Thursday, November 23, 2006

Museums vs. Chinese Art Market

The current state of contemporary museums in Shanghai is a complex web of funding and weaving of resources to attempt to provide a feasible museum to the public. With the emerging interest in the collection of Asian art, galleries and collectors have often times made quick assertions about the perceived value of contemporary Chinese art. In Shanghai alone, dozens of museums and galleries have emerged with the goal of not only advancing artistic ideas, but pushing, and literally selling these ideas to the rest of the world. In this new emerging world of Asian art questions begin to arise as to whether or not contemporary museums and galleries in Shanghai are taking the ethical steps necessary to provide the proper reciprocal benefits to the artistic community, as well as valuing art for its creativity, and not simply its capitalistic market worth.
Currently in China today, the government lacks a cohesive plan that would allow for non-profit organizations to feasibly exist. As a result, this situation makes the various museums and galleries come up with creative means to sustain and fund their artistic ventures. Unlike in the United States, where a system of donations allows a tax benefit and unlike in Europe, where the governments provide cultural budgets to stimulate the arts, a void exists in China to the extent that neither of these two forces are present. With the lack of government support and philanthropic tradition, Chinese galleries and museums have resorted to various means of raising capital, such as finding corporate sponsors, selling the art being displayed, providing professional services like graphic and concept design, and in some cases receiving donations from private individuals.
As a result, many galleries have been forced to find a business solution to allow for the continued existence of their organization. In the case of BizArt, which opened in 1996, an innovative solution had to be found. According to the director of BizArt, David Quadrio, “BizArt is a self-supported and not-for-profit art center that combines artistic and commercial pursuits with the ultimate goal of advancing contemporary art in Shanghai and beyond. The name ‘BizArt’ refers to our straddling the duel roles of business and art, and the ‘bizarre’ nature of our existence.” Although BizArt advocates its non-for-profit status in the pursuit of artistic creativity and development, the harsh reality is that BizArt needs to receive revenue to survive. This gray area, or as BizArt would say, “bizarre” nature of its existence, points to the conflicts that exist within its not-for-profit status and its need to create revenue through business endeavors such as graphic and concept design. Despite this juxtaposition of values, BizArt recognizes the growing imbalance of the cost of Chinese art in relation to funding allocated to artists and creative organizations. BizArt acknowledges this growing hyper-inflation of Chinese art, and strives to reinvest in the artistic community by the creation of Arthub. Arthub supports a process of creative contemporary art free of pressures resulting from the hyper-inflated contemporary Chinese art market.
Another contemporary art space in Shanghai, the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as the Shanghai MoCA, has experienced many of the effects of commercialization due to the lack of a philanthropic tradition. Opened in 2005 from the support of Samuel Kung, who contributed US$1.5 million, the museum quickly needed to find a way to bring in extra revenue that would allow for its continued existence. Endorsed by the Shanghai Municipal Government, the MoCA has become a notable tourist attraction in the heart of Shanghai. Despite its not-for-profit status, the MoCA contains a restaurant, as well as holds private functions. Thus the MoCA’s status of non-for-profit is tainted by its need to bring in income. A perfect example arises from personal experience when we visited the MoCA, the staff members were preparing to move a famous clay pot exhibit by Ai WeiWei to make space for a Ferrari that was to be shown at a private party later that evening. In addition, an AirFrance model for their new first class seating was blocking Miao Xiaochun’s “Last Judgment” exhibit, which already had poor visibility and viewing space. These two examples force us to question what is the priority of the MoCA - is it to make money, or display contemporary art? The MoCA claims to be the first not-for-profit contemporary art museum, but what line is to be drawn between where art ends and profit begins?
Likewise, the Zendai Museum of Contemporary Art brings to mind similar ethical questions. The Zendai is funded by the Zheng Da Property Group, which is the largest single property developer in Pudong. Although the Zendai is willing to take chances and exhibit edgy, more controversial pieces of art, the fact is that Zendai is entirely funded by a single organization, thereby creating a potential conflict of interests. In addition, the future plans are to create a center for contemporary art, called The Himalaya Center, which includes a five-star hotel, commercial space, and office space for creative businesses. The Zendai therefore represents the current commercialization of contemporary art, and the current hyper-inflation that threatens artistic creativity. Despite being free from having to look for outside contributors to fund its space, the relationship between Zendai and the parent corporation is in need of scrutiny. The fact remains that Zheng Da is a developer in Shanghai, and the Zendai may not be free to take truly creative measures in displaying art. It may instead be forced to display art that would appeal to the hyper-inflated art market and bring in tourism money to create a profit for the parent sponsor.
In our examination of these three major players in the Shanghai art world, there is a lack of definite boundaries between art for its intrinsic value, and art for its commercial value. There lacks a sanctity in the use of an art space such as the MoCA or Zendai, as compared to museums in America and Europe, which believe that art should be displayed for intellectual and cultural value. Understandably, the realm that these art spaces exist within is inextricably bound to the need to attain financial viability due to lack of proper societal contributions. However, these museums and galleries should strive to limit the influence of the commercial art market to maintain their integrity as public art spaces. As the Shanghai art scene develops and expands, one can only hope that the true spirit of art will be preserved from an ever growing capitalist influence.

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