August 08, 2008 - Inside a brochure detailing the Linden Centre, the recently-opened learning and exploration center owned and operated by Brian and Jeanee Linden, there is a fantastic quote by the writer Mark Twain:
“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
It’s not just Twain who has given this advice – it seems that from the beginning of time many people, from famous authors to family members and friends, have urged us to do exactly as Twain writes. Seize the day. Capture the moment. And yet, I have never met two people more dedicated to making these words a reality than Brian and Jeanee Linden. Their personal dream, the Linden Centre, is one that has been 25 years in the making – and with an honest and pure love for China and its people, it is a dream they are intent on sharing with others.
The story begins with Brian Linden, who made his first trip to China in 1984. He would meet Jeanne a few years later when he was finishing up work for a graduate program at John Hopkins University for a scholar exchange program and she was a third-generation Chinese-American, who was in the country to learn Chinese and connect with her roots. A nomadic lifestyle filled with professional and personal opportunities followed for about 10 years, until the Lindens found themselves opening up a gallery in the peaceful town of Ellison Bay in 1996, with another gallery in Madison, WI following in 2001. The two galleries are dedicated to Asian art and artifacts of every conceivable medium, handpicked by the Lindens, who spend roughly four months in the states working between the two galleries, and the other eight months traveling around Asia.
Even with two successful galleries and the rare chance to divide their time between China and Door County, the Lindens had yet another goal – to establish an elegant base for learning, sharing, and exploration among the communities of China.
“We wanted the project to be the culmination of all of the wonderful experiences we have had throughout our travels,” said Brian. “We wanted to offer people a different China experience – to have them be able to touch the ‘old’ China, which is elusive to so many visitors. There is a new kind of traveler out there – one who seeks life experiences, voyages to the unknown.” Thus, the concept of the Linden Centre was born to address the need for more cultural and artistic travel experiences in China and beyond.
Of course, a very large concept such as the Centre comes complete with its own set of large obstacles, although Brian Linden, whose personality is about as agreeable as it gets, would probably hesitate to call them as such. However, opening up a cultural center in the Yunnan Province of Southwest China is not as easy as, say, opening up a hotel in a larger city like Beijing or Shanghai.
“We are the first foreigners that have been granted access into this region of China,” Linden said, “so we knew it would be a bit of work right from the start. Even Jeanne and I had lived and worked and studied in China for almost 20 years at the time we had conceptualized this; it took about four years of reviewing architectural drawings for the renovation of the complex, conferring with China’s cultural and preservation ministries, and developing a trust and solidarity with the local people. The dream was not realized easily, but the result was there in the end.”
Once the dream seemed to become a reality, the Lindens knew they would need assistance with the Centre’s programming, marketing, and operations.
“We couldn’t manage a 30,000 square foot cultural center alone,” Linden laughed. Over one year ago, Adrian Golobic, a family friend who had just completed his undergraduate degree, came into the Linden's Ellison Bay gallery and spoke with Brian at length about his dream for China.
“Brian and I just began talking about his plans for the Centre,” Golobic said, “and I immediately became interested. Brian has a tendency to draw people in with his honesty and excitement, and I knew I wanted to be a part of that.” After spending over four months working pro bono in China for the Lindens, he is now a business and operations partner in the Centre.
“He had the same excitement that we did, and I thought it would be a perfect fit,” said Linden. “And it was – the relationship with Adrian has really been a ‘meant-to-be’ sort of thing.”
Construction and renovation of the Centre began in October 2007, and the interest in China was high. “The coverage we received in China was just massive,” Golobic said. “Television crews, high-end businesspeople, newspapers – you know that the Chinese mean business when they come the second day to see what you’re doing! Everything else is old news the next day.”
Linden says that for the Chinese, a lot of the interest came in the preservation of the building, and therefore, the culture. The Centre is located in the Yunnan Province in the small, historic village of Xizhou. Yunnan, literally the “Land South of the Clouds,” is rich with fabled and ancient trade routes such as the Southern Silk Route and the Tea and Horse Route, due to its central location between the Tibetan Plateau, India, Southeast Asia, and China. Over the past 10 years, the Chinese government has recognized Xizhou as a national architectural treasure that deserves to be both preserved and restored. Over 100 historic estates in Xizhou have been included in a special preservation program. The Linden Centre has been established in the property of Yang Pin Xiang, which Linden said is one of the most pristine examples of vernacular architecture in all of China.
“The Centre was an ideal way to continue the preservation of this culture,” Linden said. “It’s become a great model for accurate historical preservation.” Linden went on to say that one of the greatest things about China’s architecture is how timeless everything still seems. “Even though our property was built in the 1930s and ‘40s, one could walk in and feel like you were in a 500-year-old building.”
Both Golobic and Linden said that with the restoration of the property, one of the biggest goals was to “create a life inside the Centre.”
“Our programs give visitors the opportunity to really immerse themselves in a Yunnan experience over a period of days and weeks,” Golobic said. “Many tourists to Asia don’t have time to discover the cultural and ethnic resources of a particular region. Perhaps they are on a tour of China and only have time to see the highlights. Our hope is to provide a different kind of tour – a ‘deep cultural immersion tour.’”
The first group to travel to the Centre for a cultural program was a group of 33 artists who made the trip in April 2008. This group was introduced to the Centre through the Barnsite Gallery and Kewaunee Academy of Fine Art, whom the Lindens have a partnership with. Linden credits Barnsite’s owners, Dick and Norma Bell, with being an instrumental part of getting the painting and art-related programs of the Centre up and running.
The Linden Centre’s tentative programming schedule for 2008/2009 includes a three-week Plein Air Painting experience, a two-week cooking course focusing on Chinese regional cuisine, a three-week writing course with emphasis on traveling, journaling, and storytelling, and even a special Tibetan journey.
The Centre is open year-round, with nine to 10 programs being offered through the winter and spring. During the summer, it operates as a hotel and restaurant. Linden said that with the demands of the galleries stateside, it’s a little difficult to offer programming in the summer, but that the goal is to be able to offer programs year-round as well.
“The Centre is just starting to reach its potential,” he said. “I’m already thinking of what’s going to happen a few years down the road.” The Linden’s currently hold a deed to another estate in Xizhou that is scheduled for renovation within the next year. Over the next three years, they plan to develop and renovate a third site in Southwest China. Linden hopes that the continued growth will allow the Centres to host more guests and eventually offer a wider range of cultural programs.
“China is at the edge of a change,” Linden said. “The paradigm is shifting, and it’s exciting to see.”
Golobic credits the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing with a part of this shift. “It’s easier to get around in China now – there are more roads being built on account of the Olympics, and there are even new railways in Tibet. China is setting the world standard in a lot of ways. There’s a business culture that is thriving.”
While China may be thriving in these modern times, Linden hopes that the Centre will draw visitors who want a more provincial experience. “We are giving people the China that takes you back,” he said. “The one that makes everyone who goes there absolutely fall in love with it.”