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Increased talks of creating private museums in China

Amidst struggling contemporary art scene

In China today, where there is still little governmental support for contemporary art, the notion of public spaces must be expanded beyond the traditional concept of the municipal museum, to include privately funded art centres and less traditional venues.

While Beijing’s National Art Gallery—China’s most governmentally circumscribed art museum—was the unlikely host for two of the earliest experimental art exhibitions, “Association: the Third Stars Art Exhibition” (1980) and the groundbreaking, large-scale “China/Avant-Garde” (1989), the National Art Gallery has had little to do with domestic contemporary art since then. In fact, given restrictive government policies, contemporary art was largely driven underground ­during the early 1990s, giving rise to “apartment art”—the practice of creating exhibitions in private homes.

While by 1994, artists were beginning to organise exhibitions in spaces such as university art galleries and high schools, public museums in Beijing have remained largely closed to Chinese contemporary art.

Instead, museums in the South, with their relative distance from the political pressures of the country’s capital, have been more inclusive. These include Shenzhen’s He Xiangning Art Museum (and its ancillary OCT space) and the Guangdong Museum of Art, whose Triennial has arguably become China’s most important international exhibition.

The official Shanghai Art Museum hosts an increasingly globalised biennial, whose next installment is due in 2008. And while the Shanghai Biennial has drawn criticism for self-censorship, it is far more cosmopolitan than the Beijing Biennial, whose conservatism makes it utterly irrelevant.

Exempt from the government approval processes necessary to mount exhibitions, foreign-owned commercial galleries have played a disproportionately prominent role in the art scene, beginning with Beijing’s Red Gate Gallery (1991) and Courtyard Gallery (1996), among others. With the meteoric rise of the contemporary art market, commercial galleries continue to shape international perceptions about what constitutes Chinese art.

In recent years, one solution to the lack of government backing has been the establishment of privately funded, non-commercial art spaces, such as Shanghai’s Duoland Museum of Contemporary Art (2003) and Shanghai MOCA (2005), as well as Beijing’s Today Art Museum, which moved into a new building last year. However, with no tax law in place to help attract private donations, funding such spaces in China is difficult. These museums also often lack curatorial vision, presenting programmes far less thoughtful than contemporary art centres abroad.

The Long March Space in Beijing, born of a curatorial concept that had artists re-tracing Mao’s famous military campaign in an effort to bring contemporary art to the masses, is now housed in exhibition halls and has continued to expand since its founding in 2002. Using the space’s Long March Foundation, founder Lu Jie has been able to garner funding unavailable to other galleries in China, which has been crucial in helping the Long March to realise their programmes. However, like other public spaces in China that make do without government funding, its exhibitions are sometimes funded by the artists themselves; more importantly, the works are often for sale.

There is much talk about the future of private museums in China. Photographer Rong Rong is planning an art centre focused on his medium. Collector Guan Yi (see p38), who has the largest collection of contemporary Chinese art within China, has been talking for some time about creating a museum to display his monumental assortment of paintings and installations. And this autumn will see the inauguration of the Ullens Art Center (see below).

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 180 May 2007