China Has Almost 4,000 Museums

The Red Brick Contemporary Art Museum (via en.cafa.com.cn)
The Red Brick Contemporary Art Museum (via en.cafa.com.cn)

We’ve been reading about the boom in Chinese museum building for years now, and this week The Economist joins the slew of Western outlets that have reported on the craze. The piece offers an update on the situation, including a look at the latest numbers:

According to the current five-year plan, China was to have 3,500 museums by 2015, a target it achieved three years early. Last year a record 451 new museums opened, pushing the total by the end of 2012 to 3,866, says An Laishun, vice-president of the China Museums Association.

That is a lot of museums. Then again, how do you define one? In China the word seems to refer to all types of spaces, from state-sponsored institutions to private collector-fueled projects … to the “many new museums … built as part of new property projects to help get them planning permission. Some may never have been intended for their stated purpose.”

And just because museums are being built doesn’t mean they’re being filled or operated. The author of the article visits the Red Brick Contemporary Art Museum in Beijing and compares the experience to “walking into an empty Olympic swimming pool.” The Power Station of Art, which opened to great fanfare with the Shanghai Biennale last year, has had trouble finding full-time curators and now sits “virtually empty much of the time.” The author’s interpreter comments, “We Chinese are very good at building hardware. Building software is another matter altogether.”

The museum craze is part of a Chinese government strategy to make culture the “spirit and soul of the nation” and a “pillar industry” (both phrases from the current five-year plan). And it may, given The Economist‘s assessment, prove to be a boom followed swiftly by a bust, à la the Chinese art and real estate markets of the last few years. In the meantime, though, I say good for them. Censorship issues aside — which I don’t mean to belittle, as they are many and serious — it’s better than the hostility culture gets here from certain segments of the government and the laughable amount of money that’s called a “budget” for the NEA.

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