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Private museums bloom in Shanghai

Individuals and corporations are sharing their traditional and contemporary art collections with the public

China is witnessing a boom in museums. In Shanghai particularly but all over the country, new museum projects are a product as well as a symbol of economic optimism and the increasing importance of culture.

The government is actively encouraging new museums, sponsoring a proliferation of state museums while allowing even more private ones, viewing them as a means to cultivate soft power and encourage the emergence of more domestic creativity. However, the real impetus behind most of China’s new museums, which are privately owned, is economic.

Nearly all of China’s private museums are founded by art collectors or property developers. The former are wealthy individuals who have amassed enough art or antiquities to need a place to store them, and who generously want to share their works with the public as well. Many of the country’s older museums operate without ever establishing a collection. While private museums might have collections, they can suffer from a shortage of curatorial direction, long-term vision or adequate funding.

In China’s property market boom, developers are thick on the ground and flush with money. However, competition is brutal, for land as well as buyers. Developers have learned that a fast way to get local government to grant them land rights is to promise a non-profit cultural dimension. Moreover, plop in an art museum, and a new development’s cachet—and value—is ratcheted up. It starts to feel as though every new mall or condo development has a so-called museum attached.

Nevertheless, a few collectors and developers have opened or are planning truly noteworthy museums.

Long Museum and the Long Museum of Modern Art, Shanghai

For China’s über-collectors Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei, one art museum is not enough. The much anticipated Long Museum in Pudong is now due to open on 28 October. Exactly a year later, Wang says they plan to open the Long Museum of Modern Art in the city’s riverside Xuhui Binjiang district. The collector Budi Tek’s De Museum is due to open nearby in 2013. “My husband promised me a museum for my 50th birthday,” Wang says. “But two is even better.”

An art collector for the past 18 years, Wang says: “When I was younger, while other girls bought clothing, I bought art. You don’t just keep art, art keeps you.” She hopes that the museums will improve the quality of art collections in China, which are often considered more of a financial investment than a cultural one.

The Long Museum has been designed by the artist and architect Zhong Song. Its exterior will feature an image of a work by his late mentor, the Shanghai artist Chen Yifei, a favourite of Wang’s. The 11,000 sq. m museum will include 7,000 sq. m of exhibition space. It is due to open with displays revealing the eclecticism of Wang and Liu’s collection. One floor will be dedicated to Chinese antiquities, particularly jade and ceramics and the “four treasures of the study”: the brush, ink, paper and ink stone used in traditional calligraphy. Another will feature Chinese contemporary art.

Liu and Wang’s collection includes many works of revolutionary or “red” art. The heroic images of Mao Zedong, his cohorts and adoring peasants defined the era that produced Wang and Liu’s generation. Wang says that she unearthed, acquired and restored many such paintings left to decay in the basements of state museums. “I bought my art cheaply, and now it’s expensive,” she says. “I won’t donate my collections to public museums. I don’t trust their management. Many pieces are rotting there.” She says that her collection of red art is larger than any other in Shanghai. “Even the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing does not have as many works as I do.”

In 2009 Wang published a Mandarin-language catalogue of her red art collection. The collection has since expanded by a third and she plans to publish a new edition of the catalogue, this time in English.

Wang believes that the romanticised Communist imagery remains relevant to modern China. “It is a historical education for young people. You can’t just erase Jiang Qing,” a reference to Mao’s now widely reviled wife.

Education features in her plans for the first museum, aimed at the affluent community on its doorstep. The museum is near the entrance to the Tomson Golf Villas, a luxury development. Wang hopes to teach other affluent Chinese people, especially women, how to collect art. She also plans art classes for children, and painting and calligraphy lessons for retired people.

Wang will manage the museum’s operations and will be the curator of both museums. She has recruited many of China’s top critics, curators and academics to form an advisory team, which is headed by Li Xianting, Chen Lusheng, Wang Huangsheng, Lv Peng, Zhao Li and the well-known art historian Shan Guolin, who is an expert in Chinese painting and calligraphy.

Wang expects the museum will organise four big shows a year. After the inaugural exhibitions she is considering an overview of Southeast Asian art.

