Exhibitions Museums Cultural exchange USA

China hungry for US art shows

The American Alliance of Museums launches its exhibitions exchange programme, but the growing demand from Asia could be “overwhelming”

Crowds at the opening of the touring exhibition “Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal” at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) is struggling to keep up with the growing appetite for American exhibitions in China and the Middle East. One hundred Chinese delegates travelled to Seattle last month to discuss potential partnerships with US museums at the AAM’s annual conference (18-21 May). The AAM plans to launch a similar programme for museums in the Middle East within the next two years.

“As in China, there is a growing number of museums in the Middle East and a strong demand for shows,” says Kelly Swain, the senior exhibitions co-ordinator at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, DC and a co-organiser the AAM’s exhibition exchange programme. As The Art Newspaper reported last month, the Saudi Arabian government is spending more than $1.7bn on building 230 new museums in that country alone. “Our issue is that the group from China also keeps growing and growing—it is a little overwhelming,” Swain says.

At the AAM conference, Chinese and American participants had the opportunity to browse a “marketplace” of 12 exhibitions ready to travel between the two nations. Among the proposals were an exhibition of 65 paintings by the American artist Augustus Vincent Tack organised by the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, and an exhibition of work by 70 contemporary artists that explores the role of the curator, organised by the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

Exhibition exchange between the US and China is still relatively new for most of the institutions involved, and the learning curve is steep. In one session at the AAM conference, the staff from the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, and the Central Academy described the complexities involved with sending the exhibition “Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal” to China last year.

On the way to Beijing, more than 300 works were tied up in customs for days while Chinese officials asked the Warhol Museum to pay additional taxes. At the conference, Ren Rui, the deputy director of public education at the Central Academy, said she felt the Warhol Museum didn’t turn to their colleagues in Beijing expertise or ask for help as much as they could have, recalled Swain. “We are a lot more competent than you think we are,” Ren delicately told the conference attendees.

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