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Despite Scandals and Slashed Funding, an Art Museum Perseveres in China

Chengdu Museum of Contemporary Art in Chengdu, Sichuan (all photos courtesy of the Chengdu Museum of Contemporary Art)
Chengdu Museum of Contemporary Art in Chengdu, Sichuan (all photos courtesy of the Chengdu Museum of Contemporary Art)

CHENGDU, China — In 2011, Ping Xing, then-chairman of Chengdu High-Tech Zone Investment Co. Ltd., spoke at the opening of the Chengdu Museum of Contemporary Art (Chengdu MoCA), a brand new museum being underwritten by his company. “The city of Chengdu is one of the most active centers for contemporary art in the country,” he said, “But while there are a great number of artists who create, live, and work here, Chengdu has always lacked a public art museum.” Because the investment company Ping Xing was chairing is a state-owned enterprise, the museum was, in a sense, a publicly funded contemporary art museum, something that remains rare in China. Only four years later, however, Chengdu MoCA had to radically reorient itself after Ping Xing and other prominent officials with connections to it were investigated for corruption.

The museum is located in the heart of Chengdu’s Tianfu Software Park, a state-sponsored special economic zone that has attracted domestic and international IT companies. Directed by star curator Lü Peng until 2014, Chengdu MoCA used its enormous 2,000-square-meter exhibition space to initiate a series of important exhibitions, such as Translated Concussion (2014), an exhibition of new media works from China. It also hosted international traveling shows such as 100 Vintage Prints, Charles Jin’s photography collection, and an exhibition of Picasso’s work organized in cooperation with Musée Picasso. During his tenure as museum director, Lü Peng worked for both the museum and the Chengdu Biennale, which was held every two years from 2001 to 2013. Another prominent figure who worked to establish both the Chengdu Biennale and Chengdu MoCA was local real estate magnate Deng Hong, whose other business ventures include constructing an enormous tourist villa in a national park and overseeing the completion of the world’s largest building. In the early 2010’s he was also planning construction of a new Chengdu Center for Contemporary Art designed by Zaha Hadid.

Yin Jiulong’s Design Exhibition (2012), installation view
Yin Jiulong’s Design Exhibition (2012), installation view
An aerial view of Chengdu MoCA
An aerial view of Chengdu MoCA

But in 2013, the city was shaken by a nationwide anti-corruption campaign that led to the removal of many high-placed officials in the province of Sichuan. Deng Hong was detained in February 2013 based on accusations of illegal land transfers, tax evasion, and loan fraud. Ping Xing was put under investigation in July 2013: In addition to being charged with receiving cash, shopping cards, and stock options, he was accused of receiving valuable oil paintings and works of calligraphy. Over the next several years, the repercussions of this political upheaval were felt throughout the Chengdu art scene. The planned Chengdu Center for Contemporary Art was canceled and the Chengdu Biennale was disbanded. Without confirming any direct connection, acting director of Chengdu MoCA Lan Qingwei said that in the past two years the museum has received a much smaller budget. “Since the beginning of 2015,” he told Hyperallergic, “we have been given no budget for exhibitions or events.”

At the opening of Chengdu MoCA in 2011
At the opening of Chengdu MoCA in 2011 (click to enlarge)

Following the changes in the operation of Chengdu MoCA, Lü Peng left the museum, and the remaining staff has worked to adapt their programming to the new fiscal constraints. In some cases, this has meant hosting exhibitions that can provide their own funding, like Little Emperors (2016), a solo show by artist Clemens Krauss that was supported in part by Austrian organizations. These exhibitions fill the museum’s sprawling halls, but they cannot compare with the vibrantly contemporary work that was shown before.

In other cases, Chengdu MoCA has partnered with companies that are based in the nearby tech park. Their first attempt at such a collaboration, The Story Behind Digital Art (2015), was widely criticized for being less an art exhibition and more a trade fair. One participating company, the online video game giant Perfect World, submitted a few illustrations of cartoon characters printed on cardstock.

Two months later, in September of last year, Chengdu MoCA held a similar exhibition that was more successful. For Castles in the Air, the museum partnered with 3D-printing company IMAKE and invited artists to use the technology in their work. The projects ranged from Cai Liming’s sculptural combinations of Chinese characters to designer Yin Jiulong’s sadly playful sculptures of wilted flowers. Acting director Lan Qingwei argued that Chengdu MoCA’s location in the software park has always pushed it toward new media works. Museum staff hope that in the future these tech companies will offer more support to the museum, and they are working to prove the crossover potential of contemporary art to both industry and the local government.

Castles in the Sky, 2015
‘Castles in the Air,’ installation view

At the same time, the museum has repurposed a gallery space on the second floor for projects by emerging artists. The first two exhibitions in this space were completed with limited budgets but provided a platform for the kind of work that is not often exhibited in Chengdu. In 2015, artist/scientist team Zhang Jin and Fei Guoxia exhibited works made with melamine, a chemical that poisoned milk supplies in 2008, and earlier this year, painter Yang Fangwei exhibited his social practice project Dao Liang Mou, 2016. Lan Qingwei said, “We want to provide a space for younger artists working with new media who might not have opportunities elsewhere.”

Currently there is a disconnect between Chengdu MoCA’s centrally located, officially recognized status and its diminished ability to implement large-scale exhibitions. Lan Qingwei said, “In terms of holding large exhibitions or organizing a biennale, that’s no longer something we can compete with other [institutions] on.” One Chengdu-based artist who asked to remain anonymous said the museum was having an identity crisis.

Lan Qingwei speaking at the opening of 'Translated Concussions,' 2014
Lan Qingwei speaking at the opening of ‘Translated Concussions,’ 2014

The challenges that Chengdu MoCA is facing highlight the precarious position of art museums in China. Though contemporary art spaces and institutions have proliferated in recent years, few are independent organizations with robust collections. In the absence of support from government and nonprofits, most of the leading arts organizations in the country have close ties to sponsoring companies, such as China Minsheng Banking Corporation in the case of Shanghai’s Minsheng Art Museum. Recent years have seen an increase in art museums sponsored by real estate developers, including the Times Museum in Guangdong and Chengdu’s A4 Contemporary Art Center. When asked about the situation at Chengdu MoCA, one curator told Hyperallergic anonymously, “Domestic art institutions not only need to continually deepen their professional standards, they must also constantly be thinking about new possibilities for funding activities.”

Some artists expressed their admiration for the work of Lan Qingwei and his staff, given the tremendous difficulties they must contend with. Zhou Bin, who recently held a solo exhibition at Chengdu MoCA, said that some of the museum’s vocal critics are overlooking the significant challenges it faces. “It’s easy to make snide remarks. What’s difficult is forwarding gradual change.” Still, it has been a major setback to the Chengdu art community for one of the largest arts organizations in the city to go through such a radical change. Lan Qingwei emphasized the lack of a dependable legal framework for art museums: “It shouldn’t matter to the institution who is in what government position. The institution goes on.”

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