Reality Behind the Door - The challenge of art institutionalization in China

Written by Biljana Ciric

The establishment of art museums in China has become an important political and cultural issue. Interest in establishing art museums through private and government investment is much greater than in building theatres, libraries or other cultural institutions. Locations for museums are being sought in both old and new parts of cities: in restored buildings, commercial areas and brand new premises. According to the government’s plans for the years leading up to 2008, China will open thousands of publicly- and privately-funded museums all over the country; Beijing alone will build 130 museums before 2008. Shanghai is another dynamic city, with extensive vertical and horizontal expansion. The city is trying to match this commercial momentum with an intellectual transformation and a new value system. The question as to whether this can take place through art museums is key.

For many years contemporary art in China was an underground activity and was not recognised as an element of the country’s culture, gaining recognition abroad much earlier than at home. Artists were gaining international acclaim while the art institutions were still presenting soviet-influenced realism as the mainstream acceptable style. Contemporary art stayed underground throughout the 90s, with discussions about contemporary art taking place in small circles outside the government funded art institutions. The two existed as parallel and quite independent systems.

However, years of burgeoning market values and economic reform changed this. Contemporary art became an important tool for showing Chinese contemporary thought to the outside world. Examples include the Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale or official cultural exchanges between China and other countries, such as the Alors, La Chine? exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in 2003. Biennials began to take place in the mid 90s in major cities such as Shanghai and GuangDong, meaning that Chinese artists began to participate in large-scale exhibitions at an international level. This has become a trend in the last few years. Nevertheless, such major exhibitions have mostly been organized and sponsored by civic governments and failed to have any lasting impact on the local art scenes. Paradoxically, the increase in the number of biennials and triennials has resulted in tighter control of the satellite shows around the main exhibitions, meaning there is very little of genuine interest being generated by such events.

The past few years have witnessed the boom of art institutions in Mainland China, especially art museums. Privately and publicly funded institutions have been created, some of which have been short-lived while others are still fighting for their survival. The most successful examples of these institutions can be found in Shanghai, where private and public investment in art museums has largely been in the area of contemporary art. There are two main reasons for this overwhelming enthusiasm for contemporary art: firstly, private investors lean towards building good contemporary collections, and secondly, government support is high for those who support cultural development in China, thus providing the green light for other business at the same time. (Preparations for the 2010 world expo in Shanghai are proving to be another incentive.)

The increasing number of art museums in Shanghai is allowing more exhibitions to take place and making them more accessible to the public. These have mostly been foreign retrospectives, though, readymade group exhibitions packed and ready to go, meaning that these institutions seldom create environments in which interesting experiments can take place. Several factors have created this situation: China’s understanding of the art museum and its function; the people who work in the museums and their approaches to exhibition policy and curating; and the boundaries that art institutions apply to the exhibition process.

Art museums in China usually compete for audiences by having ‘first-of-a-kind’ or large-scale foreign exhibitions. This attitude is very much embedded in Chinese culture. These kinds of large exhibitions get more media coverage than critical reflection, with few art critics actually reacting to the things that are happening at the moment. Moreover, few artists are willing to express their point of view through writing. Exhibition research and critical approaches are uncommon, except for art magazines, though even they are more review oriented than critical. So it is difficult to facilitate discussion around the issues of museum exhibitions and the role of the museum – discussions that Alexander Dorner and others explored in their time. On the other hand, while museums often produce high quality work and have the professionals needed to do it, funding needs are usually resolved by fulfilling art market requirements. This is achieved by working with the galleries and art collectors who make the exhibition possible. Consequently, museum curators are forced to give up some of their more experimental ideas for exhibitions.

The complex infrastructure of art museums in Mainland China has multiple layers. Understanding the museum and its function in society is complex in China, where there are different words in the language to describe art museums as compared to those presenting antiquities and those with more or less permanent displays. Art museums are usually affiliated to old cultural institutes, so the rental costs of the venues and the low exhibition costs enable the institutions to become financially, though not intellectually, independent. Privately funded museums have much better funding, but at the same time often lack rigorous research into contemporary art issues and a real understanding of what artists are doing. There is a need to focus more on both academia and on grass-roots communication with artists.

So how has this institutional boom influenced Chinese artists? As art museums are institutions, there is usually compromise between the artist’s critical viewpoint and institutional policy. What should be shown and to what extent is a real issue. Chinese artists have been making compromises in their work in order to be shown in institutions. This phenomenon is an institutionalization of contemporary art whereby artists are facing the issue of to what extent one can remain critical while keeping within the mainstream. Contemporary art museums should be places where intellectual thought and critical issues are raised, but some artists now keep their distance from the art institution, doubting its contribution to the art community. Genuine exchange of ideas does happen in small circles and alternative spaces, structures that have historically made a more significant contribution to contemporary culture than art museums.

Another issue is that the curators’ role is being minimized and they are having to deal more with everyday administrative work than curatorial practice and intellectual work. Expressing a critical voice often brings censorship to the exhibition. With the 2000 exhibition Fuck Off, the Shanghai scene seemed to have reached a new plateau, however this year the government closed several exhibitions in a period of just a few months, both in alternative spaces and in museums. This puts a lot of pressure on contemporary art institutions. The reaction of government bodies when their restrictions on critical approaches are challenged varies according to the political state of affairs at any given time.

This makes the situation even harder. Despite many institutions beginning to work more closely with local artists, heavy restrictions again put art in opposition to the political system and government-funded art institutions. While freedom of expression does not yet fully exist in the museum, the Internet has become the place where artists can say what they think, with artists’ blogs attracting a high number of readers in China. Artist’s small, short-term, self-organized exhibitions are also important outlets for artists’ work, and make the situation even more complex than it was 15 years ago. At that time contemporary art was underground; now it is only partly underground.

So does it really matter how many museums there are and how many more there will be? The question is really one as to whose museums they will be, and what their roles are. These are important questions for the future of contemporary art in China. Art museums are at risk of becoming mere parts of the entertainment industry, whilst appeasing the aims of commercial galleries and private collectors in the market. The influence that the art market has in determining the value of exhibitions also affects decisions as to which works are exhibited in museums. In conclusion, without increased engagement with artists and critical debate, art museums will lose their vital role as social pioneers before they have even had the chance to begin their work.

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