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Sunday, April 1, 2018

Far East Meets East Side: Cincinnati Art Museum’s Dr. Hou-mei Sung

By Mary Casey-Sturk

As the curator of Asian art at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Dr. Hou-mei Sung has been sharing her passion of art from Asia since joining the CAM in 2002. Dr. Sung’s career path has taken her from her native Taiwan to Colorado, Cleveland and eventually to Cincinnati.  

Dr. Hou-mei Sung (photo by Mikki Schaffner)
A resident of Oakley, Sung studied at the National Taiwan University earning degrees in languages, literature and a Masters in Chinese history. Later, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in museum studies from Case Western Reserve University.  Her research on Ming court painting garnered a Fulbright scholarship in 2000. 

If that’s not impressive enough, she’s also taught and raised two children. It’s no wonder her passion for Asian art and history would lead her to a curatorial career, much to the delight of those who enjoy her exhibitions and scholarship today. 

The Gallery of Asian art at the Cincinnati Art Museum is curated by Dr. Houo-mei Sung of Oakley. (photo by Mary Casey-Sturk)
Upon joining the Cincinnati Art Museum, Sung was quick to explore the extensive array of Asian collections in storage and on exhibit.  We asked Sung what surprised her. “The biggest surprise was the Japanese art. When I went through it, I learned the Japanese art collection was amazing.” 

Part Sherlock Holmes, part Indiana Jones, Sung began digging into the collection and worked hard to attribute artists, organize the collections and bring them to the public eye. Research, travel and conversations with scholars abroad helped Sung connect the dots. “It’s like archeology - I start to work, to tell the story.”

Soon plans began to revamp the Asian Galleries with new installations, interpretations, interactives for children and highlight many pieces that had not been on display for generations - if ever. Walking through these galleries now, you cannot help but marvel at the outstanding collection of artifacts, scrolls, porcelain, sculptures and even modern pieces comprising nearly an entire wing. The Museum’s collection is vast, some 67,000 works spanning 6,000 years, so it is not surprising these galleries reflect that, and do so impressively.  

This lovely piece of Asian art is part of the Cincinnati Art Museum collection. (photo by Mary Casey-Sturk)
Sung also has organized several exhibitions including, most recently, Dressed to Kill: Japanese Arms & Armor which introduced Japanese samurai culture and arts from the 16th-19th centuries with warrior-related objects and 11 full suits of armor. Many of the objects came from the collections of the museum. Another popular exhibition curated by Sung was Roaring Tigers, Leaping Carp: Decoding the Symbolic Language of Chinese Animal Painting. Over 100 Chinese paintings and objects depicting birds, fish, tigers and horses were displayed. The exhibition featured works selected from major museums in both the United States and Asia, including the National Palace Museum, Taipei; The Palace Museum, Beijing; and the Shanghai Museum. 

From Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China is Chariot No. 1 with Horses (replica), Qin dynasty (221–206 BC), bronze, pigment, Excavated from Pit of Bronze Chariots, Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum, 1980, Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum
Coming in April to the Cincinnati Art Museum (April 20-August 12) is Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China. For the first time on view in Cincinnati, this special exhibition includes 120 objects drawn from the collections of Chinese art museums and archaeological institutes. More than 40 of these works have never been on view in the United States. Sung shares that, while pieces from this archaeological treasure trove have toured before, this exhibition (co-organized with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) has a unique spin on it by focusing on warriors. Seemingly frozen in time, it includes nine life-size terracotta figures, a cavalry horse, arms and armor, jewelry and more. 
“This is full-scaled, and the excavation there is ongoing so there are new discoveries included in this exhibition,” Sung says. In addition to preparing for this exhibition, Sung also co-authored an extensive catalogue on the subject of this now-famous burial site of China’s first emperor, Ying Zheng. 

Visitors to the Cincinnati Art Museum exhibition Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China (April 12-August 20, 2018) will see this Standing Archer (Qin dynasty -  221–206 BC, earthenware, Excavated from Pit 2, Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum, 1997, Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum).  Hyde Park resident Dr. Hou-mei Sung. CAM curator of Asian art, is the exhibition organizer.

While Sung admits she has little free time, she does indulge in less formal research around Cincinnati - “exploring local gourmet Chinese restaurants!” said with a smile.
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