Beyond China’s art gallery boom – CRI English radio broadcast

Chinese state-funding of museums and galleries in recent years is well documented, but what does the future hold for the new generation of gallery owners?

In the wake of the National Art Museum of China’s 50th Anniversary, China Radio International English asks both public and private museum and gallery curators about the growing pains behind the boom in the nation’s cultural institutions. How can the next generation of curators secure their institutions’ futures? 

The National Art Museum of China has made it through 50 years of growing pains. But what does the future look like for the country's most established  museum?

The National Art Museum of China has made it through 50 years of growing pains. But what does the future look like for the country’s most established museum?

Click here to listen to CRI’s radio broadcast in full

English language broadcaster China Radio International (CRI) spoke to two prominent figures on China’s museum landscape to gain an inside perspective on realities of China’s museum boom and where the country’s arts practitioners are likely to face challenges in the future.

Where should funding come from?

Despite increased funding over the last decade, the development of cultural agencies such as museums and art galleries is “vastly imbalanced” says National Museum curator Fan Di’an. He goes on to describe the number of public facilities as insufficient. If the answer is more facilities, from where should the funding come?

Gao Peng, deputy director of Today Art Museum in Beijing, goes further on the issue of funding, pointing out that even established facilities struggle to find long-term sustainable financial support. As China’s first private, non-profit space focused on contemporary art, Today Art Museum faces challenges and benefits concomitant with being privately run.

The first [problem] is the budget. Because we are not government funded, we need to think about how to run the museum and where the sponsor comes from.

Zhang Huan, 'Division Meeting', 2009, ash on linen, 250 x 400 cm.. Image courtesy PinchukArtCentre.

Zhang Huan, ‘Division Meeting’, 2009, ash on linen, 250 x 400 cm. Image courtesy PinchukArtCentre.

Corporate collaborations bring in cash

On the other hand, says Gao, private galleries have more market potential. Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA), a private museum also in Beijing, stated in a recent interview with ABC that one way to attract government funding is to produce meaningful collaborations with corporate sponsors.

Tax Deductions

In order to address the lack of experience and “professional direction” in China, as Fan Di’an has it, curators and art managers are often educated abroad. Gao Peng’s course in gallery management in the UK in 2012 allowed him to compare differences between Chinese and European systems, including the provision of tax breaks.

In London, if some patrons give some money to some private museums and cultural programmes, they get some tax payback. But in China they do not. If the patrons get some tax payback, that means they will have more confidence to give more money for private museums.

Zhang Xiao. They Series No.01, 2009. Image courtesy Three Shadows Photography Art Centre

Zhang Xiao. They Series No.01, 2009. Image courtesy Three Shadows Photography Art Centre.

Visitor Experience

Another benefit of providing tax breaks is to encourage public involvement in the display and availability of local arts. Both curators stress the importance of the visitor to a museum and their educational and creative experience.

Just as Fan Di’an mentions the imbalance in the number of museums between the heavily funded coastal East and sparsely served landlocked West, he also recognises the difference between city and village dweller. What can China learn from their western counterparts? Fan Di’an says, “put visitors first and create more visitor-friendly environments.”

Yang Yongliang, 'A snake and grenade', 2012, "Silent Valley", digital print, 66 x 118 cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

Yang Yongliang, ‘A snake and grenade’, 2012, “Silent Valley”, digital print, 66 x 118 cm. Image courtesy mc2gallery.

A local museum is a successful museum

In a separate interview, Phillip Tinari expands upon Fan Di’an’s point by describing the role of visitors in the Chinese art museum and gallery:

[The gallery] has this interesting question to answer which is what does it mean to present contemporary Chinese art to a Beijing public … not a group of consumers or political subjects that you need to indoctrinate but rather people that you want to treat as thinking, feeling individuals.

The answer, says Tinari, is to work with their reactions and observe how they view the work, along with taking into account their response to exhibit planning like wall texts and subject matter. Gao Peng stresses the responsibility of curators to address not only modern art trends but also the institution’s relation with “local art,” in order to build on the relationship viewers have with their local histories and visual imagery.

True Color Museum, Suzhou, China, opened in 2008 by entrepreneur and collector Chen Hanxing, is one of the emerging private museums in China.

True Color Museum, Suzhou, China, opened in 2008 by entrepreneur and collector Chen Hanxing, is one of the emerging private museums in China.

What’s the Solution?

While government funding is pouring into building and promoting public art institutions, curators wish to remain cognizant of the challenges in exhibiting artwork to a general public. By encouraging support and funding in the form of collaborations and tax deductions galleries can contribute to a larger cultural map of art in China. Gao Peng elaborates:

You need to have a special area you want to focus on. For us, we focus on contemporary art and our mission is to promote Chinese contemporary art and to introduce international contemporary art to China. But now some private museums or galleries include traditional, contemporary, modern, post-modern art. The public will misunderstand what they really want to talk about.

In the end, it seems the solution and response to the booming museum projects in China is continued communication and shared experience, along with a government initiative to fund not only museums but also art education in schools, thereby enriching the artistic knowledge of both viewer and cultural institution.

 Nathalie Johnston

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Related Topics: museums, Chinese art and artists, curators, Art investment   

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