Fairs Museums Analysis China

Build first and find the art to fill them later

China’s public museums have grown by 1,000%—leaving their collections and staff development lagging behind

A. Oct Art and Design Gallery, Guangdong; B. Power Station of Art, Shanghai; C. Taiyuan Museum of Art, Shanxi; D. Ningbo History Museum, Zhejiang

China has been the world’s biggest developer of museums over the past decade. Momentum has been gathering quickly: in 1949 there were 21 museums, a number that had increased to 348 by 1978. Now, there are around 3,400, according to Guo Xiaoling, the director of Beijing’s Capital Museum, in an interview with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). Of these, The Art Newspaper has identified around 175 government-run museums dedicated to art, which are scattered across the country.

The Chinese government has been spending heavily on cultural infrastructure since the early 2000s. Investment in cultural industries has increased 23% a year since 2006, according to Sun Zhijun, a publicity director of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, who was quoted in the state newspaper, China Daily. In 2010, this broadly defined sector had an output of Rmb1.1 trillion ($178.9bn), up a whopping 221.3% from 2004, and comprising 2.75% of China’s GDP. State museums proliferated under China’s “Five-Year Plan for Development” from 2005 to 2010, while the current Five-Year Plan aims for culture to become a “pillar industry”, providing 5% of GDP by 2015.

“The economic power of China has improved lately, but its soft power always drags behind. Nowadays there are plenty of both state-owned and private art museums under construction. I think it’s just their way to pay old debts,” says Li Xu, the deputy director of the planning office of Shanghai’s Power Station of Art, China’s largest state-owned contemporary art museum, which opened in 2012. “The government is supposed to repay the taxpayer by offering them a cultural and artistic service, and building art museums is [the] way to do it. This is an inevitable outcome for every country when it develops to a certain extent.”

Provincial and local governments have followed suit, eager to bolster personal political careers as well as local property prices. Cultural projects such as concert halls, museums and arts districts provide the most cachet, so every rural backwater now wants their own and massive public funds are being pooled into state-of-the-art museum buildings. But most lack the art to fill them or the people to run them.

Private museums also grow

While private museums in China often start as a collection seeking a home, most state museums are empty buildings with neither collections nor the resources to accumulate them. “We are quite different from overseas art museums,” explains the director of the Wuhan Art

Museum, Fan Feng. “They collect the works of art first [and] when they get [a big] enough collection, they set up a museum. We establish a museum first, and then begin to contemplate collecting.” There are limited acquisition funds since there are no independent fundraising channels for museums in China, “so we still rely on the support of the government”, Fan says.

The proliferation of museums, both public and private, art and otherwise, is happening at a far faster pace than qualified personnel can be trained.

There is also a “brain-drain” as more young Chinese head abroad for education: around 330,000 did so in 2011, and the ranks swell by about 30% per year, according to China’s Ministry of Education. For those who do return with advanced international training, there is little fiscal incentive to work in the arts, and particularly in museums. “The salary system of mainland cultural institutions has not been adjusted for many years,” Li says.

Even the smallest city wants one

The bulk of the new museum construction has so far been concentrated in second-tier cities, most of which now have provincial or city-level art museums, often joined by thematic museums such as those devoted to folk art. Now some of the lower tier cities are keen to follow suit.

“You should ask ‘when’ not ‘why’,” says Chen Lei, the art director of the Shijiazhuang Art Museum in Hebei Province, an industrial port city outside Beijing. “Why did Shijiazhuang only get an art museum at the end of 2010—60 years after the city was built?”

He says that while “core cities such Beijing and Shanghai got thousands of museums of all kinds” after the government began its soft power campaign in 2000, smaller cities had to wait. “This museum was a postponed inevitability,” Chen says, adding that its most important resource is its elasticity: “We don’t have the burden of old conceptions.”

There will be an Art Basel Hong Kong Conversation on museums and architecture moderated by András Szántó on Friday 24 May

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