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Sifang Art Museum opens in a Nanjing forest while two private museums in Shanghai are near completion

Amidst a period of rapid growth for Chinese museums

Nanjing/Shanghai.

The interplay of contemporary art and big-ticket architecture is a hot topic in China, especially as art museums are common additions to property developments. “China has not had a case where art and architecture have been combined well,” says Lu Xun, the director of the Sifang Art Museum, which opened in November. Collaboration needs to start from the beginning, he says, but in China, “the architecture comes first, then they put the art in”.

Designed by the US architect Steven Holl, the Sifang museum is the first of 20 avant-garde buildings to open to the public in the Chinese International Practical Exhibition of Architecture (CIPEA). This $164m project is led by Lu Xun and his father, Lu Jun, a developer, and is set in the lush Old Mountain national forest park near Nanjing. They invited architectural luminaries including Holl, Wang Shu, Ai Weiwei, Liu Heng, Alberto Kalach, Arata Isozaki and David Adjaye to design buildings for the complex, which will have conference and recreation facilities as well as a 60-room hotel.

Imported material and skills

“When we started in 2003, architects said it was the wildest concept, with no restrictions, no guidelines. Only this way can they freely create,” Lu Xun says. The challenge was in the construction. “China is used to building massive residential units,” he says, but not to original designs. Materials had to be imported and workers sent abroad to learn new techniques. “It is a ‘long march’, but idealism always is.”

The museum, and the partially completed CIPEA, opened with “The Garden of Diversion”, a show organised by Philippe Pirotte and featuring work by artists including Zhang Peili, Danh Vo, Maurizio Cattelan, Zhang Enli and Yang Fudong. Xu Zhen has created a site-specific installation, Movement Field, within the CIPEA park. “The plan is to have more site-specific works,” Lu Xun says. “We want to be a destination, not like a museum in the city centre with tourists coming in and lots of shows.”

Instead, he envisages “somewhere you can escape the city hustle and enjoy nature, fishing and art. We hope it will inspire with art and architecture.” Instead of regular rotating shows and retrospectives, the museum will focus on commissioning site-specific works.

“Generally, the criticism [of private museums] is the lack of the ‘software’ [expertise] to operate,” Lu Xun says. “You don’t get a well-oiled machine from the start, like [New York’s] MoMA, where the architect and the museum director sit down and plan.” He points to the Ullens Center of Contemporary Art in Beijing as China’s most sustainable model, with a strong board and revenue stream from a shop; it also leases out space for events rather than exhibitions. “The government is building a lot of museums, and there is a museum boom, and that will stimulate policy and stimulate the art,” he says. Ordinary people, he points out, go to shopping malls and the cinema—but they are also going to museums for the first time.

Meanwhile, two urban private museums are rushing to open in Shanghai. The Yuz Museum Shanghai, founded by the Chinese-Indonesian businessman Budi Tek, held a soft opening in late November, and the new Puxi branch of the Long Museum, founded by the Shanghai power collectors Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei, will hold a press preview in December and open formally in March. Both museums are part of the still-nascent Xuhui Riverside development, which is also home to the new West Bank Biennale (The Art Newspaper, November, p12). Perched on the shores of the Huangpu River, 5km from the centre of Shanghai, they enjoy, on smog-free days, breathtaking views of Liujiazui’s skyscrapers and the architecturally whimsical remnants of the 2010 World Expo.

Opening in Shanghai

At the time of going to press, both museums were covered in scaffolding and builders were working hurriedly to finish them. The Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto’s design for the Yuz museum resembles two aircraft hangars, with 15m-high ceilings and sliding doors painted fire-engine red. The hangars form a main hall of 2,000 sq. m, flanked by smaller halls and office space. A glass box on the end faces the river, and gardens within and without provide interaction with nature.

The Yuz Museum Shanghai is the little sister of the Yuz Museum Jakarta, which has shown Indonesian contemporary art since 2008 and has sought to familiarise Southeast Asian audiences with Chinese contemporary art. The first private art museum in Indonesia, it is moving to another location in Jakarta. The Shanghai museum will have a more Chinese and international focus. Tek made his fortune as the owner of the Indonesian poultry processor Sierad Produce, and began collecting contemporary Chinese paintings in the early 2000s. He has since expanded to large-scale works by international artists such as Maurizio Cattelan, Fred Sandback and Anselm Keifer.

The opening show, featuring Shanghai-related works, will be organised by Wu Hong, a professor of art history at the University of Chicago and the director of Yuz’s academic committee. According to a spokeswoman, “Take Off: Contemporary Shanghai Art in the Yuz Collection” includes three kinds of work created since the 1980s: by artists from Shanghai, artists now based in Shanghai, and works representing Shanghai that were first shown there.

Nearby, the Puxi branch of the Long Museum is shaping up to be a monolith of modern architecture, measuring 33,000 sq. m and costing around RMB300m ($49.2m). It will feature contemporary, Modern and traditional art; the biggest difference from the Long Museum in Pudong is the exclusion of Chinese revolutionary art. The industrialists Liu and Wang rank among China’s most voracious collectors of Chinese contemporary,