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March 4, 2012

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Private museums forced to close, seek new homes

SHANGHAI has around 16 private museums and most are faltering. The successful ones are mainly industrial museums backed by industries such as textiles and banking. Wang Jie investigates.

If China's new rich want yet another way to flaunt their wealth - one that will also benefit society - building and operating a private museum (named after oneself, of course) might be just the ticket.

Operating a private museum, to say nothing of actually building it, is a daunting prospect. It's not a hobby for someone without deep pockets.

Running a museum involves major renovations, ongoing changes for exhibitions, proper lighting and sometime temperature control, security, administration, educational and outreach activities, public relations and advertising. Of course, it must be convenient for public transport and offer parking. Choice of a proper neighborhood with the right ambience is also important.

Shanghai has around 16 non-state-run museums. A number have closed. Quite a few are looking for new homes, and the pavilions at the former Shanghai World Expo site are considered possible locations.

The city is building a major art museum and art center at the Expo site.

The successful privately run museums are mostly backed by big enterprises and industries, such as textiles and banking. Other examples include Wu Changshuo Memorial Hall, Shanghai Arts & Crafts Museum and Shanghai Animation Museum.

Zhao Yueting, owner of Shihua Art Museum showcasing his collection of ancient ceramic teapots, was forced to close the museum a few weeks ago. It had been open for three years.

Zhao says the landlord had promised five years' free rent, but he reneged after three years, when Zhao had already plunged more than 2 million yuan (US$317,6686) into renovation, glass display cases, specially made carpeting and specially designed lighting.

"I have been collecting ancient Chinese ceramics for nearly two decades, and some of them could be called national treasures," Zhao says. "I hoped more people could enjoy the beauty of these ancient works of art."

Zhao opened his 1,000-square-meter museum on the fourth floor of a building on Fuxing Road M. He had visited many museums around the world, studying how ancient porcelain, pottery and glass were displayed, and he adopted many modern approaches.

"The carpet is tailor made so there is almost no sound when visitors walk on it. The lighting is indirect and the whole exhibition hall is bathed in gentle illumination," he says.

"At first the landlord promised not to charge rental for five years, and then I lavished money on the renovation," he says. "Yet I am still grateful. After all, profit is the priority for any commercial company."

Actually the location was not ideal as a museum site, since the elevators do not operate on weekends and parking is inconvenient.

Several local entrepreneurs recently expressed interest in helping Zhao relocate to their property but he refused, due to the location and atmosphere in the various neighborhoods.

Zhao is still looking for the right location.

There are quite a few privately run museums looking for homes beside Zhao's, such as Donghua Ceramics Museum which had to move out in 2004 from its original site on Yan'an Road W. due to the high cost.

The notorious Chinese Sex Culture Museum was established in 1995 on bustling Nanjing Road E. by Liu Dalin, a sociology professor.

He had plenty of visitors so ticket sales were good, but it didn't really add tone to the neighborhood. He was obliged by authorities to relocate to a quiet spot on Wuding Road in 2001; in 2003 he settled in the ancient canal town of Tongli in Jiangsu Province.

For Zhao, the collector of ancient ceramics, leaving the city is one alternative. He says officials in Shaoxing, his hometown in Zhejiang Province, offered to provide 30 mu (around 2 hectares) to build a museum in the downtown area and offered other preferential conditions and incentives.

The city of Jiaxing, in Zhejiang too, also made Zhao an offer.

But cosmopolitan Shanghai is Zhao's preference as a home for his collection.

"I approached some government officials in Shanghai about providing a place for my museum, but the answer I had was always the budget is limited and the space is limited."

Even Uli Sigg, one of the biggest collectors of contemporary Chinese art, has encountered the same difficulty of finding a home for his collection. He has expressed willingness to donate nearly all his collection (around 1,200 items) to the government for a museum named after him. But the high cost of building and operating a museum so far has not outweighed the attraction of the vast and prestigious collection.

Industrial museums

A decent private museum like Sigg's might cost around 20 million yuan every year to operate, including salaries and maintenance, says one art museum expert. "Do you think the government could afford to spend such an amount on a private museum forever?"

Thus, non-state-run museums financed only by big enterprises are running smoothly and successfully, including the Minsheng Art Museum and the new Aurora Museum.

Around 16 non-government-run museums are operating in the city, according to Zhen Ya, director of the museum department of the Shanghai Bureau of Cultural Relics.

Many are industrial museums, such as the Textiles Museum on Changshou Road and the Bank Museum in Pudong's Lujiazui, because they receive financial support from particular industries, Zhen says.

He says the only successful private museum is the Liuli China Museum of art glass in Tian Zi Fang on Taikang Road, run by a Taiwan couple.

To become an officially recognized private museum which means it will more likely get government support, a museum must be open to the public with fixed hours and the venue must be permanent, Zhen says.

Xu Sihai, the so-called "emperor of the purple-clay teapot," owns around 1,000 antique teapots showcased in his One Hundred Buddha Garden occupying 40 mu (2.6 hectares) in Shanghai's suburban Jiading District.

He also owns the land and built the museum.

"Now this has become a museum-like place for me to meet friends and promote Chinese teapot culture to the public," Xu says. "But once I was virtually penniless and borrowed a large sum of money to purchase the land to build this museum."

Now Xu is pleased he made the right decision and isn't subject to a landlord who can order him to vacate at any time.

"If the government would provide a fixed and appropriate museum venue, then we could operate the museum through a fund (like establishing a board of directors that might attract investment from some entrepreneurs," says Zhao, owner of Shihua Art Museum.)

In early 2009, Zhao registered the Shihua Foundation under the name of his museum.

"Running a successful private museum demands regular exhibitions, exchange activities and some systematic studies," Zhao says. "This is the vitality of a private museum, otherwise it will become a boring place with no freshness for visitors."

He indicates the empty pavilions in the former Shanghai World Expo site could house museums.

In fact, the government has already designated the former 70,000-square-meter China Pavilion as the venue for the new China Art Palace and the former Urban Future Pavilion the venue for the China Contemporary Art Museum.

Although the roads are paved and construction is underway in the Pudong area, there is no news about other new museums.

"Without support and help from the government, private museums have no future in Shanghai," Zhao says. "We hope our collection could be shown to the public in the Expo site museum area."


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