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Asian art in spotlight with VAG's new exhibition The Forbidden City

It feels like a big moment for Asian art in Vancouver as the landmark exhibition The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China's Emperors opens at the Vancouver Art Gallery on Saturday.

The exhibition, organized by the Royal Ontario Museum and Beijing's Palace Museum, is monumental: nearly 200 objects – 80 of which were not part of the exhibition at the ROM earlier this year – that tell the story of life inside the Forbidden City, in particular during the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperors Kangxi (who ruled 1662-1722), Yongzheng (1722-1735) and Qianlong (1735-1796).

"These three men really define what China became by the time it entered the 20th century – large, wealthy and powerful," said UBC's Timothy Brook, one of the co-ordinating curators for the VAG presentation, during a preview tour Thursday.

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At that event, VAG director Kathleen Bartels announced a new Institute of Asian Art, which will expand the VAG's focus on art from the region. "I think we're going to be doing much more Asian programming in the future, really reflecting the communities of British Columbia," Ms. Bartels told The Globe and Mail.

Meanwhile, the head of the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, which provided $1-million to bring the exhibition to Toronto and Vancouver, is moving ahead with his vision to establish a permanent museum for Asian art in Vancouver through the group he co-founded, China Global: The Vancouver Society for the Promotion of Chinese Arts and Culture.

(This is a big month for the foundation. In Vancouver on Friday, UBC is renaming its Buddhist studies chair and program The Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Chair in Buddhism and Contemporary Society, and the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Program in Buddhism and Contemporary Society. Meanwhile at the Guggenheim in New York, Wang Jianwei: Time Temple, the first of the museum's contemporary Chinese art exhibitions supported by a Ho Foundation initiative, is set to open Oct. 31.)

The Globe and Mail met with Mr. Ho, who is based in West Vancouver, this week.

Why did you want to bring this exhibition to Canada?

One of our aims is to promote Chinese arts globally. We [sponsored] a very successful exhibition on the Terracotta [Warriors] and were disappointed that it had to be cancelled [in Vancouver], so we have a second chance for this one. It was proposed to us by the ROM because they were excited that this is the first exhibition that they know of, that the Palace Museum allowed them to go and pick their [artifacts]. Formerly all exhibitions outside the country were picked by the Palace Museum itself. So they approached us and we were very receptive; it fits into our aim.

Was it your idea that the exhibition travel to Vancouver in addition to the ROM?

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Yes I requested it and through the ROM and they talked to the Palace Museum. They're mindful that their exhibits can only go out of the country for one year, starting from loading. So we have it until Jan 11 here. We're still asking them to extend that to after Chinese New Year, which is in February.

You saw the exhibition in Toronto; what did you think?

I think they picked the right stuff because it's more a description of what the emperors go through in their daily lives. And I was impressed with that. There were things that I had never seen before like the bathtub – [I thought] the emperor's bathtub is only this [small]? And of course the throne.

How did it feel for you personally to walk through the exhibition knowing that you helped bring it there?

You can't deny there's [pride] and satisfaction that finally you got it done. Every exhibition that we stage, I always have that feeling when I walk in there for the first time.

You're trying to ensure that Asian art will be more pervasive in Vancouver.

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That's right. Through China Global, one of our aims is to promote Chinese arts. But a slightly different aim is that we're going to make it permanent. We're going to build a museum that is going to cater to Chinese arts forever in Vancouver. This is not going to happen tomorrow but hopefully in the next few years, we'll get this done.

We talked about this a year ago and you were interested in the building that currently houses the Vancouver Art Gallery. Is that still the venue you'd like?

Absolutely. But of course the ones who are going to decide is the government [municipal and provincial]. I hope they understand there's a need for it. I suspect because of the [municipal] election, they are not going to talk to us until after that. But they have received our message. I have not met with them per se, but I have spoken to them on social occasions.

If you didn't get that building, would you consider building a facility?

Oh yes. The next step is that if we don't get that building, we will ask them where can we have a piece of land. Maybe they can rent it to us for 50 years for one dollar a year or something like that. But we need a piece of land from the government. And then we will raise funds to build it ourselves. What we need is land. And if [we get the current VAG building], we will spend money on renovations. Either way, we are anxious to do it and I think we are able to raise the money. There are enough people in Vancouver who have deep pockets.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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