Parallels
1:58 pm
Tue May 21, 2013

China Builds Museums ... But Will The Visitors Come?

Originally published on Tue May 21, 2013 5:43 pm

Shanghai did something last fall that few other cities on the planet could have even considered. It opened two massive art museums right across the river from one another on the same day.

The grand openings put an exclamation point on China's staggering museum building boom. In recent years, about 100 museums have opened annually here, peaking at nearly 400 in 2011, according to the Chinese Society of Museums.

The frenzied construction of cultural infrastructure follows earlier building binges involving roads and bridges. But it's harder to manage a museum than a highway. For one thing, you need to fill museums with worthwhile exhibits and visitors.

At more than 600,000 square feet of exhibition space, the China Art Palace is about the size of New York's Museum of Modern Art. It's housed in the 2010 Shanghai World Expo's former China pavilion, which resembles an ancient Chinese roof support — or an upside-down red pyramid, depending on your perspective.

The top attraction is an animated version of an ancient Chinese scroll, "Along the River During Qingming Festival," which depicts ordinary life in a Chinese city during the Song dynasty (960-1279) more than eight centuries ago.

The scroll, which debuted during the World Expo, is about two stories high and more than a football field long. It literally comes to life, with figures strolling across an arched bridge or talking to each other as they push a barge out into the current.

"I think it's really beautiful," says Xu Qinhua, a 62-year-old retired teacher. "When I was young, my teacher told me I should see the original, but I never had the opportunity."

Building A Cultural Hub

The China Art Palace, which is free to the public, also provides access to foreign art most people here would otherwise never get to see. Earlier this year, the museum presented an exhibition of 19th century French naturalist masterpieces from the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

"I am here mainly to see the techniques," says Lin Weipeng, who is a painter in coastal Fujian province and has tried to copy some of the French masterworks on his own.

Lin, who wears a knockoff down jacket emblazoned with "Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club," is holding his 9-year-old daughter, Mowei, in his arms.

"She can't really understand these paintings," he says. "But I just want to give her some feeling for it. If she doesn't get to go to France, this is probably her only chance to see the original work."

All of this is part of the Shanghai government's master plan to turn this mega-city into a cultural capital and magnet for global talent. A relatively sleepy metropolis as recently as the 1990s, Shanghai has made a lot of progress, developing a vibrant restaurant scene and dynamic nightlife. But the city is still primarily known in China for business and conspicuous consumption.

Teng Junjie, artistic director of the city's Administration of Culture, Radio, Film and TV, likens Shanghai's ambitions to other cosmopolitan cities in the West.

"New York City and Paris are financial centers. They are also indisputably cultural centers of the world," says Teng. "Shanghai is now in that process but hasn't yet reached that level."

Obscurity, Literal And Figurative

A short ferry ride across the Huangpu River is the city's other new museum, the Power Station of Art. It features contemporary work and is housed in a converted power plant with a smokestack that is nearly as tall as the Washington Monument and doubles as a giant thermometer that lights up at night. Lying along the river, the Power Station most closely resembles London's Tate Modern.

A major Andy Warhol exhibition opened here late last month. In the first week or so, the museum sold about 6,000 tickets at a little more than $3 a head. That's not many in a city of 23 million.

One reason is the obscure location. The Power Station sits in a mostly abandoned section of the Shanghai Expo site that is a long walk from the nearest subway station and a mystery to most city cab drivers.

A second reason there aren't many visitors is a lack of publicity.

Jack Wang, a first-year medical student, came to the Warhol exhibit earlier this month, but only because a friend told him about it.

"Andy Warhol, literally, I don't know his name, but I've seen a lot of his art pieces before," says Wang, who wears a gray hoodie and blue slacks. "The display of this art is really exquisite."

Li Xu, deputy director of planning at the museum, thinks there is a third reason for the small crowds. When it comes to contemporary art, he says, most Chinese don't know where to begin because cultural education has lagged far behind China's economic boom.

"My estimation is one-third to one-half of artworks are hard for average visitors to understand if they didn't receive sufficient art education," says Li. "Chinese graduate students' understanding of art only reaches the level of middle school students in the U.S."

To try to change that, museums are starting young. The China Art Palace runs workshops for elementary school students on subjects like naturalist painting, but getting them in the door is tough. China's hypercompetitive educational system still emphasizes rote learning and tests. Li says most schools see no practical value in field trips to art museums.

"The sole purpose for parents to send kids to school is that they can get into college," says Li. "Anything that's not related to the college entrance exam will not get parents' and teachers' attention."

Museum Construction Outpacing Demand?

Jeffrey Johnson, an architect who runs the China Megacities Lab at Columbia University, is among a number of scholars who study China's rapid urbanization. He says local governments are building museums to create a cultural life and competitive identity for their cities.

But China lost a lot of art because of its civil war in the 1940s, as well as the Cultural Revolution, looting and overseas sales. Johnson says many museums are going up faster than curators can fill them with works and audiences. Many of China's new museums, he says, are closed or only open sporadically.

"They might have a grand opening or a press conference with great photographs and government officials," says Johnson, "but if you return to this museum, which officially has been open for three months, it ... might be closed and locked."

Johnson likens the museum boom to China's real estate glut in which new housing has outpaced real demand. In a crowded nation like China, though, emptiness can occasionally have its benefits. Back at the Power Station of Art, Jack Wang is enjoying a rarity here: the uncrowded public attraction.

