China constructs over 100 new museums every year, a situation that presents challenges as well as opportunities to the country’s arts practitioners.

At 32, Gao Peng has youth and energy on his side, qualities which he considers essential in China’s fast-paced art scene. But the deputy director of Beijing’s Today Art Museum concedes that, along with the unique opportunities inherent in the “museumification of China”, there are still hurdles to be overcome.

Gao Peng, Executive Deputy Director, Today Art Museum. Image courtesy of the Today Art Museum.

Gao Peng, Executive Deputy Director, Today Art Museum. Image courtesy Today Art Museum.

When it comes to urban development, the figures coming out of China can boggle the mind. Since 2001, every month has seen growth equivalent to the construction of a city the size of Chicago. This explosive urban expansion has been matched with a verve for museum-building, as the country’s leaders strive to equal the art infrastructure of global competitors. The so-called “museumification” of China has gathered headlines around the world as media and art world commentators speculate on the motivations and methodologies behind the culture push. In China itself the discussion continues, as arts practitioners, gallerists and artists weigh up the positives and negatives of a government policy that sees over 100 new museums open each year.

For Gao Peng, the 32 year old deputy director of Today Art Museum, Beijing, the situation presents challenges as well as opportunities. From his position at the helm of a large non-profit museum, Gao discusses international cooperation, educating the next generation and why China should build 43,000 more museums.

According to the Chinese Society of Museums, in recent years about 100 new museums have been opened annually in China, peaking at nearly 400 in 2011. Meaning more than one per day! What do you think will be the impact of these many publicly funded museums on privately owned art museums like the Today Art Museum?

Firstly, I think it is a good thing, especially for people of my generation who did not have enough museums to visit as children. I remember sometimes reading and looking at images of art and I really wanted to see original oil paintings, but there were no museums where I could actually go and see original works of art. So I grew up hoping that we would have more museums; not just national museums but also private museums where I can find a Picasso or other interesting master artists. Suddenly, in the last three to five years the market rose very quickly. A lot of private collectors emerged who have money. They no longer only invest in gold or real estate, but they also invest in art and some also build museums. So in the first place, all these new museums are a good thing. But too many are only interested in building a very famous and good building, their main concern being the physical structure of the museum, engaging famous architects and designers.

Do you think that these museums will impact the running of your museum? For example, will they take away your audience?

The reason why this museum has been running for more than ten years is because it is the first non-profit museum in China which focuses only on contemporary art, with greater focus on Chinese contemporary art. You will find some museums that are not focused on a particular area of art. So they might do Chinese painting, they might do sculpture, they might exhibit western masters… anything they want. It is more like a gallery rather than a non-profit museum. [A museum] should have something specific to promote. So for example, the mission of the Today Art Museum is to promote contemporary Chinese art to the world. We also introduce international masters to China. In this way as a local you don’t have to go to another country to enjoy and understand world-class contemporary art. This is our mission.

Another issue is finding sponsors to fund the museums. So once the next generation [of museum managers] grows up, within the next five to ten years, it will get better because now we do not have enough staff who know how to run museums and how to secure funding. In the past, museum managers did not have to worry about where to get funding as they would receive money from the government.

How do you think public and private museums can coexist and mutually benefit each other? In what areas could they cooperate?

Yes, there is cooperation between the two. More and more artists want two [concurrent] exhibitions. They not only want a show in Beijing, but also one in Shanghai or one in Hong Kong. So we have to cooperate with other museums. We have to work with the Shanghai museums or a museum in Hong Kong. So we have one exhibition in Beijing and then another show elsewhere, this is how we cooperate.

So this is cooperation with public museums?

No, this is in relation to other private museums.

What about cooperation with public museums?

We need help from public museums such as the National Gallery [Beijing] because they have more channels to communicate with international masters. I know a master artist who wanted to come to China for the first time and only wanted to exhibit at the National Gallery. Most people only know about China’s public museums, they do not know that there are private museums as well. So we asked the National Gallery, if they are not interested in exhibiting an artist to introduce them to us. Sometimes the National Gallery is very busy, because they have Chinese level exhibitions so they do not have enough time in their schedule to add artists. So if they cannot accommodate [artists] we are happy to take them on and give them a show.

Do you have some examples of this cooperation?

