Making 1,200 Museums Bloom

China, where the term “curator” did not exist ten years ago, is in the midst of a museum boom. But its fledgling institutions face many challenges—not least establishing an infrastructure for cultural activities, raising funds, battling bureaucracy, and challenging censorship.

Samuel Kung, founder and director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai.

Samuel Kung, founder and director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai.


Gearing up for this year’s Summer Olympics and the 2010 World Expo, China’s major cities are in the midst of a building boom, reinventing themselves as cultural capitals and tourist draws. Museums have become a central part of this hyperactive urban-planning program, and dozens of new art institutions are opening up throughout China. Some are state-run facilities, sponsored by the Chinese government or local municipalities. Many more are private ventures, founded by a single wealthy patron or by real-estate corporations. Most operate under far different rules from those of their Western counterparts.

In Shanghai there are already five museums that show contemporary art: the Shanghai Museum, the Shanghai Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai, the Zendai Museum of Modern Art, and the Shanghai Duolun Museum of Modern Art. The Shanghai Museum, which focuses on antiquities, has been receiving many contemporary-art shows from abroad since 2004. In Beijing there is the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC), which plans to open a contemporary-art branch next year, and the Today Art Museum, plus the new Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. Guangzhou is home to the Guangdong Museum of Art, which will hold the Guangzhou Triennial in September, and nearby Shenzhen has its own museum, plus a contemporary-art annex, the OCT Art Terminal. Chengdu, in southwest China, recently announced that it will open seven new museums, each devoted to a different contemporary Chinese artist. Chinese news reports predict that as many as 1,200 museums will open by 2010.

“Right now in China there is a very large demand for art museums,” confirms Li Lei, director of the Shanghai Art Museum, which hosts the Shanghai Biennale and numerous other exhibitions, such as the Armani retrospective in 2006 organized by the Guggenheim Museum. “For a long time, there was no access to art education for ordinary people, but with the rapid development of the economy, the people’s attention has turned to art and culture,” he explains. Indeed, it is easy to find crowds at many of China’s art museums, ranging from young professionals and art students to elementary-school groups and foreign tourists. But the flip side of this popularity is the lack of infrastructure for cultural activities in China: there is no legal framework for establishing a not-for-profit organization in mainland China, and there is no tax benefit for making donations to cultural institutions. Therefore, art museums—both government-sponsored and private—must continually invent ways to raise money, often resorting to methods that might be considered illegal or unethical in the United States.

“Actually, the public in China has no idea what a museum is or can be,” acknowledges Fan Di’an, director of NAMOC, which held a Magritte retrospective sponsored by the Brussels Fine Arts Center of Belgium last May and will host a Cai Guo- Qiang retrospective from the Guggenheim Museum in June. Fan Di’an is also head of a newly founded Chinese art-museums association that will soon enact guidelines for evaluating many of these fledgling institutions. “It is a booming time for museums, and as more and more local governments and private collectors open museums, the government will get a better idea about this issue.”

A key problem has been the absence of training programs for museum professionals in China, a country where the term “curator” did not exist ten years ago. Even now, there is only one program in curatorial studies, run by the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, which is graduating its first class this year. “In China, we didn’t have degrees such as arts management or curatorial studies, so most of the museum directors were originally artists,” says Fan Di’an, who like many directors in China got his position through political appointment. Lack of training is evident at all levels of museum management, as is an absence of professional art handlers and restorers, all of which results in poorly installed exhibitions and damaged artworks, especially at state-run museums. “They have no practice, and they are not interested in developing the proper standards,” comments Marie-Laure Jousset, head of the Pompidou Center’s design department and curator of the exhibition “Fabrica: les yeux ouverts,” which was on view last fall at the Shanghai Art Museum. Jousset had to bring an entire crew of installers and art handlers to Shanghai to ensure proper care of the artworks. “They want the event, and they want our name, but they don’t want to spend money,” she laments. “We had to have long discussions about how a museum has to reach a certain level in order to gain credibility.”

Jay Levenson, director of the International Program at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, found a much more efficient staff and operations at the traditional Shanghai Museum when MoMA sent its first show, a selection of master drawings from its permanent collection, to China in 2005. This is because the Shanghai Museum has state-of-the-art facilities owing to the Chinese government’s commitment to antiquities and classical works of art. Built in 1996, the institution’s 120,000-square-foot building is shaped like an ancient cooking urn and is staffed by a team of professional curators. “The International Council paid for the costs of the show, which is unusual for us,” says Levenson, who acknowledges that MoMA wanted to have a presence in China but found that the Chinese museum did not know how to raise funds to bring the show to China. “Generally, it’s not easy to raise money for someone else’s museum; it will be helpful when Chinese museums get more experience in raising funds, because it makes the most sense for them to be looking for sponsors for their own shows.” Last fall the museum hosted “Titian to Goya: Great Masters of the Museo del Prado.”

