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.
Every traveller – not just art lovers – should begin their time in Beijing by visiting the Palace Museum, located within the walls of the unmissable Forbidden City. The architecture of this centuries-old imperial palace is a masterpiece in itself, and the museum’s collection is world-famous, too. The Palace Museum houses 340,000 pieces of porcelain, 30,000 jade artefacts, 10,000 items of bronze and 50,000 paintings, including hundreds of items that date back to the 13th-century Yuan Dynasty. The sheer size of this museum can be intimidating, and it’s not easy to navigate alone. For a more comprehensive visit, it’s definitely worth taking one of the guided tours.
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.
Pace Gallery, Beijing is the China outpost of the famous American contemporary and modern art gallery of the same name. It sits in the heart of the 798 Art District in an impressive 25,000-square-metre (269,097-square-foot) stylised industrial warehouse. The soaring arched ceilings and large windows that flood the interior with natural light convey a sense of depth and movement, and give life to the work within. Pace represents more than 70 artists and has galleries across the globe, but the Beijing gallery focuses on promoting Asian art, offering an international platform for local talent to share their vision and work with the world. In the past, Pace Gallery, Beijing hosted solo exhibitions for major contributors to Chinese contemporary art including Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang.
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.
As a structure, Three Shadows is a spectacle in itself. Designed by the infamous Chinese contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei, this complex features a huge 880sq m (9,472sq ft) gallery as well as a library, café and darkrooms. Repurposed into a sleek, modern space from its former life as an auto repair yard, it sits in Beijing’s art district of Caochangdi, just on the outskirts of Beijing. Inside, you can find work from RongRong & inri (the co-founders), as well as exhibitions by other contemporary photographers from China and around the world.
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.
Beijing Commune was established in 2004 by critic and curator Leng Lin, who now serves as president of Pace Gallery, Beijing. Initially hosting group shows before shifting focus to solo exhibitions, it served as an essential platform for artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and Song Dong. Beijing Commune continues to embrace and promote Chinese contemporary art and its emerging talents through the exhibition of paintings, sculpture, video art, photography and conceptual art.
Pékin Fine Arts was established in 2005 by Meg Maggio, who also co-founded the now defunct but then trailblazing CourtYard Gallery. Continuing in the same vein, this gallery in the Caochangdi arts district exhibits some of the region’s most innovative contemporary artists. The gallery’s exhibition space was designed by Ai Weiwei, who’s had a hand in several of the most prominent spaces in Caochangdi – which is sadly facing demolition in some parts.
Situated down an unassuming hutong behind the Beijing Temple of Confucius, this small exhibition space is one of the city’s most innovative galleries. Before it became a contemporary art gallery, this 15sq m (161sq ft) space was a vegetable stand. Founded in 2008 by Rania Ho and Wang Wei, Arrow Factory was designed to be viewed from the outside looking in. The venue hosts site-specific installations by local and international artists, day and night. While it’s a little out of the way, Arrow Factory is undoubtedly worth the detour.
Significant for being one of the first Chinese initiatives by a Western gallery, Galleria Continua was founded in 1990 by Mario Cristiani, Lorenzo Fiaschi and Maurizio Rigillo. Originally housed in an old cinema in the historical town of San Gimignano, Italy, the gallery’s unconventional location helped it gain international attention and subsequent acclaim. Embracing its re-purposed setting, the gallery’s mission has always been to create a dialogue between tradition and progress, past and future. When Galleria Continua launched in Beijing in 2005, the inaugural show exhibited 16 artists from five continents – a first for the city. The gallery’s three-storey space continues to showcase Italian and international contemporary art, with each exhibition uniquely devised and tailor-made for the space by the artist.