ARTNews looks at the building boom for museums in China, with up to 1,200 new ones slated to open around the country by 2010. Yet both existing and new museums struggle against a slew of institutional weaknesses, including a lack of infrastructure, poor training for museum personnel, little funding (which means artists are sometimes charged to exhibit their own works), and cultural censorship:
“Right now in China there is a very large demand for art museums,” confirms Li Lei, director of the Shanghai Art Museum, which hosts the Shanghai Biennale and numerous other exhibitions, such as the Armani retrospective in 2006 organized by the Guggenheim Museum. “For a long time, there was no access to art education for ordinary people, but with the rapid development of the economy, the people’s attention has turned to art and culture,” he explains. Indeed, it is easy to find crowds at many of China’s art museums, ranging from young professionals and art students to elementary-school groups and foreign tourists. But the flip side of this popularity is the lack of infrastructure for cultural activities in China: there is no legal framework for establishing a not-for-profit organization in mainland China, and there is no tax benefit for making donations to cultural institutions. Therefore, art museums—both government-sponsored and private—must continually invent ways to raise money, often resorting to methods that might be considered illegal or unethical in the United States.
“Actually, the public in China has no idea what a museum is or can be,” acknowledges Fan Di’an, director of NAMOC, which held a Magritte retrospective sponsored by the Brussels Fine Arts Center of Belgium last May and will host a Cai Guo- Qiang retrospective from the Guggenheim Museum in June. Fan Di’an is also head of a newly founded Chinese art-museums association that will soon enact guidelines for evaluating many of these fledgling institutions. “It is a booming time for museums, and as more and more local governments and private collectors open museums, the government will get a better idea about this issue.”