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ART IN CHINA:
PUBLIC & PRIVATE

by Barbara Pollack
 
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Anyone wondering about how China has reportedly become the world's largest art market needs to look no further than the art activities of Minsheng Bank. While corporate sponsorship is a rarity in China, Minsheng is forging its own path, having spent $320 million on arts programming, museum development and acquisitions since 2007.

On a recent trip to Beijing, I sat down with Guo Xiaoyan, vice director of the new Minsheng Museum, slated to open in 2013 in Beijing, to find out more about Minsheng's cultural initiatives and its corporate collection. Though modest about her own accomplishments -- Guo began her career as a curator at the Guangdong Art Museum, then served as chief curator of the Ullens Center from its opening in 2007 to 2010 -- she spoke openly about Minsheng's ambitious plans.

Minsheng has already opened three museums in China: the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai, devoted to contemporary art, and in Shanghai, the Yanhuang Museum, focused on 20th-century Chinese masters, and a small, third museum of classical Chinese works. Now, the company has recently received the French pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, as a gift from the government of France, to be developed as another art museum.

Finally, in its most ambitious project to date, Minsheng is developing still another museum, this one a new 50,000-square-meter facility within former electronics factory, located just across the street from Beijing's most famous 798 art district.

According to Guo, Minsheng made the decision to develop a “corporate social responsibility program” focused on cultural activities in 2007, due in part to the fact that many of its directors were art lovers and collectors themselves. "They don't have a single leader in this initiative, it's a whole team," says Guo. "Economic development in China is going quite well, so it is about time to develop culture."

Minsheng has also been building a corporate art collection that numbers over 400 works of Chinese contemporary art. The new museum is to devote 5,000 square meters to displaying these works, which date back to 1976, the very beginning of the Chinese contemporary art scene following the Cultural Revolution. The collection features key works by artists such as Huang Yong Ping, Wang Guangyi, Zhang Peili and Liu Xiaodong, among many others.

According to Guo, the company has a team researching acquisitions of international art, especially art from developing markets such as South Africa and India. The museum is also commissioning new works and is currently in discussions with Anish Kapoor and Anselm Kiefer, who is keen to have a major show in China.

"Personally, I think whatever we are going to buy from the West has to have a connection to Chinese artists," says Guo. "Many important figures in the west have no relation to China, but we are looking at artists who have been influential here, such as Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys."

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On a much smaller scale, ex-Hammer Museum curator James Elaine, who picked up and moved to China in 2008, is generating quite a buzz on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter. He is expecting to open a nonprofit project space called Telescope in Caochangdi, a village near 798 that has recently become an art district with a dozen grand freestanding galleries, including Chambers Fine Art, Shanghart, Pekin Fine Arts and Galerie Urs Meile, all designed by Ai Weiwei. In contrast to his neighbors, Elaine has selected a modest storefront in the grungiest part of the neighborhood, offering one-artist shows in less than 1,000 square feet of gallery space.

"China has no philanthropy so all of the funding has come from the West," says Elaine, who notes that it is premature to reveal the name of the foundation that has underwritten the project -- "I haven't gotten the money yet" -- but he did say that the organization has provided enough support to keep the space open for a year. Elaine is not permitted to benefit from the grant, so he will be working without a salary.

"Telescope is a space where artists, curators, designers and writers can collaborate, learn, teach and produce projects apart from the commercial gallery and art marketplace," he explains. "Telescope will assist emerging artists and curators in different ways including career mentoring and introducing their work and projects abroad."

Though Elaine has not yet set an opening date, one of his first projects will be an exhibition by Company, the Beijing artists collective, which was featured in “In A Perfect World,” the show he organized at Meulensteen Gallery in Chelsea last year. Also involved is Josie Brown, who recently left her position as gallery director at Meulensteen to form a partnership with Kristi Jerigan, an American investment banker and philanthropist based in London. Their company, Beam, will underwrite the Company show. Elaine is optimistic that he can attract other funders as his space gains recognition.

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Another mover and shaker that I saw when I was in Beijing is Qiu Zhijie, the renowned Chinese artist who is nominated for a Hugo Boss award this year. Qiu is also chief curator of the upcoming Shanghai Biennial, slated to open Oct. 1, 2012. Qiu's curatorial team includes Hong Kong dealer and curator Johnson Chang, German-born media theorist Boris Groys, and Jens Hoffman, director of the Wattis Institute in San Francisco.

Plans for the Shanghai Biennial are rather overwhelming. First of all, the exhibition space is to be six times greater than it has been in the past, since the Shanghai Art Museum is moving its location in the old Jockey Club in People's Square to two mammoth buildings at the Shanghai Expo. The museum is being divided between 20th-century art, shown in the China Pavilion, and contemporary art, housed in the Power Station on the edge of the Huangpu River. The biennial is slated for the Power Station, a 200,000-square-foot facility, similar to but even larger than the Tate Modern.

Qiu Zhijie's plans are even grander. In addition to a theme exhibition, “Reactivation,” including over 80 artists, he is adding for the first time 35 city pavilions to the biennial, ranging from Auckland and Berlin to Bombay and Dubai, ten of which are in the exhibition hall and the rest in museums around Shanghai. (Yes, Shanghai plenty of museums to accommodate the spillover, including the Rockbund Museum and the new Zendai Himalayas Museum.) The Shanghai government, the main sponsor of the event, has allocated $3.5 million for the event, and a Swiss bank has added $800,000 to the budget. The city pavilions are being underwritten by the participating cities.

Qiu jokingly stated that by spreading the art works throughout the city of Shanghai, he hopes to defeat the censors, who will not have the wherewithal to visit all the sites. He is not yet ready to reveal the names of all the participating artists -- things come together at the last minute in China -- but he is proud to announce that Tino Sehgal is create a work for the show.


BARBARA POLLACK is author of The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic's Adventures in China (Timezone 8 Books).


 



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