In China, Private Art Museums Face Uphill Battle

In China, Private Art Museums Face Uphill Battle
With the recent explosion of the Chinese art market and the proliferation of new commercial galleries around China, it may come as a surprise to some that the country’s governing laws do not in fact engender a welcoming environment for art institutions. Observers often forget that this is still a country where culture and art are strictly controlled by the government; most institutions are state run, and maintaining them is incredibly difficult, as programming is regularly complicated by restrictions on content (which generally affect material deemed pornographic or politically insensitive) and funding for culture is scarce. The result is a dearth of quality museums.

For the nation’s growing ranks of private institutions, which are not exempt from government restrictions on content, the task is perhaps even more difficult, because arts patronage is an entirely new concept in China and has yet to spread to the general public. Museum benefactors are difficult to come by, leading these institutions to turn to corporate sponsorships, which impose their own restrictions on what is shown. Two new private museums, one opening in Beijing and one in Hong Kong, highlight the struggles that cultural institutions face and the creative solutions that they must come up with in order to survive.

In Beijing, the Moon River Museum of Contemporary Art has followed a path laid by other private institutions. The museum is a part of a larger luxury lifestyle group started by a private enterprise, the Beijing Dongrun Investment Group, which runs the Moon River brand hotels, golf course, and resorts. Located in one of the many cultural zones now scattered throughout the capital city, the museum is supported entirely by the Moon River developments, including the Maison des Arts, an “art hotel” that acts as a kind of consulting body that sells and transports art and provides private tours of the Beijing art scene to registered members. This profit-seeking model has also been used in Shanghai by the Zendai Museum of Modern Art, which was founded and is funded by the developer Dai Zhitongs Zheng Da Property Group and will be joined in 2009 by the Himalaya Project, another art hotel.

Originally built to be an indoor tennis facility, the massive 100,000-square-foot Moon River MoCA space will be a showcase for regional and international art and a platform for pan-Asian art, and will occasionally host fashion and design shows. There will also be an emphasis on educational programming and research, an initiative launched by founding director Victoria Lu, who has promoted arts education throughout her career and who stepped down as artistic director of MoCA Shanghai in 2007 after clashing with the financially strapped museum’s director over artistic programming. Though Moon River MoCA is scheduled to officially open this fall with the annual Asian Arts Festival, the museum has begun programming with a sculpture festival, which will be an annual event, currently featuring works by Yue Minjun, Zhan Wang, and Yuan Xinggang.

The story of MOCA China: Museums of Contemporary Art shows another creative approach to the difficult process of founding a museum in China. Three years ago, the nonprofit educational foundation tried to open a space in Beijing but failed not only to meet the government’s stringent requirements for establishing a cultural organization but also to register as a nonprofit NGO, which in China is all but impossible. Since MOCA intends to remain a non-profit organization, they declined to register as a commercial entity, which left them with only one solution: to move their base of operations to Hong Kong, where the laws pertaining to cultural organizations are more welcoming than on the mainland. Jeffrey du Vallier d’Aragon Aranita, executive director of MOCA China, explains: “Our intention at that time, as it is today, is to help facilitate museum-to-museum exchanges of work under International Council of Museums (ICOM) protocols. To do anything less would be to maintain the status quo of art spaces turning to commercial sales to finance their operations and programming. To get around such restrictions, some organizations like BizArt in Shanghai have set up Hong Kong-registered foundations in order to channel donations from Hong Kong and overseas into China.”

MOCA China succeeded in registering as a nonprofit in Hong Kong in January 2007 and began organizing itself as the hub of a network of museums (in China and around Asia) that would share resources such as technology, staff training, and exhibitions and promote public understanding of art. It will soon open Hong Kong’s first contemporary art museum in a small, 750-square-foot space in a hip designer mall, Delay No Mall (developed by the G.O.D. brand) in Causeway Bay, one of the busiest commercial areas in Hong Kong. The site was chosen for its foot traffic and central location, which stands in stark contrast to Moon River MoCA’s, in the sixth ring road of Beijing and out of reach of most public transportation. Like the Moon River museum, though, programming at the MOCA China will have a regional focus.

Setting is key: MOCA China’s location in a mall and Moon River MoCA’s in a luxury residential and hotel complex will hopefully provide the museums with the sustainable business models that have thus far eluded other private institutions in China. With both museums set to open later in the year, it remains to be seen how this relationship between private institution and commercial entity plays out.