China’s Private Museums In Trouble?

Wang Wei & Liu Yiqian’s Dragon Art Museum To Open November 2012

Wang Wei's Dragon Art Museum will open in November 2012

Wang Wei’s Dragon Art Museum will open in November 2012

The Art Newspaper writes this week that China’s nascent private museum scene is already facing obstacles, due to government interference and the budgetary concerns of investors and founders. Using the example of Zhang Huan’s red tape-plagued exhibition “Q-Confucius No. 6, 2011” at the private Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai as an example, the article holds that private museums in China are growing “chaotically” — which spooks Beijing — and function mostly as vanity pieces for self-aggrandizing owners. From the article:

Most [private museums] begin as showcase architecture and vanity projects. 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. The practicalities of running a non-profit art space, and the inevitable legal, funding and personnel issues, come as surprises.

China’s building boom led to the opening, and temporary closure eight months later, of the Rockbund Art Museum (RAM), in the former Royal Asiatic Society Building. Part of a luxury redevelopment on Shanghai’s Bund waterfront, RAM opened in May 2010 to coincide with the Shanghai World Expo. The first exhibition was Cai Guo-Qiang’s crowd-pleasing “Peasant Da Vincis”, featuring homemade aircraft, submarines and robots. RAM closed in January this year because of additional building work in and around the museum that had been postponed due to a building moratorium during the expo.

RAM is one of the higher profile examples of privately run art museums to open in recent years. Others are planned. “This is the first generation of Chinese to have the money and the space to buy art. But they open museums for socialising and for business, not for the art,” says Ivan Lau, who runs the independent Nong Art consultancy and was the director of the True Color Museum in Beijing until last year. Lau says many of the privately run museums lack an exhibition plan and a budget, and even a security system and environmental controls. “Many just have a space, paint the walls, put up some art and call themselves a museum. It is another bubble, like the property bubble.”

The article hinges on the argument that most private museum founder-investors are property developers, who have been blamed for the broader fragility in China’s real estate market. As these individuals have a vested interest in continuing to build new projects, and tend to know little about art or museum directorship, the argument would follow, these property developers’ private museums are unlikely to succeed:

“Private museums are proliferating because China has a lot of property developers,” says Shen Qibin, the former director of the Zendai Museum of Modern Art and the director of the planned Himalayas Art Centre, both funded by property magnate Dai Zhikang. Developers often build a museum “as an advertisement for nouveau riche developments”, he says, adding: “A lot of museums ‘hang out a pig head but sell dog meat’,” quoting a Chinese aphorism. “They are museums in name only, and sell works like galleries.”

According to Lau, at the heart of the problem is the fact that museum founders often underestimate the challenges. “They don’t know that it is more complicated and harder than [running] a company, because it is not about making money. Most founders run the museums themselves, which is a big mistake. Having money does not mean you know how to run a museum.”

The article makes good arguments about the “fly by night” nature of many property developers in China, but this is far from unique to private museums. As Jiang Qiong’er, CEO and artistic director of the Shanghai-based brand Shang Xia, told Jing Daily that the main difficulty faced by many young domestic Chinees high-end brands is an imperative to quickly turn a profit. Said Jiang,

I think the main problem with the brands that try to position themselves as, quote, “luxury brands” is that they’re just pressed for time because Chinese entrepreneurs have the money to invest, but want to see a quick return on their investment. So the brands have no choice but to hurry.

Essentially, a combination of fickle property developer investors, business models that make rapid profit critical, and inexperienced staff and directors mean most private museums in China — some of which, as the article says, are little more than glorified galleries — might see a shakeout in the years ahead. But this doesn’t mean all of China’s new and upcoming private museums are doomed. As gallerist Pearl Lam told Jing Daily in September, private museums play an important role in arts education in China, and their social nature doesn’t mean they’re all centered on “vanity.” Rather, Lam said, private galleries and art advisory “clubs” among friends will increasingly educate new and aspiring art collectors, giving them a place to learn about China’s art market and emerging and established artists. Said Lam,

[W]hat’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. An art fair is an art fair. It’s difficult for an art fair to offer a new experience.

The Rockbund Art Museum, photographed in April 2010 by Flickr user Yingeli

The Rockbund Art Museum, photographed in April 2010 by Flickr user Yingeli

While most private museum owners will likely fail to put the requisite effort into their projects to make them a hub of education and arts appreciation in the way Lam describes, there are a few leading the way. The 12,000 square meter Dragon Art Museum (龙美术馆), into which billionaire investor and art collector Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei have already sunk over 200 million yuan (US$31 million), is one of these bright spots in an otherwise murky industry. As Wang Wei said last month, the three-level private museum will stock revolutionary art from 1949-1979, traditional Chinese paintings, and contemporary Chinese art, all collected over Wang and Liu’s multi-year auction-buying spree.

However, the main “offering” of the Dragon Art Museum, from Wang’s viewpoint, is education:

In addition to displaying artwork, I think my museum will also engage in education, such as children’s education, mothers’ and wives’ education, education for seniors. I want to do some training courses, inviting teachers and making the courses part of a series. In addition, from my own personal experience, I think housewives also need artistic training, for everything from the interior decoration of their homes to floral arts and their own personal fashion sense.

They need systematic training and authoritative guidance. For example, if a lady needs to buy a painting priced at 500,000 yuan, she needs to choose a piece of art that’s really worth the investment.

In this regard, museums should have the ability and obligation to provide her with this guidance. This is not only about supporting the market, it’s also about supporting Chinese contemporary art.

Done correctly, by individuals with training (or an interest) in art, no pressing imperative for fast profit, and no (or less) ulterior motives in terms of property investment, private museums can and will have a real function in the Chinese art world. In addition to the Dragon Art Museum, other examples like Indonesian-Chinese collector Budi Tek’s upcoming Shanghai museum — set to open in 2013 — could, given the right amount of support even when faced with bureaucratic hurdles, end up greatly benefiting arts education and appreciation in China, as well as the Chinese art market as a whole.

 

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Art & Auction, Culture