Before he came to Atlantic City this spring, Lance Fung admits he knew almost nothing about where he was going.
"I had to Google it," said Fung, an art curator and former gallery owner in New York's artsy Soho district.
"I even forgot it was in New Jersey," he said, with a shy smile.
Fung, who's 49 until January, mainly splits his time between homes in Manhattan and the redwoods of northern California - the state where he grew up. But he has staged public art exhibitions everywhere from San Francisco to Seoul to Siwa, Egypt, and his latest venture has him spending much of his time in Atlantic City these days, overseeing plans to transform vacant lots into art parks.
The Artlantic project is scheduled to go on for five years, but the biggest piece by far has converted the site of the old Sands casino, vacant for five years now, into a giant construction zone. But what's being built isn't the Pinnacle project that was planned there. Instead "Artlantic: wonder" involves a mini-mountain of moved earth that Fung said was inspired by his earliest impressions of Atlantic City.
"I love being the facilitator of making great art," said Fung, who has a master's of fine arts degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York, but is "not a practicing artist."
And while he had no personal connection to the city before the casino-funded Atlantic City Alliance recruited him this spring, Fung also likes remembering a family link.
His father, William, a defense-industry executive, went from California to Philadelphia for a convention. With time off on a weekend, Fung Sr. joined some colleagues on an adventure to Atlantic City, probably early in its casino days. William came away talking about the place in terms his California kid could understand.
"He described this really fantastic place. ... He said Atlantic City was like a combination of Reno, (Lake) Tahoe and Santa Cruz," recalls Lance Fung, who knew the Reno area because gambling was a popular activity for some older members of his family.
And Fung worked that memory into his idea for the Pinnacle site, where the high banks of the art-exhibition space were inspired by his visions of Boardwalk roller-coasters - along with volcanoes and other other influences from his travels around the world.
Liza Cartmell, the ACA's president, said Atlantic City found its Artlantic curator with help from a Philadelphia-based arts organization she has worked with as a board member at the Please Touch Museum. Cartmell said the arts group was "adamant that we should go with a curator" in Atlantic City's hopes to make a national splash as a venue for public displays of art.
Fung was the recommended choice - and the right one - because "the history of what he has done is very similar, in terms of large-scale, temporary installations, with a cohesive approach," Cartmell said.
"He's used to working in the community and engaging the community, and he understands that it's an artistic endeavor and a tourism endeavor ... at the same time," she added.
This curator, who chooses and coordinates the pieces that will be shown as part of Artlantic, certainly understands the concept of temporary art. One of his first major exhibitions was in the Lapland area of Finland, and was called the Snow Show - because the medium the artists and architects worked in really was snow.
And just how temporary the Artlantic:wonder exhibit could be was emphasized in the middle of its installation, when news broke that Pinnacle now expects to sell the property by the end of the year. Still, Atlantic City history shows repeatedly that a new owner doesn't necessarily translate into a new building - and certainly not immediately.
Fung has studied Atlantic City history since he arrived in the spring. He gave a brief description of some of the city's highlights, he is watching "Boardwalk Empire" via Netflix, and he has been around enough to make his own observations.
"We have a lot of vacant lots," he said, and added later that "many of our locations are troubled." The Artlantic project has already taken over another high-visibility spot - on the Boardwalk at California Avenue, which the artist John Roloff is transforming into a "3-D illusion" that the curator hopes will draw people to explore it and stay.
"There are not many communal meeting places" in the city, and Fung expects to lure some people to the Roloff work with the promise of a free wi-fi connection there. But he also wants to see the art become a stage for dance recitals, musical acts, fashion shows and more.
As he strolled down the Boardwalk, Fung said he is gratified - brought to tears, actually - by the reception he has gotten in Atlantic City. He expects to have an Atlantic City artist to add to a subsequent year of Artlantic, and hopes it happens in the next phase, the empty lot on the Downbeach side of Boardwalk Hall's West Hall.
Fung believes that "art does have a way of transforming a place" - and even people, by "making them feel they are of value." He bases that partly on what he saw in his 2009 project in San Francisco's Tenderloin area, called "Wonderland, USA."
His involvement here has extended from the Atlantic City High School art club to the local painters, carpenters and plumbers unions. The painters, for example, have provided labor from apprentices on Roloff's California Avenue piece. Michael Rocha, a union official, called that setup a win for everyone involved.
"It beats having them sit in class all day," said Rocha, the union's apprentice coordinator.
Watching the painters execute an artist's vision, Fung said in just a few months in Atlantic City, he has gone from agnostic to believer. He has even found a real-estate agent - because he's looking to buy "a part-time residence" in the city.
"To be honest," Fung said, smiling again, "I've drunk the Kool-Aid. ... I think something is happening here. I feel it."
Sitting in his Boardwalk Hall office - an oversized supply closet, actually - the founder of Fung Collaboratives obviously enjoys describing the artists and the environment he's bringing together in an empty spot just steps away from an iconic Atlantic City address, Boardwalk and Park Place.