Cultural revolution: China’s museum explosion

As the country flexes its economic muscle, growing prosperity has also meant a proliferation of shrines to culture.

Mao-Tse Tung

Beijing – China’s museum building boom has long been dominated and directed by government cultural commissars who aim to highlight the bonds stretching back more than 3,000 years between state power and Chinese culture.

But while these cadres construct ever-bigger palaces to showcase art of the revolution – or of the imperial system that it replaced – a new contingent of private philanthropists has begun setting up independent outposts to highlight avant-garde artists across China and around the world.

Although private art spaces currently account for less than one-sixth of China’s 3,000-plus museums, curators at these centres, along with their foreign counterparts, are predicting they will rapidly promote the flow of art and artists across the continents.
“I think many of these private museums and galleries will become great new channels for cultural exchanges between East and West,” said David Elliott, cultural attaché at the British Embassy in Beijing.

Elliott said he recently passed up all of the government-run mega-museums in Shanghai when selecting a venue to stage an exhibition in the city of works by Tony Cragg, one of Europe’s leading contemporary sculptors. Instead, he opted to stage the show at the independent new Himalayas Art Museum.

The attaché chose the Himalayas partly because its patron and its director are great backers of experimental art.

Open cultural environment

The founders and curators operating China’s new generation of private art centres like the Himalayas, he explained, are relatively free and open-minded in staging exhibitions, especially of contemporary art.

Many government-run museums, in contrast, shine a spotlight on the Chinese leadership’s millennia-old role at the centre of the cultural universe, and have locked their doors to works by experimental artists.

Instead of assuming the government to be our rival, we should try to figure out a way to gradually convert their concepts on culture and art.

Dai Zhikang, Himalayas Museum founder

“Traditional museums are run by the old-school people,” Elliott said.

And although “private museums for contemporary art in China were only permitted about 10 years ago … since then private museums and galleries have dominated the display of experimental art”, said Hou Hanru, a Paris-based museum expert who sits on the boards of four private art centres in China.

The Himalayas Art Museum now aims to lead the campaign to provide world-class exhibition spaces for experimental artists inside China and worldwide, according to its founder, billionaire Dai Zhikang.

Dai, a property developer and securities investment adviser, suggested during an interview that the government does not understand contemporary art, and private philanthropists and art patrons therefore have stepped in to begin building leading-edge museums for young artists who have been frozen out of the state cultural system.

Yet he said the Himalayas Museum was never set up to challenge state controls on culture: “We disagree with the idea that it is the artist’s or the gallery’s duty to engage in challenges.”   

Chinese artists who do challenge or cross the government’s invisible Rubicon of permissibility are sometimes subject to being banned from exhibitions, or even detained.

Yet the founder of the new Himalayas Museum said, “Instead of assuming the government to be our rival, we should try to figure out a way to gradually convert their concepts on culture and art.”

The ultimate goal, he added, “is to gradually influence the government … to create an open cultural environment”.

Dai, who also writes books and blogs about art, predicted that as private museums strengthen their position in the Chinese cultural arena, they will bolster the progress of contemporary art.

The new museum, he added, is part of the Himalayas Center in the Pudong district of Shanghai, a 3-billion-yuan (US$480 million) complex designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki that also includes a hotel, offices and a theatre.

The Himalayas stands at the peak of a pyramid of private art spaces constructed during a frenetic, cross-China museum building boom, according to Jeffrey Johnson, director of the China Megacities Lab at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture in New York.

This boom is churning out more than 100 museums every year, he said. The state is leading this Big Bang in museum construction as part of a larger drive to boost its soft power. Feeding the boom are China’s rise as an economic superpower and the bullet-speed expansion of its megacities.

With these state-run museums, he explained, “the government is projecting its power and image in terms of culture”. 

New ideas

While private art centres currently account for only 15 per cent of the new museums being built in China, this proportion is slowly rising, he said.

Hou Hanru, meanwhile, said: “Private museums are not just for exhibitions, but also for producing new ideas for the city and creating new cultural projects for society.”

“Changes in society in China have enabled individual artists to express themselves.”

– Tony Cragg, sculptor

Marianne Holtermann, a London-based art dealer who is coproducing the sculpture exhibition in Shanghai, said with the China-wide construction of cultural centres, “they see the need to rebuild to have intellectual and metaphysical lives”.

These new museums act as beacons for urban Chinese youths. In the East, as in the West, she said, “As people move into cities they search for an intellectual and spiritual center … art museums play a tremendous role in this sphere, along with temples and churches”.

The founder of Britain’s Holtermann Fine Art added that the rush to construct impressive new art and music centers by rising economic powers extends across the continent: “If you look at Abu Dhabi and Dubai, they are building major museums because they understand that people in cities can’t live on making money alone – they need to have intellectual fodder.”

The head of Columbia’s China Megacities Lab, meanwhile, said that compared with government spaces in China, emerging private museums often provide “a more open and democratic platform for dialogues, but there is still control and censorship”.

Himalayas founder Dai Zhikang often invites artists to join dialogues with students and scholars.  

Vision for the future

Sculptor Tony Cragg, who has given a series of talks at the Himalayas, said in an interview: “Young Chinese artists asked very idealistic questions about the role of art in the new cultural context.

“Changes in society in China have enabled individual artists to express themselves,” observed Cragg, who recently touched down in Shanghai to open the Himalayas exhibition.

The British sculptor – whose works have been featured in exhibitions at the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and are currently being presented at the centre of the British capital on Exhibition Road as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad – also said, “Artists can provide a new vision for the future, for a new culture.”

Some young Chinese artists say they and their allies in the private museums are competing with government-run counterparts to help sculpt China’s cultural future.

Operators of China’s new art outposts, along with cultural figures in Europe, are forecasting that these independent art museums will exponentially expand exchanges around the world.

“Commercial galleries in the West could use these private museums in China to show their works,” Philip Dodd, director of the London-based China Art Foundation, predicted. 

The Himalayas founder Dai agreed, adding, “We also plan to promote co-operation with Western private art museums, in order to achieve exchanges and a fusion of cultures in a broader sense.”

Source: Al Jazeera