2016 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Colby College

New Museum Culture in Contemporary Beijing

Mentors: Ankeney Weitz, Ellerton M. and Edith K. Jetté Professor of Art, and Mariola Alvarez, Visiting Assistant Professor of Art
Students: Wilder Davies, Ling Ding, Nellie Lavalle, Lynna Lei, A. C. Ling Maclean, and Shauna Yuan

Visiting the Shanghai Museum on our first day in China, June 1, 2016. From left: Shauna Yuan, Ling Maclean, Nellie LaValle, and Mariola Alvarez

Project Abstract

Over the past decade, thousands of new museums have been built in China. Our team of six students and two faculty members spent three exciting weeks in Beijing and Shanghai investigating the extraordinary growth in this sector of the cultural industry, as we sought to understand the role museums play in Chinese society and politics today. Although each student had his or her own focus of interest, all of us participated in every interview and our research was entirely collaborative. We found that there were many intersections between the individual topics of advertising, governmental regulation, education, architecture, foreign art exhibitions, and the art market, and these links were reported in our daily blog, New Museum Culture in Contemporary Beijing at web.colby.edu/beijing-museums.

We visited over twenty museums, toured over fifty exhibitions, and interviewed numerous museum curators, directors, staff members, and recent college graduates working in entry-level museum positions. Our respondents included, among others: Chen Lvsheng, the Deputy Director of the National Museum of China; Ji Pengcheng, Director of the Beijing World Art Museum; Zhang Gan, Vice Dean of the Tsinghua University Art School; and Wang Chenchun, Curator of the Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum. Our in-country partner, Yuan Zuo, Professor of Oil Painting at Tsinghua University and Director of the Inside Out Art Museum, arranged interviews with prominent artists like Zhu Jinshi, Wang Kelu, Lin Tianmiao, Wang Gongxin, Xiao Lu, and Feng Lianghong. Interviews with other participants in the Chinese artworld – independent curators, gallery owners, journalists, and art collectors – deepened our perspectives.

Taken together, these interviews yielded a complex picture of Chinese museum culture today. We discovered a variety of modalities for founding, administering, staffing, and promoting a museum. We immediately noted that many founders of private museums are real estate developers, and thus a major finding of our research is that the value of urban development is intrinsically linked to the value of the arts, and that this link is fostered by tax incentives offered by local and national governments. We also found a surprising interest among Beijing museums in displaying the work of international artists; upon deeper questioning, we discovered that foreign embassies, multi-national business enterprises, cash-strapped European museums, and foreign artists’ foundations were also major actors in the Chinese art scene.

An issue that frequently arose in our conversations with all participants in the Chinese artworld was the question of censorship. We received many differing responses, all of which contributed to a more nuanced view of the many complex variables in the decisions made by artists and the cultural institutions exhibiting their art. These variables included financial considerations, local government initiatives and regulations, social norms, and even international diplomacy. We found that the sweeping generalizations about the authority of the national government in Chinese cultural affairs, as often represented in the U.S. media, did not represent the full picture.

Our complete research findings will be reported at this website.

With Cruz Garcia at his experimental exhibition space, Intelligentsia Gallery, Beijing, June 8, 2016. From left: Nellie LaValle, Mariola Alvarez, Ling Ding, Cruz Garcia, Lynna Lei, Ling Maclean, Wilder Davies, and Shauna Yuan

Wilder Davies
As a result of the country’s current period of rapid economic growth, China’s museum boom has allowed for generous experimentation in the development, management and construction of arts institutions in the country. As an art history student and someone pursuing a career in art institutions, this research project provided an invaluable opportunity to understand how artists, galleries and museums are negotiating and utilizing this economic boon to cement Chinese artists and institutions as equal influencers in the U.S. and Eurocentric artworld, and to redefine how these institutions function and operate.

            Through a series of interviews with gallery owners, artists, teachers, curators, directors and students, we gained insight into a developing economic culture that is still in the process of reconfiguration. Travelling through Shanghai and Beijing, we focused on how strategies varied from institution to institution, paying close attention to the size, ownership, age, and objectives of different galleries and museums and the ways these factors informed choices in operations. From our experience I feel as though I have gained a better understanding of the nuanced complexities of the Chinese political system in relation to art, the legacy of the Cultural Revolution on artists, and how social media has restructured entirely museums’ engagement with the public. I take with me from this trip a continued interest in the artworld in China, and hope to engage with it again in the future.

At the National Museum of China with Chen Lusheng, Deputy Director, and members of the Inside Out Art Museum staff, June 14, 2016. From left: Shauna Yuan, Vanessa Zheng, Lynna Lei, Alice Wang, Nellie LaValle, Chen Lvsheng, Ling Maclean, Mariola Alvarez, Ling Ding, Ankeney Weitz, Wilder Davies

Ling Ding
My research trip in China was an incredible experience, which has provided me with a new perspective on the current issues in New Museum Culture in China. My topic specifically focused on the relationship of the outside architecture and inside space of the museum. Each museum has its own strategy to express its overall mission, which is often expressed through its architecture and use of installation space for exhibitions. A problem facing some of the museums is that they have impressive architecture, but they have trouble filling the large interior space, creating empty galleries. Some leading museums are finding ways to solve the problem, like inviting artists to do specific projects for the space or collaborating with foreign museums or embassies.

To better understand the current scene, we visited about twenty museums, participated in a variety of different art activities, and talked to people in the artworld. Besides many practical professional skills I learned during the project—interviewing, analyzing information, and blogging—as the only native speaker of Chinese in the group, I also enhanced my bilingual communication skills a lot, especially in the realm of professional artworld transactions. The greatest impact of the project is that it opened up my mind to contemporary art, providing new academic interests and more possibilities for my future art history studies and career choices.

Interviewing artists Wang Gongxin and Lin Tianmiao at their studio in Songzhuang, June 9, 2016.

Nellie Lavalle
My research looked at the relationship between the government and the creation and management of new museums in China. The most interesting thing I discovered was the difference in perception of oppression between the western and Chinese media, artists, and museum workers. While the Chinese government does censor artistic expression, the actors in the museum world generally make adjustments for the political environment. First and foremost, the unpredictability of the level of censorship limits artists’ and museums’ ability to operate. For example, in times of political stress the rules will be more heavily enforced, while in more relaxed times the museums would be able to take more liberties. Furthermore, Chinese artists tend to retreat from political messages and create more apolitical work in response to restrictions. In short, the political environment shapes the way that the museum culture has developed in China.

While in China, we relied heavily on our local partner, Mr. Yuan Zuo, artist, curator, and Associate Professor of painting at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing. Working with Yuan Zuo gave us access to an insider’s view of the museum world, allowing us to interview elite artists, curators, directors, etc. I gained considerable professional skills from this project. The most important impact of this experience was the development of professional contacts in China, which will be useful should I choose to return to Asia to work after graduation. Furthermore, the experience of conducting interviews will prove useful as I begin to undertake my own research. To complete this project, I will be editing and updating the blog we created to share the findings of our research to a broader audience.

The team, engrossed in studying a painting by Zhu Jinshi, at Yuan Museum, Beijing, June 14, 2016.

Lynna Lei
Given the rapid growth of new museums in China in the past decade, there is a high demand for museum personnel, but not necessarily educational programs in art history or museum studies to satisfy those demands. To my surprise, many museums, even bigger museums, have a small staff, no in-house curators or permanent collection. Traveling exhibitions and collaborations with independent curators, artist foundations or foreign embassies replace homegrown production. Many of these trends result from the heavy involvement of museum founders in the administration of the museum. The strong influence of the founder affects the level of professionalism, and as a result produces a great variety in quality across museums. Despite this period of trial and error, it is still an extremely exciting time to be working in museums because anything can happen, and the doors are open for anyone wanting to join.

In my research, I was particularly interested in museum education and audience reception in contemporary art museums, and wanted to explore how these museums also bring patriotic education outside the classroom. I found a general trend of internationally acclaimed artists in contemporary art exhibitions, and little focus on emerging Chinese artists. If historical museums tell a patriotic narrative, then contemporary art museums focused on educating citizens about the world outside China. In the latter case, the intended audiences are often children and their parents who want to encourage cultural learning—a more recent, but growing phenomenon.

To gain these insights, we interviewed members of the art community in Shanghai and Beijing. Meeting participants from different sectors allowed us to see China’s art scene from a broader perspective and as a larger network. We worked with the founder and director of Inside-Out Art Museum, who offered a unique experience to witness their working relationship and how it affected the administration of the museum. In addition to practicing my interview skills, I wrote a group proposal and research essay, spoke Chinese, and blogged. I gained a cross-cultural experience, which will help me integrate more successfully into diverse work environments. Learning about China’s museums and meeting many inspirational young professionals will help me work in museums in the future.

Visiting Feng Lianghong’s studio in Heiqiaocun, June 15, 2016. From left: Yuan Zuo, Shauna Yuan, Lynna Lei, Nellie LaValle, Wilder Davies, Ling Maclean, Ling Ding, Mariola Alvarez, Ankeney Weitz, and Feng Lianghong.

A.C. Ling MacLean
As a part of the New Museum Culture research team, I visited museums and galleries in Beijing and Shanghai and interviewed people from various parts of the artworld, including artists, critics, curators and directors. My individual focus was on the role of foreign art in Chinese museums. Over the course of the trip, I learned that foreign artwork plays a much bigger role in modern museum culture than I had previously thought; in fact, it has become one of the lynchpins of museums as they build China’s cultural capital and reputation worldwide.

Foreign art has become one of the best ways for museums to expose Chinese citizens to art, while also providing opportunities to show the world how China is cultivating a vibrant modern art scene. Over the course of our trip, we continually encountered museums that had arranged “cultural exchanges” between themselves and foreign embassies representing the exhibited artist’s country, or between museums and artist foundations, a benefit to both the sending institution and the receiving one. Although we saw a broad range of types of foreign art throughout our trip, Chinese museums are particularly striving to exhibit a certain type of foreign art: big name and older artists who are extremely well recognized internationally. This was especially clear in our stop at the Beijing World Art Museum, which boasted an entirely digital exhibit of Claude Monet’s works.

Over the course of our research, we had many opportunities to integrate ourselves into the museum culture through our various contacts, particularly our connection with the Inside-Out Art Museum in Beijing. Although simply visiting the museums and galleries was incredibly eye opening, the opportunity to interview various people involved in China’s art scene gave me a deeper level of understanding, and allowed me to learn about the development of exhibitions and the intentions behind them. Through our project, I also received training in many skills that will be extremely useful to my future, including blogging, web design, and interviewing skills.

Looking at art with Director Yuan Zuo in the storage facility of Inside Out Art Museum. June 18, 2016.

Shauna Yuan
Thanks to the support from the Freeman Foundation, my Colby research team and I had the opportunity to learn about the incredible growth of the contemporary art scene in Shanghai and Beijing from the point of view of a wide range of art professionals. One of the most meaningful aspects of this trip to me was the chance to connect with a variety of individuals, which allowed me to get a sense of not only the large scale art production in China but also the vibrancy and energy of the Chinese art scene. I learned from this multitude of perspectives that what is happening in one part of the professional spectrum might have little to do with what others are doing in the rest of the artworld. Witnessing a live Poly Art auction hosted at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beijing and then interviewing a local art gallery owner whose private apartment doubles as an exhibition space, we gained first-hand insight into the diversity of artistic realms in some of China’s major cities. Overall, my experience traveling and researching in Shanghai and Beijing taught me how to think more critically about the different vehicles or filters through which I obtain information, whether through the media or a private interview, whether from watching a performance or interacting directly with those working behind-the-scenes.

The work we accomplished this summer will prepare me well for a career in the artworld, where I hope to become involved in the development of contemporary Asian art in a global setting. With the help of this ASIANetwork-Freeman Foundation grant, and our in-country sponsor, the Inside-Out Art Museum, I was able to add depth and practical experience to my previous research on the influence of the market on contemporary Chinese art. I was also able to practice speaking in Mandarin about art issues and to connect with professionals in an array of art-related fields. If I decide to pursue an MA, I will build on this project because contemporary Chinese art is at a critical moment in its development right now. The subject of all of its key players and their motives and functions is especially pertinent to art historical research today. Thus, I am grateful for the opportunities that the ASIANetwork-Freeman Foundation grant has presented me with and I am excited to keep this discussion going with my peers, current work colleagues, and future classmates.

Touring the Tsinghua University Art Museum with staffer Xu Ke, while the museum is still under construction, June 17, 2016. From left: Shauna Yuan, Nellie LaValle, Lynna Lei, Ling Ding, Vanessa Zheng (of IOAM), and Xu Ke.