Will Luxury Art Exhibitions Face A Backlash In China?

Louis Vuitton “Voyages” Exhibition Currently Up In Beijing

"Voyages" at the National Museum of China (Image: PR)

“Voyages” at the National Museum of China (Image: PR)

Last week, Jing Daily profiled Louis Vuitton’s “Voyages” exhibition, which opened this weekend at the National Museum of China in Beijing and will run through August 30. Marking LV’s 20th anniversary in mainland China, “Voyages” is the second exhibition to be held by the National Museum since its grand re-opening in April. In addition to many rare pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage from the brand’s collection, the exhibition includes a new video installation by the Chinese contemporary artist Zhan Wang (展望).

Reflecting the importance of this exhibition to the French luxury giant, top Louis Vuitton executives were on hand for the launch of “Voyages” on May 29 in Beijing. At the opening ceremony, deputy director of the National Museum of China, Chen Lusheng, said that the exhibition, as the museum’s first-ever partnership with an international brand, fits with his mission of paying equal attention to history and art. According to WWD, Chen also hinted that the museum will likely host even more brand-focused exhibitions in the near future. Speaking after Chen, Louis Vuitton executive VP Pietro Beccari said at the opening ceremony that “Voyages” is not designed to spur visitors to buy LV bags, but is rather meant to deepen understanding of the brand among China’s increasingly sophisticated consumers. (Whether you believe him or not is up to you.)

While the exhibition appears, at least on paper, to be a win-win for LV and the National Museum, it has provoked some controversy in China, as the Chinese-language news portal Chinanews points out this week (translation by Jing Daily team):

As a national museum, is it a luxury brand exhibition too commercial [for the NMC]? Outside the museum, a long line of people waited to take a look at the “Voyage” exhibition. However, when asked why they’d come, many visitors said they mostly came to see the newly renovated museum. When asked whether they thought the exhibition was too crassly commercial, one respondent said it’s to be expected, since a luxury brand is involved. Among the visitors lined up were several art students. “We major in design,” one said, “so we feel this [exhibition] is a rare chance to learn about the way brands combine craftsmanship with business, since there aren’t many Chinese companies that do that.”

Some industry insiders, when asked if the NMC’s Louis Vuitton exhibition is too commercialized, said that it’s understandable for the museum to organize this type of show. Still, some added, added the museum cannot ignore its social responsibilities. Many of us have failed to distinguish between art and culture exhibitions, which cultural scholar Pei Yu says are two distinct types of shows. As a museum, Pei Yu suggested, the National Museum of China should not only display exhibitions focused on cultural heritage, but needs to balance it with art exhibitions. Many Chinese brands with long historical pedigrees, such as Quanjude (全聚德) and Goubuli (狗不理) have been included in museum exhibitions, Pei noted, so foreign brands like Louis Vuitton and Cartier, which often date back hundreds of years, can also do so.

Chen Lusheng, deputy director of the National Museum, put it on visitors to be more conscious. The objective of the “Voyages” show, Chen said, is to show both history and art, as well as involving the domestic cultural and creative industries. (Hence the presence of Chinese artist Zhan Wang at the exhibition — JD.) Although the National Museum is a non-profit organization, Chen added, it will continue to organize cultural activities as well as commercial activities, in an attempt to reconcile its social responsibilities and commercial necessities.

Cartier's Treasures exhibition took place at the Forbidden City in Beijing from Sep. 5 - Nov. 22, 2009 (Image: Cartier)

Cartier’s Treasures exhibition took place at the Forbidden City in Beijing from Sep. 5 – Nov. 22, 2009 (Image: Cartier)

In an increasingly commercialized and materialistic society, it’s not uncommon for museums to work in the occasional activity focused on the bottom line. This is particularly important in the case of the National Museum, which — with the exception of the “Voyages” exhibition, which costs 10 yuan (US$1.50) — offers free admission. In order to fit with deputy director Chen’s (somewhat vague) goal of meeting the museum’s “commercial necessities,” expect to see the museum regularly teaming up with more companies for cooperative exhibitions. (A move to which Chen alluded when speaking at the opening ceremony.)

But this, and the somewhat cool reaction to the exhibition among many visitors, begs the question: if, as scholar Pei Yu contends, Chinese museum-goers are gradually becoming more distinguishing, will they soon be turned off by commercialized exhibitions in incongruous surroundings like Louis Vuitton’s “Voyages” or previous shows like Cartier’s 2009 exhibition at the Forbidden City?

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