A museum presents Chinese culture from an American lawyer's perspective
By Fan Lu & Tao Xing  ·  2021-06-21  ·   Source: NO.25 JUNE 25, 2021
Mitch Dudek at the Six Arts Museum in Lili, an ancient town in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province (COURTESY PHOTO)

Museum exhibits are usually protected by glass cases or windows. However, at the Six Arts Museum in Lili, an ancient town in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, visitors can approach and physically touch the exhibits. 

According to Mitch Dudek, founder of the Six Arts Museum, the pieces inside the museum, mostly Chinese antiques, are crafted from wood and stone, and therefore are not easily damaged while at the same time being relatively convenient to protect and repair. This is the main reason why visitors are allowed to touch them, Dudek said, "very gently, though."

The "Six" in Six Arts refers to the six senses, Dudek explained. "Visitors are able to fully immerse themselves in the art and atmosphere here through their sense of vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch, and meanwhile, we hope that the museum also mobilizes our visitors' sixth sense of wellbeing, allowing them to fully appreciate and enjoy the beauty of the Chinese folk arts on display," Dudek told Beijing Review. 

Dudek, hailing from the U.S. state of Ohio, first came to China in 1981 as an international student and went on to become a lawyer at one American law firm's Shanghai office after graduation. He has lived in China for 40 years, more years than he spent growing up in the U.S. "I became interested in Chinese culture and ancient art pieces immediately upon my arrival in China," Dudek said. "I had never seen this kind of art before, and everything was fresh and new to me." From that moment onwards, he began collecting a wide variety of folk arts and antiques dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911). 

A museum journey 

Over the past 40 years, Dudek has traveled all over China, visiting almost every province, going on to collect more than a hundred thousand artifacts. These include architectural salvage pieces, stone and wood carvings, temple and domestic folk arts, and antique furniture and furnishings. 

"I filled up rented warehouses one after another. Meanwhile, my mother teased me about how crazy I was for collecting so many pieces," Dudek told Beijing Review. "But I never stopped."

Of course, the road to collecting is rarely easy. In the past, the greatest challenge was transportation as it was difficult to get things from the countryside delivered to Shanghai. "That is no longer a problem due to the rapid development of modern logistics throughout China," Dudek said. In addition, as a lawyer, Dudek was extremely busy advising foreign companies how to invest in China. "It is not too hard to find out where I could collect these items, but I did not have much time to go," he said.

After collecting so many antiques, Dudek began thinking about how to allow more people to appreciate the charm of these beautiful items. By chance, a local government official in Lili learned about Dudek's collection through a mutual friend.

Lili is located near three major cities in the Yangtze River Delta region—Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. If an interesting museum could be established there, more people would be attracted to visit the ancient town. Thus, the local government decided to lend a strong hand to Dudek, by, for example, providing an abandoned factory building complex to renovate for the museum and offering policy guarantees.

A museum is very expensive to build and maintain, but everything went well thanks to a great deal of support courtesy of the local government, the provincial government and the community, according to Dudek.

The Six Arts Museum, housing more than 40,000 pieces, officially opened to the general public in mid-2018 to showcase the many diverse types of Chinese folk craft art and exquisiteness.

"We hope the beautiful artworks awaken people's memories of times gone by and help them experience the beauty of life and culture in the past," Dudek said.

Unique presentation 

The Six Arts Museum has a professional team with vast experience in the preservation and repair of cultural artifacts.

Ever since the museum opened its doors to the public, very few pieces have been damaged, and even if something is damaged, the in-house professional team will repair it. "This way, touching the pieces on display is not a problem for the Six Arts Museum," Dudek added.

The museum is also combined with two other innovative projects—the Six Arts Museum Hotel, and "Fortune," an ancient folk arts-themed restaurant. The artifacts are not only showcased inside the actual museum itself, but in the hotel and the restaurant as well.

"The pieces in both places are not reproductions, but real antiques, cleverly designed and thoughtfully integrated into their respective environments," Dudek said.

The decoration style of the hotel and the restaurant can best be described as traditional Chinese folk art pieces creatively set in modern colorful frames and delightful settings. Importantly, the hotel and the restaurant share the financial burden of the museum and help the museum to financially sustain itself so that it can continue to survive and thrive.

"As a foreigner, I incorporated a new perspective into the design and presentation of the Chinese art objects in the museum, hotel and restaurant," Dudek said. "My hope is that both foreign and Chinese visitors can appreciate the beauty of Chinese folk culture from different perspectives." 

Not just exhibits 

Dudek's 40-year collecting spree is a reflection of China's rapid development following the introduction of the reform and opening-up policy.

"One of the main reasons I was able to collect so many art objects is because China was developing so rapidly," Dudek said. "China's breakneck development permitted incredible numbers of families to move from the countryside into the cities, and from old housing into modern comfortable homes, which invariably led to the demolition of many old buildings, particularly during the 1980s through to the 2000s," and that is where Dudek's collections come from.

"Now, China's economy and living standards are unbelievably better than it was in the 1980s, and has achieved a very high level. I believe that this is the fastest development the world has ever seen," Dudek said. "Following such rapid development came the time to refocus on and preserve [traditional] culture and make sure it is remembered. Nowadays, China's efforts in culture protection are already strong and growing even stronger."

"This is a very good thing," Dudek added.

Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dudek's family would visit China almost every year. His sister, an interior designer, also provided many suggestions regarding the construction and decoration of the museum, hotel and restaurant. "My family has learned a great deal about China due to what I do, and they love Chinese culture as much as I do," Dudek said.

"There is undoubtedly some misunderstanding in the U.S. about China, and some misunderstanding in China about the U.S. But hopefully we will have more and more cultural exchanges which can help to build bridges between the peoples of these two great nations," Dudek said, adding that one example is the founding of the Six Arts Museum.

Dudek hasn't gone back to the U.S. for nearly 18 months due to the pandemic; his family also hasn't visited China during this period. "I hope we all get through this period soon, so that people from all around the world can personally experience different cultures, and of course most importantly, I would love to see my family again soon."

In the future, Dudek and his colleagues want to continue to expand the museum and its facilities, as many of his collections are still stored in warehouses.

"I also want to cooperate with more universities, research institutes and academics, and to host more special cultural exchange activities," Dudek said. "But for now, I will focus on what I am doing in Lili and make the Six Art Museum the best that it can possibly be."

(Print Edition Title: Through the Looking Glass) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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