Because of UArts, Philly will always be part of me.

From Shanghai to Philadelphia: An international alum speaks on the closure of UArts

6 minute read
View from the mezzanine of a hall crowded with students and vendor tables, balloons decorating the central stairway.

On June 1, as I was enjoying the perfect weather on the streets of my home city of Shanghai, I received a message from a Chinese friend who is a fellow University of the Arts alum. It was a social-media screengrab saying that UArts was going to shut down in just seven days. At first, we thought it was a piece of fake news: that someone had hacked the school’s social-media platform. Later, I saw the news headline in the Inquirer’s Instagram post, saying UArts was truly closing in just a few days.

I am sure I’m not the only one who felt helpless, frustrated, and upset. It’s the middle of the night on the other side of the world, but as a former student who studied and lived in Philadelphia, I want to share my UArts experiences along with the US students raising their own voices, hoping to be heard. May the art force be with us.

My path from Shanghai to Philly

Before my UArts days, I worked as an account manager in digital marketing, and then became a features editor for ARTY, a Chinese contemporary art magazine. My editorial work offered great opportunities to interview and visit artists and art museums, and after a year, I realized that I needed to get more education to improve my writing and become more deeply involved in the art industry.

That’s when a former colleague who was studying in the US sent me a video of Neil Gaiman’s famous 2012 “Make good art” commencement address at UArts. It touched me profoundly. The speech was so powerful that I would watch it every now and then when I felt lost in my career path. That was my first contact with UArts.

In 2014, when I felt ready, I applied to the Museum Communication graduate program at UArts, because I thought it was the best combination of my marketing skills and my art-museum ideals. I was accepted with a decent scholarship, which helped me to afford my ongoing education overseas. As an international student from Shanghai, China, I enrolled at UArts in fall of 2015. The program not only fulfilled but surpassed my expectations. In my two years at the school, I met teachers and students from Philly and made friends internationally on campus at university receptions and other events. I remember seeing one of my fellow international students, jazz major Chien Chine Lu, playing at a Center City jazz bar. Her hard work, talent, and progress in the field is extraordinary.

Museums across the mid-Atlantic

My professor, Museum Communication program director Dr. Joseph J. Gonzales, encouraged me to apply for the 2016 American Alliance of Museum’s Annual Meeting Fellowship, and I got it. That was my first national-level award outside my home country. It was a good year for me: UArts also helped me to apply for the Richard C. Von Hess Foundation Intern Fellowship at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and I went on to work with the marketing and visitor experience teams there. With my video-making skills, I did a short video for the museum about Henri Matisse’s influence on American-born painter Richard Diebenkorn.

I went on to internships with other major museums in the region, including the Delaware Art Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (which was my dream). For these and for my studies, I thank teachers like Ellen Owens, Stephanie Reyer, and too many more to name, who introduced me to the broader museum world in Philly. In my classes, I could visit and talk to staff at Philadelphia Magic Gardens, the Penn Museum, the Philadelphia Zoo, PAFA, and many other local institutions. My days in Philly were deeply engaged with the city’s arts and culture community.

Bao, a Chinese woman in glasses, long coat, black boots, and black hat, poses smiling next to a red Wells Fargo carriage.
Writer and UArts alum Wenlu Bao enjoying a reception at the Wells Fargo History Museum during her time at the school. (Photo courtesy of Wenlu Bao.)

After two years of effort and good times, I graduated in 2017 with the Highest Academic Achievement Award from the Museum Studies Department.

Helen Shannon’s legacy

I feel like I could tell a million stories about how the UArts community opened my eyes and built deep connections with the art community in Philly and beyond. But if I were to pick one, it would be the 2018 memorial for faculty member Dr. Helen Shannon at UArts. She was a remarkable professor and was so passionate about teaching museology. And she is the most patient and humble person I've ever met. She helped me with my studies, especially when I was using my second language, and learning things the hard way from the beginning. Her sudden passing was my sorrow.

At her memorial, I saw many students of hers coming from all over the city and the country. They shared how Helen had encouraged them, especially, as a Black woman professional working in the museum field in her time. It was a huge thing to me, meeting a full room of people who were influenced by her, many of whom have achieved amazing careers in the field. Even today, just thinking about her and that day empowers me. Part of me is glad that Helen does not have to witness what’s happening at UArts now.

Part of Philly, no matter how far away

In 2019, I wrote a piece for BSR about Chinese artist Siyuan Liu’s Hamilton Hall Public Art Initiative installation: two large-scale prints of his Washington Crossing Delaware River and Mao Crossing Chisui River. That led to me another UArts alum, renowned artist Tom Judd, who reached out to me after reading my article and invited me to assist him with his public art project, Portal to Discovery. Its installation on the wall of the 5th Street Station of the Market-Frankford Line happened after I returned to China, but I still feel connected to the city because I was part of that piece.

To this day, I am still in touch with Tom and other UArts colleagues. I was thankful to know everyone there who gave me confidence, opportunities, and suggestions. I may not be able to help current students and staff from afar, but I can tell my story.

In my heart, I am a part of the Philly community no matter how far away I am, or how long ago I was there. The city shaped my personality, making me stronger and more inclusive. And I hope to pass on this power and see where it will lead us. I am angry now, knowing so little about the school’s next steps (including a possible merger with Temple University). I’m going to remember that anger and “make good art” in my own way and encourage others. We don’t know what the future holds, but I hope UArts will remain open on Broad Street after June 7, 2024.

At top: a snapshot from a UArts orientation event at Dorrance Hamilton Hall in 2015. (Photo by Wenlu Bao.)

Editor’s note: Under editor Dan Rottenberg and colleagues, Broad Street Review was originally founded out of the University of the Arts in 2005.

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