A Little Bit of Beijing in Ohio

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

COLUMBUS, Ohio, may not be the first place one thinks of when it comes to international art shows. But when city officials realized they had a chance to play host to the largest exhibition of Chinese art treasures outside China, how could they sit still? If their pluckiness wasn't enough to make cultured East Coasters do a double take, the planners proposed to display the artifacts in an old high school downtown. With a little renovation, why not? The Chinese approved.

And now, over a year later and five months into the ``Son of Heaven'' event, some 400,000 people from nearly every state and over 50 countries have shuffled through the remodeled hallways and classrooms to see this rare show. The euphoria in town nearly rivals that of past football seasons at Ohio State.

``The story for Columbus,'' says Merribell Parsons, director of the Columbus Museum of Art, ``is obtaining the exhibition, taking the risk, and accomplishing a meaningful interpretation'' of a landmark school building.

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``People from the East Coast think we're still fightin' Indians out here,'' says John Schooley, with a chuckle. Mr. Schooley is architect of the $2 million renovation of Central High School, now renamed Columbus Central. After being closed for seven years, the 63-year-old school, perched on the banks of the Olentangy River, was purchased by the city so that ``Son of Heaven'' could move in.

Every conceivable kind of treasure arrived - from silk-spun carpets and court robes to enormous bronze bells and life-sized terra cotta warriors. All items once belonged to China's past emperors, each known as the Son of Heaven. The objects span 26 centuries, and many were excavated within the last 15 years and have never been outside China.

But before one relic could be positioned, the high school had to be transformed. Given just six months to prepare, Schooley and his team of architects - advised by the Chinese curatorial team and experts from the city's Museum of Art - designed a dramatic, highly symbolic setting to create a ``sense of place'' through color and architectural forms.

``This was the auditorium,'' says Schooley, entering the first display area, ``The Outer Court.'' All the seats are gone, and a carpeted floor slopes downward to the front. Ramps with white balustrades lead up to the stage - the imagined entrance to the Hall of Supreme Harmony in Beijing's Forbidden City. A yellow, pagoda-style roof crowns the proscenium arch, and beyond four red pillars stands the exquisite ``Dragon Throne'' and silk cushion.

``We wanted to evoke the aura of imperial life,'' says Schooley, who has traveled to and studied China's palaces and temples. The school and exhibits ``really fit like a hand in a glove,'' he says.

Visitors wind their way through hushed, low-lighted spaces, viewing royal crowns and cloisonn'e where there was once a basketball court or art room.

``Behind all this, we had to work in air-conditioning to accommodate all the people,'' says Schooley, pointing to the black false ceilings that hide layers of new ventilation. Half the budget went to air-conditioning and electrical work, he says. With the hectic schedule, ``every day was a challenge, but it was never critical.'' Because the building has some sentimental value in the community, the changes are minimal, he adds, and not irreversible.

John Hawley graduated from Central High in 1959. ``I think they did a good job of disguising the school,'' he says, but most former students would know where they were as they walked around.

``The Tomb'' section is fittingly cold and dark. The floor switches from carpeting to concrete. Among the treasures is a burial suit made of jade plaques, sewn with gold threads. ``We knew we wanted to make it like a stone vault,'' Schooley remarks, gazing around the room. ``For a boys old locker room, it's not bad.''

``Son of Heaven'' has received generally high marks from visitors and media across the country. Reviews of the exhibition have appeared in major newspapers in nearly every state and in some two-dozen national publications.

``I wanted to change Ohio's image of what's possible by doing some interesting projects,'' says David Baker, director of Ohio's Department of Development. Mr. Baker had been on the lookout for non-traditional tourist events.

Seattle negotiated the initial contract with the Chinese and displayed the exhibition last year. The city was obligated, however, to find a second venue for ``Son of Heaven.'' Large, major cities were interested, but time was short. Few had museums that were not booked already, says Baker. Seattle began to consider mid-sized cities like itself.

Once Baker got wind of the project, ``we moved quickly. We had both the interest and ability to respond.'' In March 1988, Columbus was selected.

``Columbus is extremely anxious that this city develop into an important, regional cultural center,'' says the art museum's Ms. Parsons, who is also executive director of ``Son of Heaven.'' She describes the growth of the arts here as ``phenomenal'' in the last four years. ``There's almost a hunger here'' for cultural things, she says.

Over $3 million of the exhibition's total $6 million cost is guaranteed by local businesses and organizations. Ticket sales will cover the rest, with the state and the city willing to pitch in, if needed. Working inside the exhibition are 1,400 volunteer docents, chosen from 4,000 applicants.

``Son of Heaven'' ``has brought this community together in a way that's never been experienced before,'' says Parsons. ``We've now developed these very cordial relationships throughout the city.'' This provides a strong foundation for future events, she says, such as the prestigious AmeriFlora international garden show to be held here in 1992.

This is ``the wave of the future,'' says Baker. ``There are lots of cities and states out looking for blockbuster-type artistic experiences to improve the overall image of their state or cities,'' he explains. And many of these events will be held ``in places other than traditional museums.''

``Son of Heaven'' continues in Columbus through Sept. 4.

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