Beijing is home to both 20th-century state-funded museums and contemporary art enclaves, all under the watchful eye of Communist China. Discover this curious mix of creativity, and the role art plays in reacting to and shaping the country’s history, with a visit to one of these galleries.
The Chinese capital is the country’s cultural core. There’s the Forbidden City, which is home to some of the most impressive traditional art in the country: it holds treasures that stretch back dynasties and tell the story of Beijing’s past. Priceless vases, paintings and jade sculptures attest to a time when art was considered purely decorative and when calligraphy reigned supreme.
Fast forward to today, and a crop of young creatives is challenging the China’s strict artistic norms. The 798 Art District is a microcosm of the capital’s thriving contemporary art scene, where art is used as a tool to express social and political views.
Here is a list of all the best galleries in Beijing, where you can see everything from ancient artefacts to provocative installations.
Dubbed the father of modern Chinese painting, Xu Beihong was a pioneering figure in 20th-century Chinese art. And when Xu died of a stroke in 1953, his wife, Liao Jingwen, transformed one of their Beijing homes into a public gallery displaying 1,200 of his works. Situated in the Xicheng District, the Xu Beihong Memorial Hall pays homage to the legendary artist by celebrating his epic oil paintings and providing a glimpse into Xu’s original studio.
Surrounded by the dozens of industrial-chic galleries that make up the 798 Art District, UCCA was founded by Belgian philanthropists Guy and Myriam Ullens. In 2007, they transformed an abandoned military factory into one of China’s most exciting collections of home-grown and international contemporary art. Since then, it has become a centre of international cultural exchange. They don’t have any permanent collections; instead, they host exhibitions by Chinese artists and regularly bring work from around the world to share with the Chinese community. UCCA headlines a smorgasbord of museums that art lovers could spend days exploring in this stylish corner of Beijing – M Woods, the Faurschou Foundation, Commune, Pace, Tang and Galerie Urs Meile are just a handful of the other highlights in the neighbourhood.
It might have been the first art museum opened after the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, but the CAFA Art Museum isn’t stuck in the 1950s. Indeed, when the collection moved into an ultra-modern boomerang-shaped building designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki in 2008, the CAFA Art Museum became one of Beijing’s most progressive artistic spaces. The gallery displays 13,000 items from painted scrolls that date back to the Ming Dynasty to Chinese bronze relics and folk art including minority ethnic costumes. Visit with some time on your hands – you could easily spend a day or two working your way through the expansive collection.
First opened to the public in 1963, the state-funded National Art Museum of China is a mammoth space comprising 21 exhibition halls across six floors that showcase every conceivable category of art. Wander through the rooms to discover 110,000 items of traditional Chinese painting, sculpture, calligraphy, wood carvings and contemporary creations. It’s a great place to see the progression of art in China, from the ancient paintings of masters like Su Shi, Tang Yin and Xu Wei to modern works. The museum also has a collection of work from foreign artists, including paintings by European greats such as Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, and photography by US artist Ansel Adams. The museum is free to visit, but make sure to bring some form of ID with you.
This gallery may be tiny, but the collection is a cabinet of curiosities for anyone interested in ancient art and artefacts. Incongruously located within a nondescript office block overlooking the Poly Plaza near the Workers’ Stadium, Poly Art Museum is a treasure trove of bronze animal heads plundered from palaces, cooking vessels that are as intricate as they are ancient and Buddhist stone carvings dating back to the Northern Qi, Northern Wei and Tang Dynasties.
Red Gate Gallery fuses the historic and the modern in a spectacular setting, exhibiting avant-garde art inside a 600-year-old Ming Dynasty watchtower in Dongbianmen. Founded in 1991 by Australian Brian Wallace, who was captivated by Chinese art history, this gallery provides a launchpad for talented Chinese creatives. It also supports the local art community with its ongoing artist-in-residence programme.
Today Art Museum broke new ground when it opened its doors in 2002, as it was the first museum in Beijing dedicated solely to contemporary art. This privately owned, non-profit, non-government gallery dedicates itself to introducing more contemporary and modern Chinese artists to the public, sharing their work and their visions. Located in the bustling Chaoyang District, you can’t miss the squad of shiny chrome figures frozen in laughter outside, the signature of acclaimed Chinese artist Yue Minjun. This museum is one of the heavy hitters in Beijing’s contemporary art world and should not be missed.
Wyoming Project is one of Beijing’s newest and most unique contemporary art spaces. It’s a bit hidden, unassumingly sitting on a hutong (narrow alley) corner between Beixinqiao and Dongzhimen, but it’s worth looking for. It’s a new project to support the creative experimentation process and celebrate fresh artistic perspectives as they’re realised. This non-profit space offers aspiring local artists a studio space, which simultaneously gives visitors a chance to witness some of the newest art trends coming out of Beijing.