Shanghai—China’s largest city, with an estimated population of 23 million plus an additional 8 million visitors annually—is in the process of transforming itself into China’s cultural capital. Ten years ago, when tourists interested in art came to Shanghai, their choices were limited to two museums: the Shanghai Museum, a 422,000-square-foot institution built in 1996 as a home for Chinese antiquities; and the Shanghai Art Museum, a much smaller facility housed in the clubhouse of a former race track, a colonial structure devoted to exhibitions of modern and contemporary Chinese art. Today, Shanghai tourists have a choice of no fewer than ten contemporary-art museums, most of them private ventures supported by individual investors.
According to the latest government statistics, China is building approximately 100 museums a year, an increase from fewer than 2,500 in 2001 to more than 3,500 a decade later, with 390 opening in 2011 alone. This museum-building boom parallels the creation of Chinese megacities, each wanting its share of cultural tourist draws.
Shanghai’s impulse to build so many museums is the direct result of a governmental five-year plan for the city to become an artistic center on par with London, Paris, and New York. With such government support—in the form of direct funding or real-estate tax advantages—doors have opened for these new projects, but major challenges remain. In the first place, China does not have a tax structure allowing for donations to nonprofit institutions, whether government-controlled or privately owned, and while there are funds for building construction, there are none for operating expenses. Furthermore, museums have limited ability to attract private donors or corporate sponsors, and they lack trained professionals, including curators, art handlers, collection managers, and research assistants. The only institution with a curatorial studies program that includes contemporary art is the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, but most of its graduates prefer to go to work for auction houses and galleries.
“The biggest challenge? I guess it is to persuade myself to keep up with all the other challenges,” says Gong Yan, the former editor in chief of the Chinese-language magazine Art World. Gong, who had no prior museum experience, was appointed deputy director of the Power Station of Art, which opened in September 2012. Modeled on the Tate Modern, the expansive facility, situated in a former electric plant, was converted into a museum at a cost of $64 million, provided solely by the Shanghai government. The choice of Gong was controversial, given her lack of training and the fact that she is related to a well-placed local official, a factor instrumental in her selection. During her tenure, the museum has hosted “Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal,” the first show of the artist’s work in China (absent his Mao portraits, which were deemed too controversial). Gong has also hired a staff of 36 full-time employees, a modest number compared with the museum’s attendance figures, which reached 300,000 in its first year. “Contemporary art in China is still in its youth stage, so to educate people about contemporary art is the most important vision and mission in our museum,” says Gong, who claims the museum has offered more than 200 educational programs in the last 12 months.
“Shanghai’s push is representative of the next stage of major museum development in China, with local governments putting all this money into contemporary-art facilities,” says Bruce Altshuler, director of the Museum Studies Department at New York University. “The scale is consistent with everything else you see in China—huge,” he adds. While museum development reflects a city’s aspirations, it also presents its own set of challenges, according to Altshuler, especially in a country with a shortage of curatorial professionals and museum-quality collections. “The overall capacity for presenting contemporary art is now immense, and the problem is in filling it.” He says. “I mean, who has that much stuff to show?”
This question, apparently, was not on the mind of Shanghai officials when, in 2012, they closed the antiquated Shanghai Art Museum and divided its responsibilities between two mammoth institutions, which face each other across the Huangpu River: the China Art Palace and the Power Station of Art. The China Art Palace took over the former China Pavilion of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo site, covering some 700,000 square feet and featuring a bright-red edifice that is one of the city’s most identifiable landmarks. It displays 20th-century Chinese paintings by artists not well known in the West but greatly admired in China. The Power Station of Art was also a Shanghai Expo site—the Pavilion of the Future—now a museum devoted to post-1980s art by both Chinese and international artists.
Crowds flooded into the two museums when they opened together in October 2012. Though admission is free, tickets had to be obtained over the Internet for opening day. At the China Art Palace, I wandered over five floors connected by ramps that take viewers from special exhibitions devoted to masters of ink-and-brush painting to images of Shanghai’s glamour girls of the 1920s and ’30s to realist painting of the Cultural Revolution.
Across the river at the Power Station of Art, the 2012 Shanghai Biennale was taking place, and I was immediately confronted with Huang Yong Ping’s towering Thousand-Armed Guanyin (1997/2012), a three-story-tall version of Marcel Duchamp’s bottle rack with hands on each prong bearing Chinese artifacts, including chopsticks and miniature Buddhas. As big as it was, the work didn’t fill the soaring main-floor atrium, which is as huge as the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.
Two months later, in December 2012, the Long Museum opened in the suburbs of the Pudong district of Shanghai. Costing $43 million, it was founded by Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei, China’s most acquisitive collectors. Designed by architect Zhong Song, the huge brutalist structure houses the couple’s collection of contemporary-realist painting on the first floor, their “classics” of the Cultural Revolution on the second, and their trove of Chinese antiquities on the third. Here you can find Chairman Mao Inspection of Countryside in Guangdong (1972) by Chen Yanning as well as an 11th-century scroll painting by Emperor Song Huizong purchased at auction for $9.9 million in 2009.