An Italian artist by the name of [Jannis] Kounellis. The Czech Republic wanted to promote some artists in China so they contacted the National Gallery as well as our museum. Because the Kounellis show is composed of rather large pieces, it could not easily be exhibited at the National Gallery: the National Gallery is better suited to exhibiting classical pieces hung on walls. At that time I knew the owner of the Galeria Marino [Rome, Italy] and I talked to him and told him that Kounellis’s work is outstanding and that we would like to exhibit his work in our museum and that we have the right kind of space to show his art. So we invited him to come to China and stay for three months. While he was here he used local materials to create a very large installation. So that is one example.

Artist Jannis Kounellis during his three month stay in Beijing as guest of the Today Art Museum (2011). Image courtesy of the Today Art Museum.

Artist Jannis Kounellis during his three month stay in Beijing as guest of the Today Art Museum, 2011. Image courtesy Today Art Museum.

In a recent article in Leap magazine, it was calculated that despite all these new museums the per capita ratio is still relatively low to developed countries. For every one museum there are 380,000 people. Only Beijing and Shanghai can boast to be at the level of developed countries, namely one museum per 100,000-200,000 people. 43,000 more museums need to be built to reach the world standard. Do you think that such ambitious plans should be attempted?

I totally support this ambitious plan, because we need to build museums and need to let the public know what a museum is. At the moment in Beijing for example, some people are attracted to film so every weekend they will go and watch movies. And some people will go out to enjoy the air. But a lot of people have nothing to do on the weekends. Sometimes people talk about art, but they don’t really know what it is. So I think we need more and more museums. Beijing is also a very big city and traffic is a real issue; if you want to interview me you will brave the traffic and come here, but otherwise you won’t come. So everyone needs a private museum near their home so that it would only take 5-10 minutes to get to that museum. So I support this plan.

Another thing is that if there are so many museums, would we have enough of a new generation of managers and staff to run these museums? Now in China we have artists who act as museum directors.  In fact they might be a good artist, but not necessarily a good manager. Or sometimes they might be a good manager, but do not know enough about art so are not well suited to be a manager in the art field. As a museum manager we need to know how to source funding, understand management and be knowledgeable about art. We need some time until the new generation of museum managers mature.

Photo of the Today Art Museum, exterior view. Image courtesy of the Today Art Museum

The Today Art Museum, Beijing. Image courtesy Today Art Museum.

What measures need to be in place to make the museum boom in China a success not just in terms of the architecture of the museums?

Yes, that is very important. My background is not in art museums; I never thought that one day I will work in a museum. So I studied art and did research in art history. I spent the final year of my PhD in London. When I came back to Beijing my professor at CAFA [China Central Academy of Fine Arts] helped me to get into the Venice Biennale China Pavilion 2011. Before that I worked for the Culture & Image Department of the Olympic Organization for five years. So I was able to get management experience in that job as well as being a graduate from the Central Academy of Fine Arts. At that time I met the director of the Today Art Museum and he introduced me to this museum and explained to me what a private non-profit museum is. Up until that time I was not aware that China has this kind of museum. We know of similar museums such as the Guggenheim or Tate Modern, which are private museums, but I never knew that China has such a museum. So they told me that if I am interested I can try this position at the museum and they gave me the job of Deputy Director. At that time I was probably the youngest deputy director in China. Last year I travelled to many countries to do communication and cooperation work with other museums. Some European gallery directors did not believe my age. One person even introduced me as “the youngest director of the universe”.  More and more directors both from abroad and within China have been supporting me. They think that the new generation of museum managers needs to grow up. They realise that the new generation needs a very mixed background to run a museum. Everyone realises that we have very good architecture, but no one to run these museums. We need people of my generation to mature, but we need time to achieve it.

I have been working here for two years now and have received at least three or four offers to be deputy director or director of a museum elsewhere. What this means is that China really needs more directors. I hope more young people become interested in managing museums. They might think that working in a museum is old-fashioned, but in fact it is not.

Do you think there is enough interest and curiosity in art from the public to fill all these new museums?

