Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Museum Review

As we utter the word “Shanghai,” images of 88 story glass towers penetrating the hazy gray sky and stretching shadows across many bustling streets filled with rushing cars and shuffling pedestrians flash in our minds. Or perhaps it is the dazzling gold lights on the colonial Bund constructions fusing with the sparkling rainbow brilliance of the Pearl Tower in the Huangpu River to radiate an entrancing symphony of colors.

If we shift our attention away from the surreal beauty of Shanghai’s modern architecture towards the developing modern art community, we can proudly affirm that we bear witness to the growth of contemporary Chinese art scene in Shanghai. Since the turning of the millennium, an intense passion and desire for modern Chinese art spread across Shanghai. Spanning the city, reaching from corner to corner, museums, galleries, and exhibitions increasingly become an essential evidence of Shanghai’s progression into modernity. Even though the increase in art institutions justifies Shanghai’s success and promise of further growth—to more than 300 art museums—current museums still face various problems that challenge their aesthetics, authenticity, and subsistence.

Money. Like any institution or individual in a modern society, museums also require financing to maintain their establishment. Museums in Shanghai have various methods to acquire financial support to continue museum operation. Through our inquiry with some of the directors and curators of museums in Shanghai they informed us that they gather funding through donations and patronage. For nonprofit museums such as the Shanghai MOMA and MOCA—both conveniently and fittingly located in People’s Park—in order for them to finance exhibitions they seek funding through donations. There are often individuals and groups that willingly finance exhibitions in order to exhibit contemporary Chinese art to a wider domestic and foreign audience. With patronage and support, nonprofit museums in Shanghai such as MOMA and MOCA can then allocate resources to invite artists and host exhibitions. However, when budgets are tight, these museums often face pressures and the unease of not being able to host an exhibition. Ironically, the Shanghai government proposes adamantly for Shanghai to establish a high number of museums to portray the city as a modern Chinese equivalent of developed Western cities such as New York and Paris but does not support Shanghai museums with sufficient funding. With inadequate government funding and weak government sponsorship, nonprofit museums often struggle to successfully open an exhibit through sheer determination. On the bright side, nonprofit museums have gradually developed a larger audience of both foreign and Chinese backgrounds even with lethargic government support. Private museums such as Zendai in Pudong face similar concerns. However, because of Zendai and other private museums’ privately owned nature, they have more flexibility and deeper financial resources than nonprofit museums. For privately owned museums such as Zendai, they may distribute earnings from exhibited work into construction and preparation for future exhibitions. A basic system to recycle appropriated funds is the foundation for privately owned museum operation.

Museum locations in Shanghai formulate an intricate part of the city’s restructuring to correspond with international standards of a modern developed city. As with any modern city, tourists are always attracted to alluring landmarks and sites. Shanghai museums—such as MOMA, MOCA and Zendai—are all located in accessible and tourist-friendly locations. For example, the MOMA and MOCA are both located in People’s Park. People’s Park is the central hub of Shanghai that links the busy subway lines 1 and 2 together. Along either line, an array of tourist sites awaits visitors; as the centrally located People’s Park, the flux of tourists—local and foreign—provide museums with a steady financial income. Museum sites not only act as tourist attractions, they also integrate Shanghai into a structurally modern city. As the MOMA and MOCA are constructed in People’s Park to exude serenity and culture in the modern city, Zendai in Pudong reflects economic success and improved living standards. Part of the Zendai Shopping Plaza in Pudong, Zendai museum of modern art is conveniently and thoughtfully located near boutique upscale restaurants and the large Carrefour mall. Whereas MOMA and MOCA illustrate intellectual development and aesthetic appreciation, Zendai portrays aesthetic accentuation within economic prosperity. Both types confirm Shanghai as a representative modern Chinese city with characteristic Chinese culture complimenting globalization.

When we visit museums as observers we wish to discover or understand emotions and intellect hidden from our daily routines. That is why museums and the art work they exhibit should be aesthetic or creative. However, as China has only recently begun to develop art in a continuous and contemporary context, many of the artworks exhibited are experimental. Similarly, museums in Shanghai are also in a trial stage to establish their existence in the modernizing city. From a present perspective, the effort of museums to host exhibits in short intervals and the city government’s oath to construct hundreds of museums both seem like exaggerated efforts to portray Shanghai as a rapidly modernizing city. However, I believe that this extravagant endeavor is a phase for Shanghai to find its own identity in the artistic world and in the global community. Museums in Shanghai are coursing through a necessary series of events and activities to find and evolve their presence as an integral part of the artistic community and also as a part of the city. By first establishing museums in easily accessible and widely visited areas, their presence would slowly but surely fuse with the city and the populace. And through these museums, art in China—whether it is contemporary or classical art—would root itself in the population and mature.

Even though museums and the art scene in Shanghai are evolving like the city, there are still obstacles and flaws that need to be overcome before museums will be able to fully embrace art. Government censorship and control still has a tight hold on contemporary Chinese art. Explicit or politically sensitive material or art would often and swiftly be censored by the government, preventing complete and open growth for the museum and art. A select audience also prevents museums from developing fully. As the current museum audience in Shanghai is erudite local intellectuals, young white collars, or Western influenced individuals, museums and their respective art have not reached the masses. This prevents museums from branching out and finding their identity. Hopefully with the gradual relaxing of government censorship on art and an increase and expansion of audience, museums in Shanghai would be able to flourish and join Shanghai with the modern world.

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