Art Matters by Alan Lo, Class of 2003

If you trace the word museum back to its origins, many believe it stems from the Greek word mouseion—a temple of the Muses, which was a sacred and almost holy institution. While museums continue to be spaces that inspire and provide near spiritual encounters with art, I believe they can also test limits, trigger debate, and coax you out of your comfort zone.

Growing up in Hong Kong in the eighties, I was surrounded by paintings rooted in ideals of harmony, balance, and beauty. My father was fascinated by traditional ink paintings, and he was deeply committed to building a collection of works by respected twentieth-century masters. Our family was so passionate about art that I didn’t really have a typical childhood. Instead of going to playgrounds or theme parks, I would visit museum shows and auction previews. On school holidays, art always dominated the itinerary.

I remember walking into the cavernous hall of a museum when I was eighteen years old and being confronted with the contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Huan’s 12 Square Meters (1994). It was a photograph of a provocative performance in which the nude artist sat perched on a toilet, slathered in honey and fish oil, swarmed by flies. Coming from a classical background, I was shocked. I was accustomed to a certain sense of aesthetics and a completely different definition of art.

Standing before this work, I felt as if everything I knew had been thrown out the window. I went through a process of moving from rejection to acceptance of the performance’s significance in the context of art history and China’s complex sociopolitical landscape. During that visit, I experienced the power of museums. Beyond just piquing curiosity, they have the capacity to open our eyes and broaden our worldview to consider viewpoints and perspectives that are out of the ordinary.

For the longest time, my home city of Hong Kong was missing a world-class museum that had the ability to do this for the local people. We had everything—a strong community of artists, a burgeoning gallery scene, an art fair, and thriving auctions—except a world-class institution devoted to contemporary art and visual culture. Last year this gaping hole in the fabric of our city’s cultural life was finally filled with the completion of the M+ museum.

When I visited M+ in the thick of the pandemic, I remember coming upon a sea of two hundred thousand tiny clay figurines spread across the floor of one of the galleries. It was a visceral experience. The installation, created by the British artist Anthony Gormley, was a powerful reflection on ideas of our shared humanity. Gormley worked with hundreds of Chinese villagers across three generations—grandparents, parents, and children—as well as a group of local art students to create the raw hand-pressed sculptures whose eyes gaze upward. It was incredible to see how the artist incorporated contemporary art into everyday life in a remote part of China—and that M+ gave the project a platform. Museums by their very nature are public institutions, and so I believe it’s only natural that they shine a spotlight on such community-based works and socially engaged practices.

I believe the Princeton University Art Museum shares a similar ethos. The Museum has always been interested in playing an integral role in its community and finding creative ways to connect with audience members. With the new building designed by Sir David Adjaye, there is an even greater opportunity for the Museum to go one step further in its transformation into an institution that is at once local and global in its outlook.

We are living in a digital era which has given rise to a borderless world. I believe today’s museums have the potential to reach people in all corners of the globe. It would be easy for Princeton University Art Museum to be very US-centric, but instead it is moving in the other direction. It is exciting to see how Adjaye’s new design and the Museum’s thoughtful programming embody ideas of flexibility, openness, and diversity.

Amid the onslaught of ever-escalating technologies and the growing importance of the metaverse, the Museum has the potential to push the envelope. I am looking forward to seeing how this inclusive institution with an ambitious program harnesses new technologies and celebrates fresh and unexpected talent from the margins of the art world.

Alan Lo
Class of 2003