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US Museums Confront the Ai Weiwei Question

by Kyle Chayka on May 20, 2011

The Palace Museum in Beijing (image via maderon on panoramio.com)

Here’s the latest on detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Ai’s studio has been charged of and, according to the government, proven to have committed, tax evasion. On the US side, museums are debating whether or not cooperating with Chinese museums is hurting the case to free Ai Weiwei.

Tax Evasion Charges

Xinhua reports that Ai Weiwei’s FAKE studio evaded tax and intentionally destroyed accounting documents. US museums debate the ethics of working with Chinese organizations. Art Basel buys the Art HK fair, provoking some to call for a boycott.

China.org.cn cites a Xinua report that “A company under the control of artist Ai Weiwei was found to have evaded “a huge amount” of tax, the Beijing police authorities said on Friday.” Ai’s studio company, called Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., “was also found to have intentionally destroyed accounting documents, the police authorities told Xinhua, citing an initial investigation.”

This is the first news we’ve heard in terms of a concrete crime “committed” by Ai and his studio, though I’m very hesitant to believe that these charges are true. More likely, they’re made up of trumped up accusations and falsified proof by a government and police force who have previously used the same tactic to imprison dissident writers and academics.

Institutional Ethics

The Milwaukee Art Museum is currently hosting a loan exhibition and having a staff exchange with the Palace Museum in Beijing. At the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, art critic Mary Louise Schumacher writes on the conflicts and contradictions that plague museums working with China. The Milwaukee Art Museum will be hosting an enormous exhibition of Chinese artifacts from the Qianlong era in an exhibition to open soon, a unique project organized in conjunction with the Palace Museum. Schumacher asks if the museum should rethink its cooperation with the Beijing government in light of Ai’s continued arrest:

Should the museum join many of the world’s other cultural institutions in signing petitions and speaking publicly? Would China pull the show? And if they did, would MAM lose the exhibition fee, presumably in the millions? If MAM is mum, however, will it run the risk of the appearance of appeasement?

Milwaukee Art Museum (image via bc.edu)

In the article, an impressively diverse group of art worlders gathered by Schumacher comment on the situation. There’s no general agreement, with some saying that museums should take a stand (including Artinfo’s Ben Davis) and still others arguing that it’s not a museum’s place to get involved. I don’t think the planned show should be canceled, but I do agree with Schumacher’s note that there’s room in the museum’s event programming schedule for talk about Ai’s predicament, including panels with Chinese art world figures and other lectures. That’s where politics and critique should come in with a show that’s already been planned (and paid for) pre-arrest. The Palace Museum is not the enemy.

Schumacher is to be applauded for writing what is the most definitive look at the conflicts US museums face when thinking about their relationship with China and Chinese museums. The article speaks to the complexity of dealing with a country whose government seems intent on interfering with the art community, even while the Chinese art community has nothing to do with those political policies.

  • At Modern Art Notes, Tyler Green interviews Virginia Museum of Fine Arts director Alex Nyerges on the museum’s own collaboration and staff exchange with Beijing’s Palace Museum and questions the impact of Ai Weiwei’s arrest. The director says:

    On a practical level in terms of the staff, certainly Ai Weiwei’s arrest was a topic of conversation, but quite simply our partnership and relationship with the Palace Museum has nothing to do with the Ai Weiwei situation whatsoever.

    Probably the wrong answer! To flat out deny any relationship with Ai’s arrest is wrongheaded, but I still see nothing wrong with working with the Palace Museum, particularly on a staff exchange. This kind of interconnectedness will make things better, not worse.
  • Facebook commenters are in a tizzy over the reported purchasing of contemporary art fair Art HK by Art Basel. The “entire art world” is participating in Art HK despite Ai’s arrest, and commenters ask if gallerists should be boycotting the fair. I have to say, this is stupid. As a largely autonomous territory, Hong Kong has been the site of the strongest protesting of Ai’s arrest. Boycotting Art HK would just be a blow to Hong Kong’s own art scene.
  • In an interview today with Creative Time, we discovered that Ai Weiwei had planned to create a work for their upcoming Creative Time Tweets commissions of art projects on Twitter. Needless to say, the artist won’t be participating. More art institutions should be more vocal about the commissions and exhibitions Ai is now missing, as the New York City “Zodiac Heads” unveiling did so well.
  • In an interestingly similar case, the Metropolitan Museum has frozen museum loans to Russia as the country banned “all art loans to the U.S. following an American court’s ruling that Moscow must give back a disputed archive to Brooklyn’s Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement,” reports Artinfo. Should the US be freezing all museum loans to China because of Ai’s arrest?
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  • http://www.facebook.com/judyreywasserman Judy Rey Wasserman

    Thanks for this update, which I RTed on Twitter. 
    I have been attempting to Tweet one mention of any news about Ai Weiwei since his arrest. 
    If governments begin to believe that we will be quiet when they try to silence a fellow artist, more censorship will follow. Any artist who thinks that it cannot happen here, in the USA or any free country, does not have much of a grasp of history, including art history. 
    Although I love Anish Kapoor’s idea of a day without art, when all museums close in protest to Ai Weiwei’s arrest due to what seems to be trumped up charges, i clearly is unpractical. Asking museums to simply protest by even sending a letter to the State Department or placing a sign in the lobby, could work, but so far there just may be too much money to be made in China for many museum trustees to take any real action.
    Please keep these update coming!
    Judy Rey Wasserman
    On Twitter @@judyrey:disqus On Facebook Judy Rey Wasserman

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