Liu and Wang were invited to open a second museum by the Xuhui District government, as part of a conversion of a riverside industrial zone into a cultural destination. When the Long Museum of Modern Art opens in 2013, it will show 20th- and 21st-century Chinese art.

The museum’s architect Liu Yichun designed the building based on an old train trestle. It will have a total space of 16,000 sq. m, of which 8,000 sq. m will house exhibitions. There will also be six teaching spaces.

The museums are funded by Wang and Liu. Liu is the chairman of the Sunline Investment Group and was ranked by Forbes last year as the 172nd richest person in China. Entrance tickets will be around Rmb30 ($5), with possible discounts for visitors to both museums as well as families. Wang estimates that they have spent Rmb28m ($4.5m) on the museums so far. Their annual running costs will be between Rmb13m and Rmb15m ($2.1m-$2.4m). Wang says that she expects to lose around Rmb10m ($1.6m) a year supporting them. “But if I take government money, I lose face,” she says. “We are doing something good for society.”

De Museum, Shanghai

The precise shape that the Chinese-Indonesian collector Budi Tek’s De Museum will take in Shanghai when it opens next year remains under consideration, but the location, on the banks of the Huangpu River in the southern Xuhui District, is now fixed. “The exhibition [space] will be around 8,000 sq. m. Functional spaces like a café, library, bookstore, [and a] club will also be added,” says a spokeswoman for Tek and his Yuz Foundation. “We are still in discussion with the government, and expect that the space might be expanded.”

Meanwhile, Tek is due to show part of his collection at the Today Art Museum in Beijing this August. “It will be a prologue for more people to know our collections and have some idea of our Shanghai museum,” the spokeswoman says.

Tek was drawn to Shanghai as it is his wife’s hometown, “so it is quite natural for him to have [a] museum here. The government is quite supportive of this project,” the spokeswoman says. “[Tek] is not only a collector but also a philanthropist. He is building this private museum with a strong desire to enhance public appreciation for contemporary art.”

De Museum will focus on Tek’s collection of contemporary art—both Chinese and international. “It is quite rare for Chinese collectors to include Western contemporary art,” says the spokeswoman. “The most common shows in China are about Chinese antiques or paintings. Mr Tek wishes to enhance the public appreciation of contemporary art. He is building this museum to share his international collections with the public.”

Himalayas Art Museum, Shanghai

When the Shanghai Zendai Museum of Modern Art (Zendai MoMA) opened in 2005, it represented a fairly novel concept in China. Its founder, Dai Zhikang, who runs a property company, donated the space and money to exhibit conceptual art. Zendai MoMA proceeded to distinguish itself with impressive exhibitions, including solo shows of China’s most exciting contemporary artists, including Yang Fudong and Qiu Zhije and some carefully organised, thematic group exhibitions. The museum made the most of its location in the Pudong outdoor shopping mall to help artists interact with the young families that came to the area. It soon developed the best outreach and education programmes run by a Shanghai or Beijing museum.

Plans for the luxury Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel presented the Zendai Group with a chance to transform the scruffy little Zendai MoMA into something bigger. The Arata Isozaki-designed Himalayas complex perches on the edge of the Shanghai New International Exhibition Center and the up-market Kerry Parkside shopping development. Along with the hotel and museum, the building includes spaces for a theatre and shopping centre.

The size of the complex, which features a soaring latticework exterior, has led to a buzz of excitement. While the hotel has been open for more than a year, the opening of the Himalayas Art Museum continues to be delayed. The original 2010 opening has been postponed several times, and the latest planned opening date is now the end of this year.

In the meantime, the museum organised an exhibition by Kenya Hara, the art director of the Japanese fashion store Muji, which enjoys inordinate popularity in Shanghai. “Designing Design: The Exhibition of Kenya in Shanghai” took place in March at the Zendai Contemporary Art Space in a converted factory in the city’s northern suburbs.

