Fairs Museums Features China

Second acts can be tough in China’s second-tier cities

Curatorial energy and a founder’s commitment cannot flag if a museum is to flourish, however memorable the opening show

A Yue Minjun sculpture at the Today Art Museum. Photo: Today Art Museum

The inaugural exhibition at the Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing closed at the end of March. What will follow “The Garden of Diversion”, is unclear. And the curator of the show, Philippe Pirotte, has moved on to become the rector of the Städelschule in Frankfurt.

Lu Xun, the museum’s founder, says that he originally hoped that the show would be on for a longer time. When works by the Japanese artist Yutaka Sone, on loan from the David Zwirner gallery (1C02), had to be returned, the exhibition closed. “It is in the process of being dismantled,” he says. “If visitors come, they can still see the architecture. We have five to six guided tours to see the architecture every week.” Lu regrets the gap in the programme. “Since people will not usually come to Nanjing, it is a pity that those who visit can no longer see this exhibition,” he says.

The Sifang Art Museum is 10km from Nanjing’s city centre, making it a challenge to attract visitors. But Lu is not daunted by this geographical disadvantage. “We are not trying to turn the exhibitions at Sifang Art Museum into the complex’s most important or only component.” Apart from the museum, designed by Steven Holl, the park site includes luxury rental villas designed by David Adjaye, Wang Shu, Zhang Lei, Mathias Klotz, Ai Weiwei and others. “Here, we have architecture and nature. After the hotel opens this year, people can stay and enjoy the food and spa here. It will be an all-encompassing experience,” says Lu. “We do not need numerous exhibitions like those in the city. We prefer to do one to two exhibitions annually or a major exhibition biennially.”

Lu has taken the Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum in Japan and Dia:Beacon in New York state as the models for the Sifang Art Museum.“The way we approach art is very different in Sifang Art Museum,” he says. “For example, Movement Field [2013], by Xu Zhen is a permanent art work created in response to the nature and surrounding environment. The considerations and concepts behind the work were exactly inspired by the environment of the complex here.”

Meanwhile in Wuhan

In the Hongshan district of Wuhan, an art museum funded by Huang Li Ping, owner of a medical and biotechnology company, is due to open later this year. Its curator is Lu Hong, an art critic and native of Wuhan. The museum declined to reveal the theme or artists in its inaugural show.

The museum is outside the city centre in a developing area called Creative Capital, which is surrounded by a vast residential complex with poor transportation infrastructure. It is anticipated that the new museum will bring more attention to the area.

Wuhan used to be an important base for the “’85 Movement”, a nationwide avant-garde movement in 20th-century Chinese art. Key art critics and artists including Pi Daojian, Huang Zhuan, Wang Guangyi, Shu Qun and Lu Hong all once worked and lived there, but left in the 1980s and 90s. As this second-tier city aspires to join the first rank, an increasing number of people in art circles have recently moved back.

Despite Wuhan’s economic growth, the wave of new museum openings is not progressing as smoothly as envisaged. Wuhan Art Terminus (WH.A.T.) has encountered difficulty in acquiring a building permit and has yet to complete the first stage of building work. Colin Chinnery, its artistic director, says that the “petty bureaucratic problems” have now been basically resolved, so “we are certain that our site will open next year. It is just that the date is yet to be fixed”.

What’s the story?

WH.A.T. is located in the city centre and forms part of major development that includes the neighbouring Dazhimen Cultural and Commercial Centre. “[It] will be like an arts and commercial city [within a city], acting as a gathering spot for young people interested in fashion and art,” says Chinnery. “They can open their own stores related to the creative industry, such as fashion, jewellery design or music production. Not many young people actually understand the contemporary art exhibitions at our institute, but they enjoy its stylish, cultural ambience.” Chinnery hopes to promote contemporary art to a younger generation through guided tours and public projects.

City museums established on the back of economic prosperity will inevitably suffer if the economy cools, leaving them to face the tough reality of remaining sustainabile long after a big splashy opening. Mang Lai, the curator of Ordos Art Museum in Inner Mongolia, said in an interview in 2011 that the museum’s establishment “reflects the materialistic and spiritual aspirations and pursuit of the people in Ordos”. In that year, according to a report published by China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, the per-capita GDP in Ordos surpassed that of Hong Kong.

Funded by the Ordos Jiangyuan Cultural and Creative Industry Development Company, the museum opened in August 2007. Its inaugural exhibition, “Arrogance and Romance”, was organised by the German dealer Alexander Ochs and featured paintings, sculptures and installations by international artists such as Andy Warhol, and Chinese contemporary artists including Cai Guo-Qiang, Xu Bing, Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang. Between 2008 and 2010, the museum organised a few exhibitions, including a solo exhibition of German artist Günther Uecker in collaboration with the Goethe Institute. But there has been no major show since.

Resources boom

Similar examples can be found in other cities such as Yinchuan in Ningxia and Datong in Shanxi. These cities are not cultural centres, but have experienced a boom due to their coal, oil and gas industries. Expensive property investments there have led to a rise in regional and city art museums. But these museums are established with little research or planning and their weaknesses—collecting, staffing, marketing—are later exposed.

The construction of art museums and “culture parks” in tandem with property development is not new in China. The most famous precedents are the Today Art Museum and 22 International Art Plaza in Beijing’s Pingod district, begun around ten years ago. At the edge of Beijing’s commercial centre, Pingod is home to art museums, art districts and residential buildings. Despite the frequent changes in its management team, the Today museum has been able to continue its exhibitions programme.

In contrast, 22 International Art Plaza introduced galleries, coffee shops and other stylish, creative spaces. As the cultural consumer market slowed down, the plaza became increasingly burdened with the problems of stagnating investment, a decreasing number of retail contracts and fewer visitors since it opened in 2007. The problems have been alleviated only in the last couple of years.

Before looking at the classic examples of private art museums around the world, such as Dia:Beacon, the experiences of the Today Art Museum and 22 International Art Plaza offer important lessons for art museums and art projects being planned in China’s second-tier cities. When the cultural consumer market is yet to be fully formed in these cities, long-term investment is not the only requirement. The ability to develop an audience for museums and increase the public’s acceptance of contemporary art, coupled with a high degree of patience and faith on the part of the investors and management team, are more important.

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