Since corporate sponsorship for museum exhibitions is rare in China, and the state-run museums are only partially funded by government agencies, museums often seek support from the artists themselves. Though Li Lei denies charging artists directly, Zhang Huan, a leading Chinese artist who had a show at the Shanghai Art Museum last February, confirms that he was asked to pay almost $200,000 to cover the costs of his extensive exhibition, including the catalogue. This issue is compounded by the fact that few of these museums have curators devoted to researching and initiating original shows of contemporary art—the Guangdong museum is the one exception. In the end, any artist who takes the initiative to organize his or her own retrospective can offer the exhibition proposal to a museum, and as long as the artist can provide funding, the show will go on. Most of the artist-funded exhibitions run only one or two weeks, and it is not unusual for a museum to hold as many as 80 such exhibitions a year.

Even if they had professional curatorial staffs, these state-run museums would be burdened by China’s excessive bureaucracy, which would hinder their exhibition programs. For example, the museums must often accept shows that the government wants exhibited, such as those of work by regional artists belonging to official political unions or professional organizations, like the Hunan Province Artists’ Association or the Farmers’ Painting and Calligraphy Association. “This is normal, really normal,” says Li Lei, “but since this is not a museum that focuses on one small aspect of art, we can accommodate these shows into our exhibition

Censorship is another issue for museums in China, though the Ministry of Culture has become increasingly supportive of contemporary art. There is a slogan the Chinese media have attributed to Minister of Culture Sun Jianzheng that says, “Culture is so important; culture is like the calling card of a country; culture is the spirit of a nation.” In the past, every work shown in a public space—whether a museum or commercial gallery—had to be approved by the Ministry of Culture. Now, only exhibitions of art from international artists receive such scrutiny, according to Wang Huangsheng, director of the Guangdong Museum.

The ministry even promoted a conference on museum development held at NAMOC in January of last year. Additionally, Sun Jianzheng cut the ribbon to open “Art in America: Three Hundred Years of Innovation,” organized by the Guggenheim Museum. The first survey exhibition of American art in China, it opened at NAMOC in February of last year. “The Ministry of Culture is very interested in making changes,” says NAMOC director Fan Di’an, “but the art museum has to follow certain guidelines that we can’t override.” He describes his job as a balancing act, selecting appropriate artworks that do not contradict the Ministry of Culture’s emphasis on “cultural security”—that is, the mandate to control all media, including television and the Internet. “Many contemporary artists are like wild black horses,” he says, “and the ministry is like the man who is holding those horses.” Fan Di’an finds that, by working within the system, he can make changes slowly, step by step. Sometimes, however, the conflict becomes intolerable, as was the case at the Shanghai Duolun MoMA, when the entire staff walked out in January of last year, in protest over continual government interference with their curatorial program.

Private museums have much greater leeway in programming, but they often suffer from the same lack of infrastructure as do the state-run institutions. Most of these museums, such as the Zendai MoMA in Shanghai or the Today Art Museum in Beijing, are founded by real-estate developers and are situated in the center of vast luxury-apartment complexes. Today hosted a Fang Lijun exhibition in October 2006 and “Documents 2007, Energy: Spirit, Body, Material,” curated by Huang Du. Museums add cachet to these projects, allowing developers to charge more for their condominiums. Also, in some cases, the government (which owns all the land in China) will offer better terms to developers who can demonstrate a public benefit in their plans, and an art museum easily serves that purpose. In either case, the developer garners all the advantages of having a museum simply by building the edifice, often recruiting a well-known international architect, without having to plan for ongoing operating expenses or future programming.

For example, the Zendai MoMA, founded by Dai Zhikang of the Shanghai Zendai Group, a corporate conglomerate, opened a small branch in a shopping plaza in the Pudong district of Shanghai. Dai began construction last fall on the Zendai Himalaya Center, a vast complex also in Pudong, which will encompass a five-star hotel, a “creative industry” zone, and a 60,000-square-foot museum. Designed by Arata Isozaki, it will be the largest contemporary-art museum in Asia when it opens next year, yet its director, Shen Qibin, is a former artist with limited museum experience. For two years, the Zendai Group employed Sunhee Kim, a Korean-born curator with international experience, to serve as artistic director, but she left last fall when she found that she could not raise the standards of the museum. “I made an organization chart with a public-relations department, development department, and curatorial department, but I couldn’t find qualified staff to fill these positions,” says Kim, who faced opposition to making these changes from the existing staff. “This model doesn’t fit China right now,” she explains. Kim also could not adapt to the museum’s approach to meeting its budget. “They are making programs to earn a profit from outside, like selling artworks from the shows to hotels or organizing an art fair,” says Kim. “I am opposed to all of this, because the function of a museum is probably more important in China than in other countries, and there is still so much to do for the public here.”

