Interest Of New Collectors, Government Support Growing As More Museums Mount Large-Scale Exhibitions Of Work By Top Artists
Recently, we translated a speech presented at the first-ever conference of Chinese collectors of contemporary Chinese art delivered in Beijing by influential art critic Li Xianting. In this speech, Li called on Chinese collectors to get busy buying, preserving and presenting top-quality works of contemporary Chinese art in order to ensure younger generations in the country will be able to view and understand their artistic heritage. Li called art collecting “a form of cultural creation,” the responsibility for which lies in the hands of the country’s new generation of art collectors. From Li’s speech:
We can’t expect the government to establish, from top to bottom, an art museum system in such a short amount of time, not least because the construction of the “hardware” is so difficult, but what’s harder is [assembling] the artwork itself, because up until now the collection in the government’s museum of contemporary art has been really poor, and not only because in the past three decades the important works of Chinese contemporary art have flowed overseas. Can the government spend the money to collect contemporary art? Aside from lack of funds, the hardest thing is that within a considerable amount of time, could the government possibly recognize the value of a contemporary art value system?
Whether by coincidence or by design, a news item in China’s Global Times today announced high-profile museum exhibitions of two of China’s top contemporary artists, Zhang Xiaogang and Wang Guangyi. Although as recently as last month Li Xianting decried the Chinese government’s slow movement on arts education and investment in cultural capital, these two exhibitions seem to indicate that development is beginning in earnest. From the article:
While the recent inclusion of a selection of contemporary Chinese artworks in exhibitions held at state-run museums across the country has been considered by many as a sign that Chinese contemporary art has been officially embraced by the government, others in the art world are calling for more to be done to recognize the genre.
In the exhibition Standing Chinese, jointly held by Guangdong Provincial Department of Culture and Guangdong Art Museum, Political Pop artist Wang Guangyi’s representative installation Materialist is on display, surrounded by pieces praising the country’s achievements after the reform and opening-up policy.
Wang Huangsheng, former director of Guangdong Art Museum and curator of the exhibition, said that the installation looks “in harmony” with the mainstream works.
A piece of Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline series is also on display as part of the grand exhibition Sixty Year’s of Fine Art in the New China, at the National Art Museum of China, seen as the national museum’s first embrace of the Political Pop artist.
Although highly acclaimed in the international art world, contemporary artists such as Wang and Zhang have seldom been recognized or exhibited by mainstream museums in China before and apart from small private museums devoting space to contemporary works, there is almost no serious collection process for the genre, explained Shi Dawei, deputy director of China Artists Association.
According to Shi, one of the main reasons that contemporary art is shunned by galleries is that the offcials hold “unclear” attitudes toward the art due to the works’ often ironic reflections on politics and problems associated with a rapidly developing economy.
“Why would the government spend money on contemporary art if they don’t even know its importance in Chinese art history?” Shi commented.
Another reason for contemporary art’s absence in State-run museums is the organizational structure of such institutions, he said. Most museums are geared toward a set collecting process: antiques and traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy have been the main focuses of almost all large museums, with contemporary art usually marginalized.
However, Shi insisted that Chinese museums should pay more attention to contemporary work and not only focus on traditional Chinese or Western classics.
“It’s urgent to establish a serious collecting system for contemporary art, or it will be too late,” Shi said. “Public art museums should take contemporary art as one of their main focuses while collecting.”
“Without a sound collection of Chinese contemporary art, we will lose a real and fresh documentary on Chinese transformation during the past several decades, which will be a huge loss to the Chinese people,” commented Ma Fenghui, director of the newly founded Zhejiang Art Museum.
“Nowadays the Chinese government and individuals are trying all ways to enable cultural relics to ‘return home’ from overseas, but they are unaware that one day they might need even greater efforts to gather precious Chinese contemporary artworks spanning from the late 1970s to now,” Ma said.
It will be interesting to watch the development of Chinese new collectors and the government, as both look to collect more “cultural creations” and beef up the collections of contemporary Chinese art at some of the country’s largest museums. Mounting exhibitions of Zhang Xiaogang and Wang Guangyi — two artists who, until very recently, would be considered too politically-charged to be shown at mainstream galleries, is a good sign that the government in China is starting to understand the importance of collection, presentation and, maybe most important of all, education about contemporary art. Because it’s no good “bringing relics home” from auctions abroad if no one in the country knows much about the art or doesn’t understand it.