They might or might not have interest, but we want to educate the public. Our museum might be one of the best private museums in China, but we still do not have enough visitors. A new idea that I have been trying to introduce and promote is called “one day at the museum”. You would arrive at the museum around ten in the morning and visit one or two exhibitions. At noon you can enjoy a good lunch at one of the restaurants or cafés nearby. In the afternoon on Saturdays we have a free lecture and a programme for children. So children can get free art education and meet with master artists. At the end of the day [families] can enjoy dinner at one of the neighbourhood restaurants. So that is “one day at the museum” which I have been promoting. Even if someone is not really interested in art, but wants to find an activity to fill their weekend they will enjoy this programme.

In the Leap article, the authors point out some of the criticisms that have been leveled at this museum boom in China. They state that these new museums “are conceived and constructed inefficiently, without an established collection, curatorial mission, or leadership, resulting in the creation of vacant shells. Sceptics insist that museum construction funds could be better allocated to provide essential public amenities. Additionally, many of these built museums lack adequate long-term planning and funding, hindering their ability to maintain operations and achieve their stated mission and curatorial goals.” What is your reaction to this criticism? How do you think some of these challenges could be overcome?

For example, our museum now solely works with independent curators. In the past we had a team of curators, but we found that the curators had a very narrow approach; we don’t want to operate in this way. Now more and more museums are interested in showing Latin American and South American art. Since our team does not have expertise in this area, we have been collaborating with Latin American curators. Such was also the case with the Kounellis exhibition, where our team collaborated with and invited an independent curator. Our team acts more like an assistant curator. We don’t even put our names on the posters. It is a period of learning for us […] It is a curatorial team, there is no one curator and there is no one big star. This is how we deal with this issue.

There seems to be agreement on the numerous challenges in managing and running so many new museums at once in China, but what would you say are some of the advantages? What makes operating a museum in China unique?

First of all, we have a large enough population and enough wealthy individuals. I realised that I only need to know three to five good collectors or three to five good patrons to support our museum. We don’t need everyone. In Europe perhaps you need to communicate with many collectors and patrons because of the economic downturn in order to get enough support, but we do not have this problem in China. There are many wealthy Chinese now and we encourage them that if they are interested in the promotion of culture then they should act as collectors and patrons of art. So we have a large enough population, enough collectors and wealthy patrons.

Secondly, Asian people in general are hard-working, like studying and are intelligent. And if they have the right outlook and are educated well, they will know how to run a museum. For example, last year the British Council invited me to act as Assistant Director to a museum for one week in London and one week in Scotland.  I know how to get funding, so I was able to understand quickly how to get funding [in a UK context] and how to introduce a structure including board members. So when I came back to China I tried to find some board members and who could connect me with other art institutions worldwide.

“Of course this is not enough…”

In 2012, the Ministry of Culture, together with the Art Museum Committee of China, launched four specialised art museum training programmes. Do you think this will be adequate in meeting the staffing needs of all these new museums that have been and are being built in China?

Of course this is not enough. We need to do more and more of these kinds of programmes. Yes, there is need for this kind of education and these kinds of programmes, but the problem is finding the right kind of person to attend. Sometimes people get sponsorships to attend such programmes and training abroad, but often when people come back they do not end up running a museum. The government should find the right kind of person, send them overseas for training and then ensure that they come back to China and run a museum for at least five to ten years. Sometimes people go overseas and receive very good museum training, but once they come back they just disappear. Nobody knows where they went. So that is a problem.

A museum worker is not a factory worker

What do you think are some of the skills that a museum director needs in this climate?

First, from an academic level they have to know what art history is. They need to know about art and culture. Secondly, he or she must know how to manage a team. Like a leader, sometimes like a “soul leader” of a team. Managing people in the cultural field is different from managing factory workers. You cannot just tell your staff to do this or that. You have to have the ability to manage a team that can cooperate. It is a special team. That is why I call it “soul leader” [jing shen daoshi 精神导师]. Thirdly, the director needs to have the skills to secure funding and must know how to communicate. Social skills are also very important. Lastly, the museum director needs to be very healthy, because you have no time to rest. There are openings and dinners and a lot of social events. You need to talk to the artists, the curator, the funders, the board members, the public and manage all these things. So if you are not healthy, you won’t last in this job for more than a year or two.

What academic training or work experience has helped you to successfully do your job as a deputy museum director?

