Can MoCA Shanghai Save Itself?

Can MoCA Shanghai Save Itself?
The Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art is attempting to emerge from its disappointing beginnings, and a particularly difficult year in 2007, with a refurbished space, enhanced programs, and, hopefully, additional funding. But the changes are not just efforts to improve a museum; they’re efforts to restore faith in a lagging local art scene.

Expectations were high for the MoCA Shanghai when it opened its doors in the fall of 2005, on the heels of the Zendai Museum of Modern Art. Both privately funded endeavors were heralded as groundbreaking venues for contemporary art in a city where staid, government-run institutions such as the Doland Museum (the Shanghai Duolun Museum of Modern Art) and the Shanghai Art Museum dominate. But more than two years later, these promises remain largely unfulfilled.

The Zendai seems distracted by its Himalaya Hotels project, which incorporates exhibition space into a hotel and is set to open in 2009; the museum’s programming has been uneven and poorly marketed. Meanwhile, MoCA saw two young curators and art director Victoria Lu, whom many saw as the de facto face of the museum, depart in 2007. The institution has always struggled with budget problems, resulting in some very commercial choices for exhibitions (the next show is on Ferragamo). There was never enough space to hold a real collection, due to an oversight on the part of the museum’s inexperienced founder, and efforts to increase membership never created solid results.

In response to these difficulties, MoCA is halving it top-floor restaurant, which has been criticized as having a domineering presence in the museum, and relocating it to the back of the building. In its place will be the Art Lab, which will be home to the semi-permanent "Artificial Nature" project. The endeavor, which museum representative Diana Freundl calls a “living exhibition,” will host installations and have a small stage for performances and lectures. Artists such as Michael Lin and Ai Weiwei and photographer Yang Yongliang have been invited to contribute pieces that will remain on display for most of the year, alongside rotating works by top international contemporary artists. “When we launch the new space, we will also take a more active role in organizing special events associated with the exhibitions such as artist talks and lectures,” Freundl says. Such plans are ambitious, especially for a museum that has struggled to secure sufficient funding for regular exhibitions. But MoCA hopes to expand by reaching out to various foreign cultural groups like the Goethe Institute and the British Consulate, a move that has saved many a Shanghai institution in the past.

The problems faced by MoCA, Zendai, and other museums in China, and Shanghai in particular, point to a larger issue: how the Chinese public perceives art institutions. The country has no tradition of private arts patronage. Unlike Western institutions, Chinese museums face a brick wall when trying to change local perceptions and convince the few Chinese collectors to help with funding. The government runs most museums, ineffectively, with inexperienced staff, and even independent institutions have to answer to the authorities. Private or public, museums are essentially exhibition halls, renting out space to anyone willing to pay, with little focus on institutional mission or programming (or lack thereof). There is also little emphasis on curating or exhibition design.

Take the example of the Doland. As mainland China's first government-run institution dedicated to contemporary art, it was once seen by locals as a groundbreaking institution, but over time it has succumbed to budget problems and government interference. Instead of giving the Doland a degree of autonomy, local authorities decided to exercise complete control of the museum and slash the budget and programming, changes that resulted in the departure of several departments, including the curatorial department.

While the new plans for MoCA provide some hope for the health of museums in Shanghai, it remains to be seen whether they will be enough to save this young institution. As a private venture, MoCA seems, so far, immune to the powers that be, but the current cultural atmosphere still has an unwelcoming air.