Aurora Museum, Shanghai

The exterior of the Aurora building is all sparkle and bling; the gold high-rise tower on the Pudong Lujiazui waterfront is known for its advertising LED screen. The new museum inside, designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, occupies the building’s first five floors. The museum held a soft opening in February with the exhibition “Bvlgari: 125 Years of Italian Magnificence”. However, the museum’s long-term plan involves exhibitions of decidedly subtler material: Chinese antiquities. The museum is due to open in October, showing the permanent collection as well temporary exhibitions in a 500 sq. m space on the second floor.

Chen Yung-tai, the owner of the Aurora Group, a Taiwanese electronics firm, and his wife Bai Yu-yeh have collected Chinese antiquities for four decades. Their collection focuses on four areas: ancient jades, Qinghua ciqi blue-and-white porcelain, Buddhist art and ceramics. The museum’s manager, Lai Renchen, hopes the museum can educate young Chinese people about their ancient traditions, which are more revered in Taiwan than on the mainland, through exhibitions and workshops.

The original Aurora Museum opened in Taipei in 2003 as a study centre, accessible by appointment only. A small branch in Shanghai followed in 2005. While preparing its corporate pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, which included an exhibition of jade objects, the Aurora Group decided to expand its museum in Shanghai.

“We opened in Shanghai because it is an international capital, not considered just Chinese. One day it will be like London or New York,” Lai says. He describes the Lujiazui banking quarter as “boring, but the government wants the business centre to also become a cultural centre”.

Taikang Space, Beijing

Beijing’s Taikang Space opened in 2003 as a department of the Taikang Life Insurance Group to manage the collection of the company’s chairman, Chen Dongsheng. The space also organises exhibitions exploring “artists’ development in the context and background of social change”, says its founding art director, Tang Xin.

Taikang Space is among several non-profit spaces with a collection in the capital that eschews the term “museum”, in contrast to the many spaces that call themselves museums but are in reality selling spaces. “It is more about the idea than the space: we study history, and promote young artists,” says Tang. “Museums in China all copy the West, and while they are called museums, their exhibitions lack ideas. We collect and research, putting the ‘software’ first.”

With a focus on multi-media art and photography, Taikang prioritises young and emerging artists but also holds exhibitions of established artists. For a year and a half starting in 2009, it organised the “51m2 project”, in the smallest part of its 580 sq. m space, as an experimental research laboratory for conceptual exhibitions. It also holds retrospectives of elderly Chinese artists and art historical surveys.

Tang recalls how Taikang’s development has fluctuated with the erratic fortunes of Chinese contemporary art. “At first we were just a space doing simple projects with artists and curators, when there were no collectors or no markets,” she says. “A company having an art department seemed strange at the time.” In 2006, “when [the] 798 [area] emerged there was an explosion of art in Beijing”. With the boom, “we had to find our own place in the market as a non-profit.” A lot of non-profit galleries and museums became commercial galleries, she says. “It is hard to be a non-profit in China. We thought a lot how to survive without turning into a gallery.” With the economic crisis of 2008 many bubbles popped in China’s art world. “We persisted as the situation became more mature,” she says.

Nanjing Sifang Art Museum, Nanjing

“Museums in China just [focus] on our own culture and are not too interested in other places,” says Zhu Tong, the director of the Nanjing Sifang Art Museum. “[But] we’re global and more systematic about our collection.” The museum, a $2bn project backed by the developer Sifang Culture Group, is due to open in October. The company has spent the past three years amassing a collection of Western and Asian contemporary art and plans to “introduce and educate Chinese audiences about Western art history by bringing good art and curators to China”, says Zhu.

The museum’s building, which has been designed by the US architect Steven Holl, is the centrepiece of the 24-building-strong Contemporary International Practical Exhibition of Architecture. The museum sits in Pearl Spring, a national park, which is a 20-minute drive from Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu Province.

The 5,000 sq. m museum will have several studio spaces with the potential to expand by around 10,000 sq. m by using other buildings in the park.

Zhu says that the opening exhibition this autumn will feature post-war Western art from the collection that has some connection to China. It will also include a survey of the past 30 years of Chinese contemporary art, plus a public art project. This will be followed by a survey of pan-Asian contemporary art from across the region. “Chinese art has not been very international in its scope and we want it to become more open,” says Zhu. “We want to be more extensive, but it will be all contemporary.”