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China Pavilion at Night | © Suzuki / Wikicommons
China Pavilion at Night | © Suzuki / Wikicommons

Shanghai’s Museum Fever, China’s Addiction to Contemporary Art

Picture of Huw Fullerton
Huw Fullerton
Updated: 24 February 2017
Over the last decade, Shanghai has been developing into China’s prime destination for art and culture, with numerous independent galleries and museums dotted around the city. But even though China’s art collectors are acquiring more and more art, and opening private museums in Shanghai, public interest in contemporary art does not seem to increase. We investigate the raison d’être, fate and future of the private museum in Shanghai.
In the last couple of years, some of China’s biggest collectors have opened museums in Shanghai, in a move to shake up the city’s museum dynamic.

One such enterprise comes from husband-and-wife entrepreneurs and art collectors Wang Wei and Liu Yigian, whose 16,000-square-metre private art museum opened in the Xuhui Riverside in the spring of 2014. The development, called Long Museum West Bund, comes just two years after their first museum, the 10,000-square-metre Long Museum (or Dragon museum), opened in Pudong in December 2012. Their extensive collection of ‘Red Classics’, artwork from 1949-1979, has been well showcased there, as have their more contemporary pieces and antiques. Their new even larger space is poised to show off even more of their huge collection; and they’re not the only collectors setting up shop.

Just one kilometre along the way on the Xuhui riverfront, Indonesian-Chinese collector Budi-Tek has his own art space, the extensive Yuz Museum. Budi-Tek favours large pieces, with the 10,000 square yards of the Yuz Museum and 3,000 square-metre, 10-metre high main exhibition hall looking well set to accommodate him. Tek’s hope overall is for Shanghai to compete with art powerhouses London and New York, which have a comparable economy, he told The Global Times.

 

And with Shanghai’s booming contemporary art museum scene, he might just get his wish. In addition to Wang Wei, Liu Yigian and Budi-Tek’s efforts, the city is also soon to welcome Zheng Hao’s 10,000-square-metre How Museum, which will open in 2017. In recent months, smaller museums have been getting in on the act too, including Jinghua Art Space and Shanghai Basai Contemporary Art Museum joining larger contemporaries like the Rockbund Contemporary Art Museum. The relocation of the China Art Museum and the Shanghai Himalayas Museum to a large new space in Pudong also signals this change. Perhaps most significantly of all, 2012 saw Shanghai’s first public museum of contemporary art the Power Station of Art (PSA) open its doors. By the look of things, Shanghai is experiencing a museum renaissance.

 

However, things aren’t quite that simple; it seems that, despite the constant building and new museums, the Chinese people aren’t flocking to the new cultural behemoths quite as quickly as one would hope. The PSA attracted only 250,000 visitors in 2013, and the private Long Museum may be in even more dire straits. Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian drop over £1m on running costs every year, on top of the £30m capital expenses that they had paid already – and yet, in 2013, only 50,000 people graced the museum with their presence.

 

 

But what’s the problem? Ivan Lau, who runs the independent Nong Art consultancy and is a former director of the Suzhou True Colour Museum, said in 2011 that he believed there were socio-cultural barriers, with museums put together for social or business rather than artistic reasons. ‘China doesn’t have the people, and doesn’t have museums in its blood, and I don’t think we’re really learning,’ he said. ‘It is not something that happens overnight, or even over ten years; it takes a generation. People have to learn how to treat art.’

 

As Lau’s comments suggest this observation has been around for a while, The Art Newspaper identifying a potential problem back in 2012. They said of museums in China that ‘most [private museums] begin as showcase architecture and vanity projects’, and that ‘property developers have opened many to provide a varnish of high culture and to justify high prices, while others have been founded by enthusiastic members of the nouveau riche aiming to share their art collections.’

 

More practically, some museums simply aren’t convenient. While state-run and therefore more secure than the private museums, the PSA’s deputy director of planning has expressed concerns about the transport links to his museum, as well as its relatively remote location. ‘It has to be accessible. No matter how much you love contemporary art, this place has to be easy to get to or else your passion will be washed away.’ Li also suggested that the education system of China could be a problem, with the schools’ emphasis on high school and university entrance exams leaving students with little to no time for browsing galleries.

 

 

Maybe there is a problem – but if the difficulties of Shanghai’s museum scene come from non-western culture, then perhaps they should find non-western solutions. As Philip Dodd pointed out in February 2014, ‘China is beginning a system of museum building that took about 130 years to resolve itself in Europe.’ Further back, gallerist Pearl Lam told website Jing Daily in September 2012 that while the role of museums in China was different, more social and educational, this did not mean the museums would necessarily fail or were centred on ‘vanity’: ‘What’s important is the development of private museums and art advisory [services]. But art advisory is different here than it is in the West. Here it’s just like friends sitting together talking about art, it’s more like a salon.’

 

And while plans are in their infancy, some of Wang Wei’s schemes for improving the profitability and attendance of his museums – including public lecture programmes, hiring out space, and working with luxury brands – seem to speak to the uniquely evolving culture of the Chinese art world. It’s hard to say what the future may be for the other new and upcoming art museums of Shanghai, but it’s clear the sector is undergoing radical change – whatever the cost. And perhaps, for the collectors and art lovers behind the boom, the money is not the main point. Budi Tek quoted a Confucian saying when asked why he would invest such huge sums of money: Zhiqi bukewei erweizhi, or ‘Do what you know is impossible.’ As Shanghai’s museums continue to appear, art lovers, collectors and museum-goers will just have to wait and see whether that turns out to be true.