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Vol.25, No. 03 Sept. 17, 1999

China Arts Exchange to Create Model for Saving Endangered Cultures, Arts Around Globe

By A. Dunlap-Smith

In the more than 20 years since its start, Columbia's Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange has been a leader in Sino-American cultural give-and-take. Yet next week in the province of Yunnan it opens a conference that is expected to develop a new model for conserving—and revitalizing—endangered cultures, thereby broadening the center's activities well beyond the arts and beyond China.

The week-long "Conservancy Conference-Yunnan 1999" on Sept. 12-18, will gather some 75 experts first in the provincial capital of Kunming and later at the U.N.-designated "World Heritage Site" of Lijiang to develop "long-term strategies for comprehensive and sustainable conservancy, not only in Yunnan, but also worldwide," Chou Wen-chung, the center's founder and director, says.

As well as Columbia and the government of Yunnan, the conferees represent The Nature Conservancy, the Asian Cultural Council, the World Wildlife Fund, the Getty Conservation Institute, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Partners for Livable Communities, the National Endowment for the Arts and many other American and foreign organizations.

"We're looking at how culture and ecology can serve as a resource for economic development," says Chou [pronounced "Joe"], who is also the Fritz Reiner Professor Emeritus of Musical Composition at Columbia. "People have thought about relating nature, culture and economics in a holistic approach to conservancy before but haven't yet taken action; the Yunnan conference is for taking action."

Between its founding in 1978 until around 1990, the Center—located across 118th Street from the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA)—established a reputation as a sponsor of the performing arts.

It made possible, for example, the filming of the Oscar-winning documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China at the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late '70s; it sent Arthur Miller to Beijing in the early '80s to direct his Death of a Salesman there; it arranged for the dancer Jacques D'Amboise to recruit 50 children in Beijing to sing and dance in his China Dig as part of the 1986 Event of the Year performed at Madison Square Garden, and in 1990 it organized the first Pacific Music Festival in conjunction with the first Pacific Composers Conference, both of which were co-directed by Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas and held in Sapporo, Japan.

Chou explains that the center began to move in a new direction at the start of the 1990s. Its resources were increasingly drawn to the arts of indigenous peoples as it took up the question: Where is the root of contemporary Chinese culture? Supported from 1992 through 1998 by a package of grants totaling $2.5 million from the Ford Foundation, the Center focused on Yunnan in southwest China where 25 distinct minority nationalities with cultural ties extending throughout Southeast Asia co-exist.

The center collaborated with the provincial government to draft and implement a "Joint Plan on Yunnan Nationalities Cultures," which aimed at promoting the "continuation and development of the cultural traditions of Yunnan's minority nationalities." Among the projects initiated under the plan were the creation of an indigenous arts department at the Yunnan Nationalities Institute, the building of the Yunnan Nationalities Museum devoted to indigenous cultures, a survey of the arts and crafts practiced by all the province's nationalities and mentorship/apprenticeship programs with master artisans from the minority nationalities.

It was apparent, however, that these efforts might preserve but never continue and develop the region's cultures unless Yunnan's rising economic needs and ambitions were represented in a universal strategy for cultural conservation.

Yunnan's shared border with Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar (formerly Burma) and its proximity to Thailand and India place it at the nexus of what French bank Crédit Lyonnais has dubbed the "Golden Triangle . . . Asia's next growth hot spot." The province was therefore an ideal site to devise a holistic cultural conservation plan that embraces—not fights—development and the economic benefits it could bring to the struggling region.

"We believe endangered cultural practices and artistic skills must not be the concern of cultural planners alone," Chou says, "but of economists, scientists and conservationists as well, [because] cultural conservation is dependent on socio-economic development and preservation of the ecosystem."

Ambitious as its agenda is, the model that will emerge from "Conservancy Conference-Yunnan 1999" is guaranteed a thorough testing. The Ford Foundation again granted the center a $2.5 million package to support the implementation of the conference's plan during the next three years. Also, the leadership of Yunnan, as conference co-host, is very eager to apply a conservation scheme that would not only preserve the province's past but also enhance its future, a future that Chou Wen-chung and the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange are helping to shape.