Even state-run museums have felt the impact of real-estate developers. The Guangdong Museum is building a new contemporary-art annex designed by Rem Koolhaas, which is being wholly funded by a local real-estate company. In return, the museum, which featured “Beautiful New World—Contemporary Visual Culture from Japan” last winter, will help the company establish a corporate art collection and promote its visibility. And in Shenzhen, the Konka Group, a state-controlled industrial giant that includes among its holdings the Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) real-estate corporation, owns a string of theme parks—Splendid China, Window of the World, Happy Valley—that are considered culture venues, with replicas of the Eiffel Tower and ethnic minority villages. OCT also funds the He Xiangning Art Gallery, founded by the local government. Nearby, in an industrial park, the group has opened the OCT Art Terminal, one of the leading contemporary-art facilities in the country, featuring a public-art and international artist-residency program in addition to its vast exhibition space.

MOCA Shanghai, which last fall presented the Animamix Biennial, and the “Gong Zhen Sport in Art,” organized by Adidas, is a stunning example of a private museum that is not part of a real-estate scheme. Its founder and director, Samuel Kung, a Hong Kong jewelry designer, opened the 12,000-square-foot contemporary-art museum, located on the People’s Square across from the Shanghai Art Museum, in 2005. “Certainly not New York,” Kung says. “But even in Hong Kong, I could never imagine that I could have a place like this.” He seems as surprised as anyone that he is now the director of his own museum. “But in China, it’s not that much compared to opening a museum abroad,” Kung acknowledges, explaining that it cost about CNY30 million ($4.1 million) to build the gleaming glass edifice, with its rooftop restaurant, and that it costs only CNY12 million ($1.6 million) to run each year. At the same time, he points out, it helped that his creative director, Victoria Lu, volunteered her curatorial services and produced shows on a limited budget. Lu is now leaving the museum to direct the Moon River Museum of Contemporary Art in Beijing, which will be the heart of a resort-development project that includes galleries, apartments, a hotel, and a golf course.

“We will have many, many more museums—maybe 20 in Beijing—in the next three years,” says Lu, a Taiwan-born Chinese from a Shanghai family, who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. Lu has had considerable curatorial experience in the United States and Taipei. “Imagine all the local, regional, national, private and university museums, all planning to open soon,” she says. “How will they find the professionals to run these museums? That will be a big problem, and the government is beginning to recognize it.” To illustrate Lu’s point, there is the example of the Songzhuang Museum of Contemporary Art, founded and directed by esteemed art critic Li Xianting in 2006. According to Li, the 15,000-square-foot museum, on the outskirts of Beijing, cost only $1.3 million to build, with funds coming from the local Songzhuang district. “When visitors came from the Museum of Modern Art in New York and I told them how much the museum cost, they said it wasn’t possible,” he recalls, “but I don’t get paid, and there are only four other people working on this museum.” The museum is supported by the local government, which hopes it will bring commerce to the area, a farm village where many wealthy artists have been building villas and studios. But, on a recent visit to the museum, the lights were not turned on, and there were only two security guards overseeing the operation.

“The Western model for a museum is quite complete and mature, but China has yet to even develop a model,” says Fei Dawei, director of the brand-new Ullens Center, which opened in Beijing last November. Fei is rare among China’s new museum directors in that he has the experience of working at a Western institution—the Pompidou—before running an art center in his homeland. The Ullens Center itself is different from every other art institution in China, simply because it was founded by European collectors. The Swiss couple Baron and Baroness Guy and Miriam Ullens have amassed one of the largest collections of contemporary Chinese art in the world and view the center as their gift back to China. They have planned and funded an entirely Western-style museum, staffed by a professional team of international curators and supported by a nonprofit foundation established in Switzerland. The Ullens Center, whose opening show covered the 1985 New Wave art movement in China, is situated in a renovated factory in Beijing’s hot Factory 798 gallery district.

On opening night, the center was flooded with visitors from around the world. International curators, such as Hans Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine Gallery and Simon Groom of Scotland’s national galleries, rubbed shoulders with Chinese art stars Zhang Xiaogang and Wang Guangyi. Fan Di’an met up with Uli Sigg, former Swiss ambassador to China and a leading collector of Chinese contemporary art, and James Elaine, curator at Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum, was introduced to Samuel Kung. With champagne and caviar served to 700 guests, the opening was like no other in the Chinese art world. Yet many of the Chinese artists there complained that the very professional installation looked “too Western.”

“The museums that will develop here will naturally be different from the kind found in the West, simply because of the way Chinese people think and the way things are done here,” says Fei. But he admitted that what many are calling a “new Chinese model” has yet to take hold. “China right now is in a state of transition, and whatever systems are in place will eventually be replaced by something much more institutionalized.”

Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews and is writing a book about China’s contemporary-art scene.

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