BY Ingrid Chu in Opinion | 25 SEP 17
Featured in
Issue 6

The Big Build

The possibilities and pressures that have resulted from the boom in new museums in China and its neighbouring regions 

BY Ingrid Chu in Opinion | 25 SEP 17

Everyday is some day of note and 18 May this year was no exception. Designated International Museum Day, for anyone who didn’t know there were countless online images, messages, 120-character tag lines and requisite hashtags to remind you. Regardless of whether internet traffic directly affects the ebb and flow of visitor patterns, social media is now firmly established as one of the key strategies museums use to disseminate their exhibitions and collections. 

On International Museum Day, this translated to an inordinate number of exquisitely crafted historic vessels, paintings, furniture, carvings, works of calligraphy and textiles flashing relentlessly on screen alongside their contemporary counterparts. ‘Get closer to the intrigue,’ invited one tweet, before disclosing that what was ‘once the Forbidden City [is] now a world-famous art museum’.

The Twitter account in question, which belongs to Beijing’s Palace Museum, has announced much of late, including a Google Cultural Institute partnership on International Museum Day and, last December, plans to expand a new site in Hong Kong in the vicinity of the long-awaited M+ museum for visual culture. Set amongst concert halls, theatres and designated parkland, together these venues will comprise Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District. In promotional materials, the 10,000 m2 Hong Kong Palace Museum, designed by Rocco Design Architects Limited, is described as being for ‘the display and interpretation of artefacts’. Also, strikingly, it declares that it is not ‘a branch museum of the Palace Museum in Beijing’ but ‘the result of a unique collaborative arrangement between the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority and the Palace Museum, under which the latter’s exquisite collection can be loaned to the Museum on a long-term basis’. The announcement has proved confounding and was exacerbated by its timing, coming just ahead of the 20-year anniversary of the Hong Kong handover from Britain to China under its current – and some argue diminishing – Special Administrative Region status.

Shekou Design Museum, Shenzhen, 2017. Commissioned by China Merchants Property Development Co., Ltd., Shenzhen and Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Architecture and Visualization: Maki and Associates  

Of course, marketing a museum is not the same as creating an inviting, publicly accessible one. M+ has addressed this directly by engaging in public discussions, exhibitions, performances, screenings and learning programmes. In addition, the corresponding M+ Pavilion has been built near the future museum to showcase the institution’s growing collection and it has spearheaded the collateral events for Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale in recent years. All of this precedes the main attraction: a 60,000 square metre Herzog & de Meuron-designed, landscape-altering facility opening in 2019. Operating among broader international efforts to ‘decolonize’ the past by revisiting and revising art-historical narratives and modes of presentation, M+ aims to serve as a beacon for art of the region. As design writer and editor Clare Jacobson asks in her book New Museums in China (2013): ‘Who is to say that the museum model that Westerners know and love is the right model, or the only model?’

In contrast to other large-scale cultural sites planned for Hong Kong, news of the Palace Museum came without warning: a fait accompli that has generated confusion for the city’s citizens caught unawares. While the Old Bailey Galleries at Tai Kwun, which occupies a historic former police station, and MILL6, previously a textile factory, are actively engaged in public interaction, they, too, are part of an increasing number of museums that have sprung up across East Asia, Southeast Asia and the UAE at an unprecedented rate, over a relatively short period of time.

This frenzied museum building brings to mind the late 1990s, which saw another boom associated with landmark constructions such as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in 1997 and Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern in London in 2000. It could be said that China joined in on 13 July 2001, when the International Olympic Committee announced that Beijing would host the 2008 summer Olympics. Under the banner ‘New Beijing, Great Olympics’, much was promised, including 1,000 new museums by 2015.

While many new spaces were created, so, too, were a number of non-institutional hybrids, such as K11, a multi-dimensional entity boasting a Hong Kong flagship ‘Art Mall’, a sister site in Shanghai and 24 projects planned across nine cities from Shenyang to Wuhan. Spearheaded by Hong Kong businessman and philanthropist Adrian Cheng, the enterprise is noteworthy for the scale of its ambition alone: the larger plan aims to engender an ‘Artisanal Movement’ encouraging everyday encounters with art through three core principles: ‘Art, People and Nature’.

