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April 16, 2010

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Chinese art bound to rebound

CHINESE contemporary art is getting commercial infusions at two museums - Minsheng Art Museum, helped by Minsheng Bank, and Rockbund Museum, aided by a real estate developer. Wang Jie reports.

While the future of the Chinese contemporary art market remains uncertain, the opening of two art museums demonstrates faith in its future.

The new Rockbund Art Museum in Waitanyuan on the Bund, which opens on May 4, will feature "Cai Guoqiang: Peasant Da Vincis" and the Minsheng Art Museum in Red Town on Huaihai Road W. presents "Three Decades of Contemporary Chinese Art: Painting (1979-2009)" opening on Sunday.

Opening shows at art museums usually establish the museum's ambitions, its taste, tone and level of art, and often indicate future development.

Due to the global economic slowdown, Chinese contemporary art - much of it considered to have been way overpriced and overhyped - has entered a stage of reassessment as the market has slumped.

In 2009, contemporary art got another unpleasant jolt when big buyers went for ancient and contemporary traditional Chinese ink-wash paintings.

According to the 2010 Hurun Art List, the former star artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Zeng Fanzhi and Wang Guangyi are no longer in the top list for China.

Doomsayers assert that the glory of Chinese contemporary art has already passed.

But in fact, nothing could be worse than the situation for Chinese contemporary art as recently as 10 years ago when it was largely ignored and some of it even forbidden.

"Contemporary Chinese art has experienced a fascinating history of over 30 years of twists and turns," says He Juxing, director of Minsheng Art Museum. "To research and discover this history is our first and foremost task. Once displayed, this history represents a cultural and artistic vanguard in China and on the world stage."

Perhaps that's why Minsheng Art Museum, after two years of soft opening, has declared its official inauguration through a systematic review of Chinese contemporary art in its ambitious "Three Decades" exhibition of 100 pieces.

Most artworks are on loan from either museums or private collectors in China and overseas. Some are in Shanghai for the first time.

Big names include Luo Zhongli, Zhou Chunya and Wei Guangqing with their representative works over 30 years.

The museum has also invited three generations of critics to give lectures and take part in workshops that draw on their academic perspectives of the period.

Minsheng Art Museum only contains an exhibition area of 2,000 square meters, which could limit its expansion.

"Because of limited space, this exhibition only focuses on paintings, with no video, installation or sculptures," says Zhou Tiehai, vice director of the museum.

More space may be in its future as Minsheng Bank, the museum's owner, is in discussions with the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

Established in 2007, the Ullens Center covers 8,000 square meters at the 798 art hub in Beijing.

The huge cost of daily operation makes this nonprofit independent art center almost unsustainable.

"I can't reveal many details about this," says Zhou. "But in the near future we will have collaboration with the Ullens Center regarding exhibition, staff trainings and resource sharing."

While Minsheng Art Museum is adopting a big strategy, Rockbund Art Museum is taking a more reserved approach represented by its solo exhibition by New York-based Cai Guoqiang.

Cai dazzled the world with his fireworks project, "Footprints of History," at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

He is the first Chinese artist to have a big solo exhibition at New York's Guggenheim Museum.

"Cai is exploring the relationship between man, nature and the universe, with the strength and energy of nature as a recurring theme. It is an honor for us to have him as our opening show," says Lai Hsiang-ling, director of the Rockbund Art Museum.

The geographic location of Rockbund Art Museum is unparalleled. It is situated in the Waitanyuan area, in the triangle where Suzhou Creek flows into the Huangpu River. It is housed in the building of the former Royal Asiatic Society, previously the Shanghai Art Museum.

Adjacent to the former British Consulate General, the neighborhood was one of the first settlements of expatriates and a prosperous cultural and commercial center.

"As the only contemporary art museum on the Bund, the Rockbund Art Museum benefits from its rich cultural tradition and mainstream location," Lai says. "It works to integrate art, design and innovation into an aesthetic space for a new Shanghai lifestyle."

Unlike Minsheng Art Museum, the Rockbund Art Museum doesn't plan to build its own collection.

"We will focus on the exhibition and promotion of Chinese contemporary art," says Lai. The museum will also hold exhibitions of new design, fashion and architecture "to reflect a broad spectrum of creativity."

The museum's sponsor, a real estate developer, wants to mix Chinese contemporary art with a commercial project, says Lai.

Chinese contemporary art is well suited to the modern surroundings.

"We never lose hope in the market for Chinese contemporary art. That's why we are still here," says Mauro Malfatti, president of BF International Fairs SRL that launched Asia's biggest contemporary art fair in Shanghai in 2007, ShContemporary.

Commercial efforts behind plans for Minsheng Art Museum and the Rockbund Art Museum do not detract from the viability of Chinese contemporary art.

Minsheng Bank has also started personal wealth management that includes investment in Chinese contemporary art.

"One thing is for sure, time will reveal its true value," says Zhang Qing, vice director of the Shanghai Art Museum and the curator of the 2008 Shanghai Biennale. "It's inevitable that contemporary art will develop and it is bound to rebound."

"Cai Guoqiang: Peasant Da Vincis"

Date: May 4-July 25 (closed on Mondays), 10am-6pm

Venue: Rockbund Art Museum, 146 Huqiu Rd

Admission: 15 yuan

"Three Decades of Contemporary Chinese Art: Painting (1979-2009)"

Date: April 18-July 18, 10am-6pm

Venue: Minsheng Art Museum, Bldg F, 570 Huaihai Rd W.


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