Shanghai’s Tricky Museum Transformation
Source:Artnews Author:Barbara Pollack Date: 2014-03-19 Size:
The city’s five-year plan to become China’s cultural capital is fueling massive development in both public and privately owned museums. But can Shanghai provide the trained staff—and the art—to fill these new institutions?

The city’s five-year plan to become China’s cultural capital is fueling massive development in both public and privately owned museums. But can Shanghai provide the trained staff—and the art—to fill these new institutions?

Shanghai—China’s largest city, with an estimated population of 23 million plus an additional 8 million visitors annually—is in the process of transforming itself into China’s cultural capital. Ten years ago, when tourists interested in art came to Shanghai, their choices were limited to two museums: the Shanghai Museum, a 422,000-square-foot institution built in 1996 as a home for Chinese antiquities; and the Shanghai Art Museum, a much smaller facility housed in the clubhouse of a former race track, a colonial structure devoted to exhibitions of modern and contemporary Chinese art. Today, Shanghai tourists have a choice of no fewer than ten contemporary-art museums, most of them private ventures supported by individual investors.

According to the latest government statistics, China is building approximately 100 museums a year, an increase from fewer than 2,500 in 2001 to more than 3,500 a decade later, with 390 opening in 2011 alone. This museum-building boom parallels the creation of Chinese megacities, each wanting its share of cultural tourist draws.

Shanghai’s impulse to build so many museums is the direct result of a governmental five-year plan for the city to become an artistic center on par with London, Paris, and New York. With such government support—in the form of direct funding or real-estate tax advantages—doors have opened for these new projects, but major challenges remain. In the first place, China does not have a tax structure allowing for donations to nonprofit institutions, whether government-controlled or privately owned, and while there are funds for building construction, there are none for operating expenses. Furthermore, museums have limited ability to attract private donors or corporate sponsors, and they lack trained professionals, including curators, art handlers, collection managers, and research assistants. The only institution with a curatorial studies program that includes contemporary art is the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, but most of its graduates prefer to go to work for auction houses and galleries.

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