As China’s economy has risen, so has its appetite for art. As the New York Times reports, wealthy Chinese collectors are anxious to display their growing collections in a plethora of new museums, and also to preserve some of the nation’s most precious, ancient artworks that have long been abandoned.
According to the Times, 390 new museums opened in China in 2011, and the acceleration continues. It seems that many are devoted to either very old or very new art, and the latter has been mostly displayed by its owners in an attempt to show off wealth. However, the Shanghai Contemporary Art Museum – also known as the Power Station of Art, for being housed in a repurposed 19th century power plant – set an important new precedent when it opened last year. Although many new Chinese museums are trying to impress with size, and although the Shanghai Contemporary Art Museum is substantial, it can also measure up in terms of quality and curation. It’s opening exhibition, 9th Shanghai Biennale, wrapped up last month.
Not all have been so successful. The National Museum of China opened in 2011 in Beijing, and while it has reigned from the beginning as the single largest museum of any sort in the world, critics were not as impressed with the abbreviated history of China that its collections told. On the other end of the spectrum the China Art Museum – or the China Art Palace – opened in Shanghai concurrently with the Shanghai Contemporary Art Museum, and its “exhausting” display is considered too grandiose.
Smaller museums, like the Rockbund Art Museum and the Minsheng Art Museum, supported mostly with private financing, are gaining attention. The Rockbund has no collection and hosts rotating shows, and likes to host international art. Its special debut show, “Congratulations From the World,” featured an array of pieces from the British Museum, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The Minsheng Art Museum houses contemporary art. Its deputy director is the famed “Joe Camel” painter Zhou Tiehai, who has organized retrospectives for mid-career artists that have been important to China, if not the larger world.
Some efforts by museums are trying to keep viewers away from art. In Dunhuang, near the Gobi Desert, a quasi-museum with multiple purposes is in development. The project’s primary aim is to preserve deteriorating cave paintings done by Buddhist monks around Mogao as they traversed the Silk Road. It will also educate the public about this rich history, though mostly through digital projections. China reclaimed the caves in the 1940s and opened them to the public in 1979. By the late 2000s, the paintings had been seriously damaged by exposure to upwards of 800,000 annual tourists.
While many are excited at the explosive interest in art that has consumed China, some critics worry if the museum culture will not just become a way for wealthy collectors to show off their capital. Despite the great number of museums and initiatives, China still lacks a museum that offers a comprehensive view of the nation’s contemporary art scene over the past thirty years.
photo credit: The Lost Egyptian Mau