According to the current five-year plan, China was to have 3,500 museums by 2015, a target it achieved three years early. Last year a record 451 new museums opened, pushing the total by the end of 2012 to 3,866, says An Laishun, vice-president of the China Museums Association. By contrast, in America only 20-40 museums a year were built in the decade before the 2008 financial crash.
Public museums have not traditionally been part of Chinese culture. The great imperial collections of Chinese jade, cloisonné and porcelain were kept in the Summer Palace in Beijing’s Forbidden City and seen by only a chosen few. In 1948-49, after the Japanese invasion and the outbreak of civil war, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces shipped 230,000 of the best pieces to Taiwan, where they remained after the communists gained power on the mainland. Some of what was left behind can still be seen today in the National Museum in Beijing, but no museum in China has anything like the treasures in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Chinese officials want to change that. They point out that the great cities of the world—New York, Paris, London—all have important museums, and China should too. They want to show off their ancient culture to locals and foreigners alike, and talk of the importance of remembering the past and of educating the younger generation.
In 2009 a State Council meeting upgraded culture to the level of a strategic industry. The current five-year plan for 2011-15 spells out government policy in detail. Culture is the “spirit and soul of the nation”, it says, and a powerful force for the country’s development. Over time culture is to become a “pillar industry”, loosely defined as one that makes up at least 5% of the country’s gross domestic product. That is twice what it contributes now, even after a decade of expanding at 15-20% a year. Museums are an integral part of this policy, and they are multiplying rapidly—too rapidly in many cases. Building up and displaying collections, planning exhibitions, training curators, conservators and other museum staff, and devising educational programmes lag far behind museum-building.
In Beijing the government is planning to turn part of the Olympic park, built for the 2008 games, into a culture hub, with three new museums, an opera house and a new national library. One of the star attractions will be the new National Art Museum of China (NAMOC). The current NAMOC in the city centre was part of an earlier construction wave in 1958. Five storeys high and with 8,300 square metres of exhibition space, it is a third of the size of the Pompidou Centre and has nowhere to expand. The new NAMOC, close to the 798 art district in the north-east of the city, will be six times as big as the current museum. The winning bid for its design, by Jean Nouvel, a French architect, is based on the Chinese symbol for the number one. NAMOC’s director, Fan Di’an, is thrilled with it, but construction has not yet started.
NAMOC currently holds 110,000 works, mainly Chinese art made after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. The permanent display includes a selection of these, some Qing-dynasty scrolls and, on the top floor, a show of about 100 indifferent foreign paintings donated by a German collector, Peter Ludwig.
Until recently culture was seen as strictly the party’s preserve, but now the boom in public-museum building is being echoed in the private sector. Rich collectors want to put their treasures on display in expensive new showcases. Many new museums are also being built as part of new property projects to help get them planning permission. Some may never have been intended for their stated purpose.
“We Chinese are very good at building hardware,” commented your correspondent’s interpreter after leaving yet another half-empty museum, this time in Shanghai. “Building software is another matter altogether.” In China’s museum world, “software” covers everything from building up collections to actually running the place. Private museums that have succeeded in this include the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing and two new museums in Shanghai, the Aurora (a treasure trove of ancient bronzes and jades designed by Tadao Ando, a Japanese architect) and the Rockbund Art Museum (a thriving contemporary-art centre).
The best of these satisfy a growing public demand for culture. The Mao Zedong generation was taught that China’s traditional art was backward and not worth bothering about. Now young Chinese are interested in both traditional and contemporary art. One area that has recently gained a following is contemporary Chinese ink painting, a new take on an old tradition by young artists. “Fresh Ink”, a small exhibition of ten artists at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2010, and a bigger show, “Ink Art”, which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York earlier this month, have attracted much attention in China.
What do we do for an encore?
But the boom is still somewhat hit-and-miss. The Power Station of Art (pictured), a former industrial building similar to London’s Tate Modern, was converted in less than a year (a record in Chinese museum-building) and opened in time to host the Shanghai Bienniale in 2012, curated by an energetic artist and teacher, Qiu Zhijie. By the time that closed, though, the Power Station was running out of steam: it had no permanent collection to speak of and found it hard to recruit full-time curators. Now it is virtually empty much of the time.
Two huge new museums of contemporary art are about to be opened in Shanghai: one by Liu Yiqian and his wife, Wang Wei, one of Shanghai’s “super-collector” couples, the other by Budi Tek, a Chinese-Indonesian collector known for his trophy pieces by Maurizio Cattelan, an Italian sculptor and installation artist. Both will open with much fanfare, but may have trouble finding a role for themselves in the longer term.
One headache is dealing with the authorities, not least because so little of China’s cultural policy is made explicit. Private museums have to put up costly bonds or obtain import licences to bring in art from abroad, even temporarily. Mr Tek had hoped to place Mr Cattelan’s seminal “Olive Tree”, a living tree planted in a cube of earth, in the entrance to his new museum, but found himself stumped by China’s phyto-sanitary inspectors when he tried to import it from Spain.
Chinese sensitivities about history and politics can also be hard to assess. Exhibitions about the Cultural Revolution, for example, are more likely to be permitted in private museums than public ones, and far from Beijing rather than in the capital; there is one in Chengdu and a smaller one in Shantou, both in the south. And when relations with Japan became fraught just before the Shanghai Bienniale in 2012, the Tokyo pavilion was abruptly cancelled. At other times Japanese artists are often exhibited in Beijing’s galleries.
In contemporary art, with its ironies and its multiple readings, Chinese artists test the patience of officialdom. The boundaries are fluid, but most Chinese know how far they can push them. Zhang Peili, the director of the OCAT Contemporary Art Terminal in Shanghai, a well-established private gallery, offers a list of prohibited items: “A show about Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama or the Tiananmen Square uprising; anything that insults our national leaders; or any art that shows private parts.”
Resources: The Economist