China Art Palace, the Power Station of Art, and the Long Museum have joined a roster of existing art museums in Shanghai. These include the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Shanghai, founded in 2005 by Hong Kong jewelry designer Samuel Kung; the Minsheng Art Museum, established in 2008 by China Minsheng Banking Corporation, China’s largest bank; the Rockbund Art Museum, a Kunsthalle that opened in 2010, situated in the renovated 1932 former headquarters of the Royal Asiatic Society; and the Shanghai Himalayas Museum, designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, completed in 2011. Both the Rockbund and the Himalayas Museum are typical of many museum projects in China in that they are a component of real-estate developments.
The Rockbund was founded by Thomas Ou, founder and chairman of Sinolink Worldwide Holdings—a real-estate company listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange—as the centerpiece of a luxury redevelopment plan for Shanghai’s prestigious Bund district. The Himalayas Museum was created by local real-estate developer Dai Zhikang in 2011 as one facet of his $480 million media city in the Pudong district.
Stunning as these museums are as buildings, their day-to-day operations differ considerably. The Minsheng Art Museum, for example, is not merely a vanity project for a bank. Its first director was Zhou Tiehai, an artist with an international reputation who had a vision for a world-class museum. The Minsheng’s shows, such as “30 Years of Moving Image in China” and Liu Wei’s retrospective in 2011, were among the best-researched exhibitions in China.
By contrast, MOCA Shanghai has never had the funds to hire a director or chief curator and it often accepts shows, such as its recent Christian Dior exhibition, that mostly brand its corporate sponsors. “There is an idea that these museums get built and nobody comes to them,” says Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. “That’s true for some places like the Himalayas Museum,” he adds. “You don’t hear a word out of them.” Tinari believes that the Himalayas was built to increase the value of Zhikang’s real-estate project. The developer did indeed sell shortly after it was built to a Hong Kong company for a significant profit. Other museums showed promise, at least at the time of their opening, Tinari insists, cautioning, “Progress is never permanent.”
Not satisfied with the large number of museums already in existence, the Shanghai government has decided to develop a section of the Huangpu River as the West Bund Cultural Corridor. This city-sponsored development stretches more than five miles and will feature two museums: the Long Museum–Puxi branch and the Yuz Museum, Shanghai, both of which are expected to open this year. The West Bund Cultural Corridor will also feature theaters, an opera house, artist residencies, and other art-related venues. Its star attraction will be Oriental DreamWorks, the Chinese studios for the American film company. Long Museum–Puxi branch is expected to be about 172,000 square feet and will concentrate on the contemporary art that Wang Wei and her husband have acquired over the past two years for over $100 million. “The biggest challenge is the extremely huge investment of money,” says Wang, who reportedly has already spent $7 million a year to keep her first museum running.
The Yuz Museum Shanghai is the brainchild of Chinese Indonesian collector Budi Tek, who already opened the Yuz Museum as the first contemporary-art museum in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2008. “My dream is to have a really good contemporary-art museum in Asia,” says Tek, who plans to retire in Shanghai, where his wife was raised. “If you collect Chinese contemporary art and also international artworks, as I have, then Shanghai is the natural place for a museum because it’s such an international city.” Tek is being discrete about which works will be on view when his museum has its grand opening in May. He had what he calls a “soft opening” in December, but he will surely display his prized possession, Maurizio Cattelan’s Untitled (The Tree of Life), 1998, a monumental installation of an olive tree growing out of a cube of earth. Tek has been one of the key promoters of the West Bund Cultural Corridor. “I myself promoted the museum movement in Shanghai,” he says. “Why can New York be New York? There’s Wall Street, of course, but also Chelsea, Broadway, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
Up until recently, few museums in China behaved like art museums in the United States. They were largely unhampered by policies discouraging deacquisitions and conflicts of interest, and they often functioned more like rental halls, offering shows to artists for large fees. Also, like galleries, they would sell works directly out of exhibitions. In Shanghai today, museums are trying to improve their practices. “I have a very strong opportunity to combine my background in the history of museums coming from the West with the challenge of applying this model in China,” says Larys Frogier, director of the Rockbund Art Museum, noting that the fast pace of China’s developing museum scene makes it impossible to impose strict Western models. “The challenge,” he adds, “is to really think how you can operate a very professional high-quality museum, and not only be a showcase.”
“You see a real polyphony of visions about what a museum is and what it can be, and I think that kind of diversity creates something special,” says Tinari. As he points out, the situation of museums in China has been changing rapidly, with many adding educational and innovative programming, when just a few years ago most were mainly overbuilt, empty shells designed merely to display art, often a single owner’s collection. “Look at the Rockbund, which only opened in 2010. Now, it’s a mature institution by comparison.”
All agree that much remains to be done, but there is also tremendous optimism about the future of these institutions. “Compared to other international cosmopolitan cities, our art institutions are way behind,” Gong acknowledges. “I am looking forward to a series of private museums which will complement public museums, like ours. I think only if the environment is this diverse can the city generate more interesting artists and artworks.”
Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews. Additional reporting from Sammi Liu in Beijing.
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 70 under the title “Shanghai’s Tricky Transformation.”