"It's great for me," says Wang, sitting on a couch not far from rows and rows of Warhol's iconic Campbell's tomato soup cans. "The environment here is very comfy and peaceful. But I think more people should have chances to come here to see this art."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

China is building at a frenzied pace - roads, bridges, high-speed rail and museums. In recent years, China has opened about a hundred museums annually. In 2011, it built nearly 400. But there's a catch. Museums are trickier to manage than highways.

As NPR's Frank Langfitt explains from Shanghai, you have to fill them with worthwhile exhibits and patrons.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Last fall, Shanghai opened two huge art museums. I'm in one of them right now. It's called the China Art Palace, and it has over 600,000 square feet of exhibition space, about the size of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The most popular work here is a digital version of an ancient Chinese scroll, where the characters come to life, move around, even talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXHIBIT)

LANGFITT: Xu Qinhua is a 62-year-old retired teacher. She marvels as the figures stroll across the arch on an old Chinese bridge.

XU QINHUA: (Through Translator) I think it's really beautiful. This is my first time seeing this. When I was young, my teacher told me I should see the original, but I never had the opportunity.

LANGFITT: The museum also has room for traveling exhibits. And right now, I'm strolling through a bunch of French naturalist masterpieces from the 1840s and 1850s from the Musee D'Orsay in Paris.

LIN WEIPENG: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: Lin Weipeng works as a designer and painter in coastal Fujian Province. When he was younger, he tried to copy some of these canvases.

WEIPENG: (Through Translator) I'm here mainly to see the techniques. The content of the pieces can be shown in printed versions but the details can't be shown in books.

LANGFITT: Lin is wearing a knock-off down jacket that says Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club. He's holding his 9-year-old daughter, Mowei, in his arms.

WEIPENG: (Through Translator) She can't really understand these paintings. But I just want to give her some feeling for it. If she doesn't get to go to France, this is probably her only chance to see the original work.

LANGFITT: The Shanghai government is trying to turn this mega-city into a cultural capital and magnet for global talent. The China Art Palace, originally built as the China Pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, is part of that master plan.

Teng Junjie is artistic director of the city's Administration of Culture, Radio, Film and TV.

TENG JUNJIE: (Through Translator) New York City and Paris are financial centers. They're also indisputably cultural centers of the world. Shanghai is now that process, but hasn't yet reached that level. Only cultural development and cultural attractions can bring true high-caliber talents to this city.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIP HORN)

LANGFITT: I'm now hopping a ferry to cross the water to Shanghai's other giant new art museum. It's called the Power Station of Art. It's a contemporary museum built in a former power plant. And it's sort of like Shanghai's answer to London's Tate Modern.

Inside, the Power Station is kind of a huge industrial space. The atrium's about six stories high. They've just opened an Andy Warhol exhibit.

JACK WANG: The display of this art is really exquisite.

LANGFITT: This is Jack Wang. He's a first year med student. Wang doesn't have classes today, so he came to catch the show.

WANG: Andy Warhol, literally, I don't know his name but I've seen a lot of his art pieces before. So I think I'll Google it and then think, wow, it's pretty cool.

LANGFITT: One thing really surprised Wang.

WANG: I'm kind of confused actually. There are fewer people than I imagined.

LANGFITT: Indeed, by lunchtime on a weekday, just 200 people have shown up in a city of 23 million. One reason is the obscure location - a mostly abandoned section of the Shanghai Expo site. A second is lack of publicity. Until a friend told him about the exhibit, Wang didn't know this place existed.

You didn't know this old power station had been turned into an art museum.

WANG: No, not really, sorry.

LANGFITT: Li Xu, deputy director of planning at the museum, says there is a third reason. When it comes to contemporary art, most Chinese don't know where to start. Li says cultural education has lagged way behind China's economic boom.

LI XU: (Through Translator) My estimation is one-third to one-half of artworks are hard for average visitors to understand, if they didn't receive sufficient art education. Chinese graduate students' understanding of art only reaches the level of middle school students in the U.S.

LANGFITT: To try to change that, museums are starting young. The China Art Palace runs workshops for elementary school students on subjects like naturalist painting. But getting them in the door is tough. China's hyper-competitive educational system still emphasizes rote learning and tests.

Li says most schools see no practical value in field trips to art museums.

XU: (Through Translator) The sole purpose for parents to send kids to school is that they can get into college. Anything that's not related to the college entrance exam will not get parents' and teachers' attention.

JEFFREY JOHNSON: My name is Jeffrey Johnson. I teach at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning. And I'm the director of China Mega-Cities Lab.

LANGFITT: Johnson is among a number of professors studying China's explosive urban growth, in particular, its museum boom. He says local governments across the country are trying to create a cultural life and competitive identity for their cities.

JOHNSON: Having new and modern and in many times iconic new museums or cultural institutions, you know, provides a lot of sort of civic confidence and pride.

LANGFITT: But China lost a lot of art due to its civil war in the 1940s, as well as the Cultural Revolution, looting and overseas sales.

Johnson says many museums are going up faster than curators can fill them with works and audiences.

JOHNSON: They might have a grand opening or a grand - some kind of, you know, press conference with great photographs and, you know, the government officials are there. But in fact then, if you return possibly to this museum, which has been open officially for three months, it again might be closed and locked.

LANGFITT: Johnson likens it to the country's real estate glut in which new housing has outpaced real demand. In a crowded nation like China, though, emptiness can occasionally be an advantage.

Back at the Power Station of Art, Jack Wang is enjoying a rarity here: the uncrowded public attraction.

WANG: It's great for me. It's the environment here is very comfy and peaceful. But I think more people should have chances to visit here to see this art.

LANGFITT: China is banking that if you build it, they will come. Eventually, that bet should pay off but it's going to take time.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: