What’s behind China’s spate of museum closures and downsizings?

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The Guangdong Times Museum in Guangzhou fired the first salvo: in August 2022, the institution, which is backed by a property company, announced the cessation of its exhibition programme. The museum, which opened in the comparably optimistic climes of 2003, is one of the most influential, academic and experimental independent institutions on the Chinese mainland. But, in recent years, it has been forced to operate in an increasingly hostile environment. Its loss, nevertheless, has shaken a Chinese art community already reeling from pandemic restrictions.

Other shocks soon followed: the OCAT chain of property-backed institutions in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and Shenzhen abruptly closed in 2022, Yuz Museum relocated this summer from its enormous converted airplane hangar in Shanghai’s West Bund to a much smaller facility in a remote suburb, and the Shanghai Centre of Photography (SCoP) will close in November after eight years due to the retirement of its founder, the photojournalist Liu Heung Shing. In August, Shanghai’s Long Museum announced a Sotheby’s Hong Kong autumn sale of almost 40 works from its collection, with a value estimated to be between $95.9m-$135.5m. A sale of further works is planned with Sotheby’s New York.

“It does feel like a boom-and-bust process, which is a reflection of the larger economic situation,” says Colin Chinnery, an artist and curator who this year co-founded Beijing’s Sound Art Museum. “Most private art institutions don’t have a solid financial model, especially if they rely on a parent company to pay their bills. The current model seems to be based on the ‘seven fat years’ premise, without considering the lean years that inevitably follow.”

China’s museums face an increasingly chaotic censorship regime as well as the fallout from zero Covid policies, a global downturn and a collapsing property market. The country’s reopening early this year failed to mitigate the damage done by long lockdowns. “Covid caused economic havoc in 2022, which led to a lot of financial stress,” Chinnery says. “The links of the economic chain seem to be broken, which has brought a lot of economic movement to a halt. You can’t move if you don’t have cash to make things happen.”

In the 2010s, China built new museums with a frenzy rivalled only by its urban construction programme. According to the China Museums Association, 1,563 new museums opened between 2009 and 2014. These figures are likely misleading, commentators say: only a fraction of those listed are recognisable as art museums by any definition, and most of those are public institutions backed by national, provincial, municipal or district governments. China, though, was able to boast up to 100 noteworthy art museums by 2020, each launched by private enterprises, primarily in the property industry, or by individual collectors.

Property crash and political upheaval

But the pace of museum investment slowed well before 2020, and some attrition, like the 2019 closure of Redtory Museum of Contemporary Art in Guangzhou, was due to redevelopment. Then came China’s long-anticipated property crash, starting with the 2021 insolvency of the mega developer Evergrande, which eviscerated the life savings of customers who had invested in never-completed constructions. Evergrande’s share price plummeted this August, an event that coincided with the collapse of another industry giant, Country Garden.

Political upheaval is also taking a toll. Censorship is notoriously difficult to document in China, due to fears of repercussions, but, anecdotally, it has been inching up since 2012 and tightened in particular during the Covid years. Unconfirmed tales are whispered over glasses of wine at openings, suggesting that the old adage of simply avoiding the “three Ts” of Tiananmen, Taiwan and Tibet—plus sex—no longer holds true. Material rumoured to have crossed the blurred lines now includes even the art market darlings of 1990s Political pop, as well as references to the Belt and Road Initiative, Sino-American relations, the Second World War or even title mistranslations deemed unpatriotic. Private museums have purportedly been instructed to display more pro-government and patriotic shows around anniversaries like the October National Day.

“Now there is no clear red line,” says a former associate director at several private museums, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The mechanism has changed; before, you apply and you are or aren’t approved, officials will say this may not be appropriate, or will tell you to be careful about a certain aspect of the exhibition. Now censorship is based on reports by anyone who comes in and is uncomfortable with anything. It is very tricky.” In June 2021, a public outcry about Song Ta’s 2013 video Uglier and Uglier, ranking school girls, closed OCAT Shanghai for months. In 2022, at UCCA in Beijing, a visitor complaint got Li Songsong’s painting of a Japanese kamikaze jet removed.

Nevertheless, some museums report that room for negotiating with local censor bureaux remains more open than it seems from the outside. At Beijing’s Sound Art Museum, censorship is “not such an issue for us”, Chinnery says, with a museological, knowledge-based permanent exhibition. “Our contemporary shows are more abstract than visual art. Things have certainly become tighter in recent years, but it changes all the time.”

Even before the bust, short-term profit motives have proved to be the most limiting form of self-censorship. Nikita Cai, the chief curator of Guangdong Times Museum, who has remained with the now-downsized project, highlights the popularisation of solo shows and imported package exhibitions. “Wherever you see this model of less curated, mainly painting exhibitions, it is a sign of a market turning more conservative,” she says. “China has another model of exhibition, of imported package exhibitions without any local conversation or mediation. It’s dominant now.” She describes a loop where “people think imported art is good art, museums think this is the kind of exhibition visitors are willing to pay for, what they think is the Western canon. It’s more welcome and digestible, and with the opinions and histories already written it is easy to translate without any challenges”.

The cessation of the exhibition programme at the influential Guangdong Times Museum in Guangzhou was the start of a series of museum closures

Courtesy Guangdong Times Museum

“Never independent entities”

As in Western museums, the need for money reigns supreme. “Behind those two models is income, a certain thinking of art as a potential investment and speculation,” Cai says. “It is completely taking over.” She has observed this trend for the past five years, escalating during Covid as art became more popular as an investment vehicle.

“Private museums are never independent entities,” says the anonymous former director. These museums often have licences tied to a parent company that guarantees funding of around $275,000 a year. “The regulation defines it as a parasite, because it has to have someone feeding it every year,” the former director says. Some museums set up as holding groups, with sub-companies for things like education and gift shops, but end up with “the logic of commercial companies” focused on profits to the expense of the institution’s original mission and vision, they say. Those with deeper pockets think little else is needed in terms of staffing or strategy. “These larger institutions think they can compete with Tate, the Met or MoMA with just an out-of-the-blue plan and some money,” they say. A few of the museums are notorious, locally, for ‘flipping’ works to private collectors. While these are outliers, most Chinese museums welcome gallery-funded exhibitions and auction house partnerships and often turn a blind eye to private sales of works on show in an exhibition, often on site. “Meanwhile curated, academic, professional shows get increasingly squeezed out,” the former director says.

Private museums do get some state support, sometimes substantial, but it tends to flow to the flashier institutions that need it least. Cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen have introduced new legal categories for fine art exhibition spaces, legalising less conventional and dual-use projects, “like exhibitions in airports, or wine bars”, the former director says. “It is an attempt to offer more support for these kind of spaces”—and, invariably, more control.

The Beijing Municipal Government has started offering a special “Category Museum” status to projects like the Sound Art Museum, Chinnery says, “which isn’t quite the same as full museum status, but it does mean we are part of a system of institutions recognised by the government”. The status allows the museum to collaborate with state environmental federations to record audio footage, for example, in national parks, or to conduct research in hospitals or universities. “We need official status to work with these professional bodies,” he says.

Despite the losses of gems like the Times Museum and SCoP, most leading boom-era private museums are plodding away through these lean years, including the Ming Contemporary Art Museum and the HOW Art Museum in Shanghai, and UCCA and M WOODS in Beijing (with branches in other locations), as well as public institutions like Shanghai’s Power Station of Art and the Museum of Art Pudong. The private Shanghai venue Rockbund Art Museum, under new leadership from Liu Yingjiu and X Zhu-Nowell, has rebounded this year from a renovation closure with a series of bold solo shows by emerging queer Asian women such as Tosh Basco and Evelyn Taocheng Wang. Projects such as the Start Museum in Shanghai and the TAG Art Museum in Qingdao launched recently after long delays, while the photography institution Fotografiska will open a Shanghai branch later this year. The anonymous former director believes a new model of smaller, more specialised, grassroots entities will emerge.

“The 2008 financial crisis was a good thing for the Chinese art world,” Chinnery says. “It got rid of the investing froth poisoning the situation and cleared the way for a new situation to emerge.” Something similar is now happening, he says. “I hope this will force institutions to think of new financial models, and we can create a new art ecosystem.”

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