Liu Yang, curator of Chinese art and chair of the Asian art department at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

In a dramatic expansion, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts has hired Liu Yang, a Chinese-born curator from Australia, to head its Department of Asian Art which will also add two curators and be supported by $4.75 million in new funding.

The museum's Asian collection is among the most important in the United States with more than 12,500 objects spanning 7000 years, from ancient Chinese bronzes, furniture and jades to Indian miniatures, Korean ceramics, Japanese prints and contemporary sculpture. Acclaimed by connoisseurs and scholars, it is less well known to the general public, a situation the museum hopes to change through traveling shows and publications to be produced by Liu and his new staff.

Liu has been senior curator of Chinese art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney since 1997 and served, simultaneously, as adjunct professor at the University of New South Wales, and the University of Sydney. He is an unusually prolific scholar and writer who has organized shows almost every year in fields ranging from contemporary to antique subjects, archeological to Buddhist material, ancient bronzes, calligraphy and landscape painting. his writing also earned awards for "best large and small catalogues" in 2004 and '06 from the Art Association of Australia  and New Zealand.

"He's really a dynamo," said Matthew Welch, the museum's deputy director and curator of Japanese art who helped persuade Liu to accept the position. They met in Beijing where Liu was giving a talk earlier this year. He had delivered three papers, on different subjects, in four days in Hong Kong, Xi'an and Beijing. Welch was impressed not only by his scholarship, but also his fluent English, wit and nuanced cultural understanding.

"It was important that his scholarship wasn't so narrowly focused that he'd have difficulty conceiving of exhibitions of interest to our general public," Welch said. "We're also looking forward to much greater exchange with mainland China which is something he can really bring to the institution."

Liu, 49, will begin work in Minneapolis on June 20. One of his  first tasks will be to hire two curators responsible for Japanese and Korean art, and Indian and southeast Asian art. They are new "junior" positions supported by $4.75 million in new  funding lead by a $1.75 million challenge grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Additional money came from longtime museum patron Jane Emison who contributed $1.5 million, an anonymous gift of $1 million, and the National Endowment for the Humanities which provided $500,000. 

The new money and department expansion come at a troubled juncture in the museum's finances. In April it eliminated 10 staff positions as part of a reorganizaton designed to trim $1.4 million from its budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. The cuts included an associate curator of paintings who was dismissed after 12 years. Other positions were trimmed in government and community affairs, membership, carpentry, office and guard services. The operating budget for the new fiscal year is expected to be $24.8 million.

After completing an M.A. degree at  Southwest University in Sichuan, Liu earned his Ph.D. in Chinese art history and archeology in 1997 from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.  He and his wife, a Chinese-born English teacher, have two school-age children.

Securing a visa enabling Liu to work in the United States was a complex and  time-consuming part of the hiring process, Welch said. Working with an attorney specializing in immigration issues, the museum had to demonstrate that Liu is "an alien of extraordinary accomplishment," Welch said. "Then he had to deliver the packet to the American embassy in Syndey and they interviewed him and issued the visa which happened about 10 days ago. Later, if he decides that it is the right fit for him and for us, then we'll talk about permanent residency, but for now it's permission to work in the U.S." 

Dr. Liu replaces Robert Jacobsen, founding curator of the Asian department, who retired last year after 33 years in the post.