I gained a lot of experience by working for the Olympics (2004-2008). It taught me good management skills. The Beijing Olympics is like going to university. We did not need to come up with all the solutions. Because of the long history and great experience of the International Olympic Committee, they would guide us on a daily basis and helped us understand what goals we needed to achieve. We had around 5000 to 6000 design projects that needed to be managed. So if you don’t know how to run a design team and how to successfully create designs, it would be a disaster. My boss was from the USA and was the art director at the Atlanta Olympics. Another boss was the art director from the 2004 Athens Olympics. Every week they would come to our team and clearly tell us what we needed to do and what milestones we needed to reach next week, next month, in a year and in two years: it was very good training. From that experience, I learnt a lot about art and design management.

Apparently only 2% of all museums in China specialise in contemporary art. Do you think this number should increase? Why or why not?

I think it will increase. As far as I know a lot of museums do contemporary art. Chinese contemporary art is not very old, maybe around 35 to 37 years old. Nearly all the important contemporary artists are still alive. I know that in the South of China, nearly all of the museums say that they are contemporary art museums.

Taking art to another level

What value do contemporary art museums, as opposed to historical museums, add to society?

They allow people to understand that there is another level to art, there is another direction in art. For the most part our art [appreciation] is like Russia’s: we like oil painting, we like beautiful things. But beautiful has different levels. For example, my parents do not like contemporary art. They think it is rubbish! They think that real art is like Chinese painting, a beautiful landscape or a beautiful woman done with oil painting and all very elegant. Contemporary art gives us a different understanding of art and of beauty. It uses video and sculpture, installation and other media to do that. Some might feel that art is very far from us. But in fact it is not: contemporary art helps us gain a better understanding of culture and beauty. That is the value of contemporary art.

Activity for children at the Today Art Museum. Image courtesy of the Today Art Museum

Activities for children at the Today Art Museum. Image courtesy Today Art Museum.

How do you draw in the crowds?

We are very friendly with the local press. Through email and messages we let them know about our exhibitions and programmes and hope that they will promote it. We also do advertisements in magazines as well as posters. Depending on the quality of the exhibition, news can also spread by word of mouth. And when people come and enjoy our exhibitions, then they come back. So the quality of the exhibitions has to be always very high.

How many visitors do you have per year?

We have 200,000 visitors per year.

Do you have a target audience? Who is it?

People in the art industry like artists and curators, university professors and students as well as art lovers. We offer a student card and we also have a volunteer or internship programme for university students. We chose this group because they are very well educated and they have some free time and can take part in our programmes.

What types of exhibitions have drawn in the biggest crowds? Why?

Pop art, big stars and fashion photography have attracted the biggest crowds.

Promotional Poster of the Today Art Museum, Mario Testino  Private View. Image courtesy of the Today Art Museum.

Promotional poster of the Today Art Museum, “Mario Testino Private View”, 2012. Image courtesy Today Art Museum.

Have you seen a rise in interest from the public in contemporary art since you opened your doors ten years ago?

Yes, there is more interest now. More people enjoy contemporary art now. We have some sculptures in our courtyard which people thought ugly at first. Now a lot of people stop and take pictures in front of them. Many fashion magazines come to our museum to do a fashion shoot. They like the space and the contemporary atmosphere. A lot of couples take wedding pictures in 798 art district as well as in our museum.

One of the challenges identified by Frank Langfitt in a recent NPR programme is the lack of interest by schools to bring children to museums in China as it does not add to their test score. Do you have a similar experience? Have you seen any interest from schools?

There is not so much interest, so that is something we want to do. We hope to attract middle-school children. We would even let them into the museum for free, but they don’t think that art is very important. They want to get very high scores so that they can get into very good universities. Maybe they do not have enough time, but we would like them to come. We want to try. If university students come and do an internship with us we are willing to give them a score if their university accepts it. We are working on this project with seven different universities.

“We’ve nearly finished exhibiting the masters… what now?”

Ten years on from the opening of Today Art Museum, what are the challenges that you face now as opposed to in the early days?

Today Art Museum is known for exhibiting the work of local masters. We have exhibited the work of almost all of the famous masters. So we have nearly finished exhibiting all the masters. So who do we exhibit in the next five to ten years? Who are the next masters? Many of them are too commercial. Sometimes we think we have found a really good artist, but after a couple of years there is no more news. They disappear. So we think about who will be the next master and whose work we will showcase next.

Nooshfar Afnan


Related Topics: museums, China, interviews

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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