Sculptures outside Today Art Museum
Long Museum Photos: CFP
The Beijing-based Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) has become the envy of private art museums in China. UCCA CEO Xue Mei gave the keynote speech at the China Private Museum Forum, held in the Pudong New Area of Shanghai, expanding on the museum's recent success for the more than 100 experts and insiders gathered on September 8.
The one-day forum - co-organized by Shanghai Pudong New Area Culture, Radio Broadcasting, Film and TV Administration and the newly-built Long Museum, which hosted the event - brought together top figures from prominent private art museums in China, such as UCCA and Today Art Museum in Beijing, Long Museum, Rockbund Art Museum and Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai, Times Museum and OCT Contemporary Art Terminal in Guangdong Province and Blueroof Art Gallery in Sichuan Province.
In her speech, Xue said that revenue of UCCA last year surpassed 36 million yuan ($5.88 million), a 24 percent increase from 2011. This year, revenue is expected to exceed 41 million yuan.
"So fellows, come on!" said Xue, passionately encouraging her peers in the private museum field to be hopeful about the future.
Since the 1990s, China's private museums have flourished in every part of the country, especially in such economically-developed areas as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong Province. Insiders from the private museum scene are convinced that private museums enjoy more freedom than State-owned ones.
Despite the advantages of private art museums and the recent successes of ones like UCCA, they are still faced with unfavorable policies and an environment that hinders development, hotly-discussed topics at the forum.
"I think what distinguishes the two parties can be divided into three aspects: first, human resources; second, management systems; and third, self-promotion," said Suchen Hsieh, former director of Today Art Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei, during a keynote speech.
According to Hsieh, private art museums are much freer to employ experts in the art scene, and their management system is notable for its vitality and high efficiency. They also enjoy more freedom in controlling their brand, including choosing their collections and programs and selling their art.
Many private art museums in China can't guarantee free admission like their State-owned counterparts, who receive subsidies. From 2008 to 2012, the national government offered in total roughly 11.2 billion yuan subsidies to admission-free State-owned museums and memorial halls.
Government-sponsored incentives for exhibitions, academic research and public education projects available to the two different parties also seem uneven.
From 2010 to 2012, the government spent 16.5 million yuan to support in total 112 projects of art museums in China, and roughly 15 percent of the projects were from private ones, according to a report written by Zhu Di, deputy director general of Department of Arts of China's Ministry of Culture.
While receiving 85 percent of governmental project funding, State-owned museums make up closer to two-thirds of the total art museums in China: 265 out of 400 in 2012. Thus most private art museums have to rely heavily on the economic support from their donors to survive.
About 70 percent of the existent private art museums in China are backed by the real estate business.
"The excessive dependence on a single funding [source] is likely to result in the fluctuation of investments directly influencing the operations of the museums, and art museums will cater more and more to the personal interests of the investors," said Hsieh, who, along with many other insiders in the field, has called for more supportive policies from the government.
In the meantime, private art museums are confronted with some problems that challenge the State-owned venues as well. For instance, public support for art museums is still relatively low compared with developed countries, and the professional level of the staff needs improvement.
According to Zhu, there are 2,725 staff members at State-owned art museums; 1,497 of them are of professional backgrounds and 399 are senior professionals, but who usually work for a small number of big venues.
Situations in private venues are also worrying. Li Lei, deputy director of State-owned China Art Museum in Shanghai, noted at the forum that "although some private museums with abundant funds are capable of inviting experts with international backgrounds to work for them, there is a shortage of professionals … and frequent turnover of the staff still hinders the long-term development of private museums."
Faced with so many problems, what should private art museums do to improve? Is there a successful and mature model for them to learn from?
No one-size-fits-all solution
Zhang Zikang, deputy director of the Culture Department in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and former curator of Today Art Museum, said that there is no single answer to these questions.
In the current situation in China, it is impossible to establish one development model for different art museums. Each museum faces a unique set of issues and each has different donor-museum relationships that must be sustained.
Zhang's opinion was echoed by Philip Dodd, former director of Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and founder of Made in China, an agency that develops international cultural projects. Dodd introduced three development models for foreign private art museums at the forum: The entrepreneur model represented by the Saatchi Gallery in London that relies on sales of its collection; the education model represented by Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Foundation in Italy, which is devoted to education for not only artists but also the wider public; and the regeneration model represented by Rubell Family Collection's projects in Miami and Washington DC, where they rejuvenate decaying communities with art museums.
Dodd also noted what really mattered to the museums, both State-owned and private, was to think about how to generate a greater demand for them among the public.
Feasible measures recommended by the insiders at the forum also included seeking more support from the government, setting up foundations for private art museums, applying new media technology in exhibitions to attract younger generations, reinforcing professional training for museum staff and establishing platforms, both online and offline, to enable better communication between different museums.