Why are top jobs in Chinese museums going to white men?

Local professionals continue to be overlooked for highly paid leading roles

Going round in circles? Chinese museum staff are frustrated by the appointment of foreign bosses with minimal experience in the region ZUMA Press Inc/Alamy

Going round in circles? Chinese museum staff are frustrated by the appointment of foreign bosses with minimal experience in the region ZUMA Press Inc/Alamy

While the layoffs and furloughs of the Covid-19 era have squeezed museum workforces in the US and UK, one place is actively hiring. After a momentary hiccup in early 2020, greater China’s museum juggernaut has roared back to life, as new and expanding institutions are recruiting, particularly abroad. Four of the country’s museums have recently announced Western appointees to senior positions; strikingly, all are white men with minimal experience in Asia and three are working remotely from overseas.

Hangzhou’s Renzo Piano-designed new private museum By Art Matters, backed by fashion brand JNBY and its founder Li Lin, opens at the end of this year under the remote directorship of US-based Italian super-curator Francesco Bonami, supported by an assistant director on site, Wu Tian. Hong Kong’s long-awaited mega-museum of visual culture, M+, appointed former Art in America editor William Smith as its head of digital and editorial content. UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, with locations in Beijing, Shanghai and Qinhuangdao, created the post of curator-at-large for Peter Eleey, who stepped down from MoMA PS1 in New York last autumn. And Shai Baitel, the Israeli co-founder of the Mana Contemporary venues in the US, joined Modern Art Museum (MAM) Shanghai as its inaugural artistic director after guest-curating its 2019 Bob Dylan exhibition.

Chinese curators and museum workers feel unable to criticise the practice publicly, lest they get blacklisted, but there is widespread frustration. “In my opinion, China lacks cultural self-confidence, especially when it comes to [contemporary art],” says a Western-educated art manager, speaking anonymously. “Because the rules of the game have been set up by the Western world—China didn’t have this type of cultural institution until the recent century.” They emphasise, however, that the issue is not confined to China’s museum industry. “It’s the same in the West: the majority of staff working in museums are female, but the directors are white Anglo-Saxon men.”

From left: US-based Francesco Bonami is directing Hangzhou's new private museum By Art Matters; Peter Eleey is curator-at-large at UCCA Center for Contemporary Art and Shai Baitel is the artistic director of Modern Art Museum Shanghai Bonami: Courtesy of By Art Matters. Eleey: courtesy of UCCA Center for Contemporary Art. Baitel: Nir Arieli

A default Eurocentrism has been an unfortunate side-effect of the “rapid development” of museums in China, says one administrator who has worked at several institutions with foreign directors. Yet a Westerner chosen by private backers, state authorities or sometimes overseas partners to put a new museum on the map is hampered in practice by needing every document and interaction translated into English. Effective leadership requires “strong communication, a warrior to negotiate all sides”, the administrator says. Without Mandarin language skills, foreign directors are but “puppets”: “They speak to the media, provide the face of the museum, and show that it’s international—but it’s always other people doing the real work,” they say.

Foreign leaders of Chinese museums "speak to the media, provide the face of the museum, and show that it’s international—but it’s always other people doing the real work"

Although the rapid pace of overseas appointments this year is notable, the practice of importing white male figureheads to lead Asian museums is not new. Spanish curator Bartomeu Marí became the director of South Korea’s state-backed Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in 2015 (until 2018) despite controversy over a censorship scandal in his previous role at Macba in Barcelona. French national Larys Frogier has run Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum since 2012, while Dutch-born Ole Bouman served as the founding director of Shenzhen’s Design Society in partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum from 2015 until last year.

The phenomenon mirrors the tendency to recruit established Western—mostly white and male—curators to head Asian biennials and triennials, or the dominance of Western artists in China’s museum exhibitions and auction sales. In a parallel trend, Sotheby’s has in recent months replaced senior Asian staff members at its Hong Kong saleroom with specialists from its London and New York headquarters. Such imported appointments are distinct from the Mandarin-fluent sinologists who have for years worked within China’s art infrastructure. In the latter mould, UCCA’s other international recruit is Swiss-American Holly Roussell, an expert on Chinese contemporary photography and museology previously based in Suzhou.

Continental shift

In a twist brought about by the travel restrictions of Covid-19, the boom in teleworking has removed the traditional need—and possible deterrent—for a foreign director to move across the world and adapt on the ground. “This may be one upside of the pandemic: it now seems completely natural to have staff members based on other continents,” says UCCA’s Philadelphia-born director and chief executive Philip Tinari, one of the best-known art sinologists. “It’s great to have a curatorial colleague [abroad] who can see things and meet people that we can’t for the moment.” Another benefit of adding Eleey and Roussell to the in-house team, he adds, is their experience “in museums with longer histories than UCCA’s” that “allows us to gain useful insight into other institutional models”.

At MAM Shanghai, artistic director Baitel will continue working remotely even after China reopens its borders, though he is expected to spend “considerable amounts of time” visiting the country, says the museum’s director Derek Yu. Baitel’s appointment aligns with MAM’s “international outlook” and “mission to act as a cultural bridge between China and the rest of the world”, Yu says, adding that Baitel “has been invited to provide new perspectives and be provocative and challenging in his design of our exhibition programme”.

Modern Art Museum (MAM) Shanghai recruited Israeli artistic director Shai Baitel, who is working remotely, to support its “mission to act as a cultural bridge between China and the rest of the world” Photo: Yu Jieyu

Far from blowback, Baitel says his new post “was met with excitement from my friends and peers within the industry” and that “there is not that much of a difference between working for MAM Shanghai and my previous institutional work”. Embracing his mandate to foster “diverse cultural dialogues”, he says: “Art and culture have the ability to enrich and expand our perspectives—most people who work within the arts believe that is possible and celebrate opportunities that provide a space for this to happen.”

‘Bamboo ceiling’

But while Western institutions face a reckoning over discrimination and a lack of diversity at their upper levels, the stereotype of professional authority as white and male still holds sway in China. The central casting of foreign bosses in television shows and advertisements is reflected in a real-word workplace dynamic where older white male directors are assisted by deputies—always Asian and often female—handling day-to-day operations for far less pay or credit.

The administrator who spoke to us anonymously says that they worked with a foreign museum director on a salary of “Rmb150,000 [$23,200] a month plus rent, children’s schooling, family insurance”—double what he was making in Europe and ten times what senior local staff earned. An assistant director at the time made Rmb20,000 [$3,100] a month, they say. The stark imbalance means that “smart, talented people leave the industry early—they feel it is a waste of time”.

Nor are there many cases of Asian curators forging globetrotting careers outside the continent. That there is only a handful of high-profile exceptions—such as Hou Hanru, the artistic director of MaXXI in Rome, and Wu Hung, the University of Chicago professor—could be seen as evidence of the so-called “bamboo ceiling”, a term coined to describe the under-representation of people of Asian descent in Western senior leadership roles.

What can be done to support Chinese museum staffers hoping to rise through the ranks? The current flurry of partnerships between Chinese and international museums could actually advance the career prospects for homegrown talent, the administrator argues, by “training the teams, using an apprenticeship model”. Better recognition and pay for local assistant directors and emerging curators would help, countering the brain drain. So would more programmes giving Asian professionals international exposure, such as Tate’s adjunct curator posts dedicated to greater China, sponsored by the Hong Kong-based Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. “Museums need to see each other as comrades, not competitors,” they say.


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