K11’s mandate, however direct, takes shape through an expansive programme of exhibitions, events, artist studios, international partnerships, an art newspaper and a host of other promotional vehicles. In short, it’s a mixed bag – but appropriate to K11’s generalist approach. More importantly, it’s a decisive move away from the reductive branding of ‘art as lifestyle’, considering instead a wider range of possibilities for access to art on a grand scale.

If forging new paths means taking heed of what came before, then this reveals how the narratives currently being activated in China (and elsewhere) have always existed. It also shows how these have been built on geographical terrains and historical timelines that do not adhere to Western, European or other de facto registers of the ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’. This, in turn, raises context-specific questions, such as: how does art participate in and reflect on historic trade routes and the contemporary global circulation of goods? Is art from these locations and their institutions playing catch-up on the international stage or rewriting the rules of the game? Is the race to build countless spaces a grand architectural game that promotes city pride over the works on display? Does the land development surrounding cultural initiatives serve real-estate and other business ventures? Clearly, there is much to glean about how realigning art of the region may shift the cultural paradigm for artists, their work and audiences alike.

Undoubtedly, museums play an important role in visualizing this process of art-historical shape-shifting. Since the Qing industrialist Zhang Jian (who died in 1926) collected both natural and cultural artefacts of Chinese origin in order to establish the Nantong Museum in 1905 – which is often referred to as the first institution of its kind in China – other museums have risen in all manner of sizes, shapes and areas of focus.

Constructions such as the Sifang Art Museum – completed in 2013 as part of a larger group of buildings at Sifang Art Park in Nanjing – take the concept of museums, or rather their designs, to the limit. Lu Jun, together with his son, the collector Lu Xun, commissioned more than 20 architects and artists to conceive and build a complex of functional exhibition spaces (both permanent and temporary) over the course of a decade. At around 9,000 m2, the Sifang Art Museum was designed by the American architect Steven Holl, who has conceived other contemporary art spaces, such as Kiasma in Helsinki, which opened in 1998. About Nanjing, Holl said: ‘This museum of architecture has become The Museum – the place of the muse of architecture. It need[s] no other exhibits in addition to itself as an object lesson in architecture, architecture for itself, architecture in itself.’

These structures, rife with potential, bridge site and situation in positing new models of museums. Nonetheless, they operate parallel to other cultural spaces across China that concentrate on doing just as much on the inside as out. In Beijing, the National Museum of China hosts the country’s official collection, while the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) – founded by the Belgian collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens in 2007  – considers itself an ‘international institution.’ UCCA provides a much-needed platform for female Chinese artists, such as Kan Xuan, to exhibit, as well as showcasing the work of international artists, like William Kentridge and Robert Rauschenberg, who have connections to the region. Similarly, Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum has recently staged exhibitions by artists including Felix Gonzalez-Torres, in addition to significant Chinese artists such as Song Dong. The Power Station of Art, established in 2012 as China’s first state-run contemporary art museum, is home to the Shanghai Biennale. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas designed the Times Museum in a residential building upon invitation by curator Hou Hanru for the 2005 Guangzhou Triennial and the independent non-profit OCAT uses its many ‘contemporary art terminal’ spaces across China as platforms to deliver a multifaceted programme running the gamut from exhibitions to research and exchange initiatives.

Is art from these locations and their institutions playing catch-upon the international stage or rewriting the rules of the game?

As for forays into Asia by museums further afield, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has collaborated with China Merchants Group and Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki’s studio to build what is touted as China’s first major design museum, which will open later this year in the Shekou district of Shenzhen. New York’s Asia Society has run local exhibitions and programmes since 2012 in their Hong Kong Center, a heritage site re-imagined by New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

As in most countries, museums in China serve both public and private interests, propagate discussions surrounding their authorial role, create possibilities for the collections they house as well as the exhibitions and programmes they generate, and raise questions about what artists and other cultural practitioners can express and reflect through their work. Given the number of yet-to-be-built spaces in Hong Kong, as well as the impact of hybrid and newer experimental initiatives still in development, it may be too soon to tell how this simultaneously dynamic and delicate intermix will unfold.

Main image: Sifang Art Museum, Pearl Spring, Nanjing, 2013. Architecture: Steven Holl; photograph: Iwan Baan

Ingrid Pui Yee Chu is a Hong Kong-based curator, writer and, with Savannah Gorton, co-founder and director of the non-profit commissioning organization Forever & Today, Inc.