang-ch'iao."

The letter amounted to a commitment, although not yet official.

Goetz recalls: "That was some exciting moment in my life. I was in the desert recovering from an illness and one of our commissioners, William P. Scott Jr., read it to me over the phone. I"ll never forget it."

Goetz says that at the State Department in Washington they "couldn't believe that these things were going on." He says they were flabbergasted, and cautioned about bruised feelings in Los Angeles, which was also maneuvering to get the exhibit.

"At that point," says Goetze, "Cyril whips out a letter from Mayor Bradley supporting San Francisco."

Magnin had earlier taken the precaution of having Alioto get supporting letters from the mayors of ten Western cities to assure Huang that the exhibit would get the widest possible exposure if it was shown here.

Magnin says that he believes the final decision to bring the exhibit to San Francisco was made in Peking on the recommendation of Ambassador Huang.

Eager to give the Mayor credit for his role in the coup, Magnin says: "The Mayor was in on it from the start. He was the first one to ask me to work on it. When things looked feasible he was on the phone every day. He was really the spark plug."

But Goetze puts it another way: "When you boil it down, it was Cyril."

And d'Argence says: "It was a fantastic coup. This man (Magnin) has been so instrumental ... dealing with the Chinese ambassador and the State Department..."

In the following month, February, the State Department, somewhat astonished at what had happened, notified the Asian Art Museum that final negotiations were underway, in Peking with the Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office there, Ambassador George Bush.

There was some delay before the sining of the formal protocol documents, during which time Goetze was frantically trying to get a phone connection to Bush in Peking to hurry it along.

Before the call got through, it was announced in Washington that the papers had been signed and the exhibit would come to San Francisco - officially.

Among the many people Magnin worked with to bring the exhibit here was Mrs. Howard Ahmanson of Los Angeles. She heads a committee of the National Endowment of the Humanities through which the NEH agreed to sponsor the exhibition with a $275,000 grant to the Asian Art Museum.

The funds were matched by local contributions from among others, the Bank of America Foundation, the Chinese-American Committee, IBM Corporation, the San Francisco Foundation, Standard Oil Company of Califonria, the Bank of California, the Banque Nationale de Paris, Crocker National Bank, Fireman's Fund American Insurance Companies, Foremost-McKesson, Inc., Levi Strauss Foundation, Security Pacific National Bank, United Airlines, United Bank of Califonria and the Wilbur Ellis-Connell Bros. Co., Ltd.

The show is free to the public and will remain at the Asian Art Museum through August 28. It is for the people, and that's the way the Chinese wanted it. That's the way San Francisco wanted it. And that's the way a handful of dedicated people made it happen when everyone said it couldn't be done.

San Francisco Chronicle/Examiner June 1975