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‘Art is the impetus for the major transformation of Shanghai and beyond’

Atelier Deshaus Long Museum

For a generation, China has been the site of some of the most ambitious architectural projects in the world: from Zaha Hadid’s Soho complexes, to OMA’s iconic CCTV tower, to the work of home-grown radicals like Ma Yansong or Yu Kongjian. These urban interventions are more than just impressive works of architecture: they represent a comprehensive effort to forge a new type of urbanism, one greater in scale and complexity than ever seen before.

More recently, however, a shift in the nature of the projects undertaken has started to register: while China is still building the hard infrastructure of airport and metro stations, the demand for it is decreasing. The focus now is on the construction of the soft infrastructure of society, and for these new public spaces to succeed, some sense of a ‘public’ must be constructed as well.

In the indeterminate social sphere of China – still a site of contestations between state and market, collective forms of life and work and individual ones – it is not enough to just create blank agoras. Rather, these spaces must designate a culturally legitimate form of public gathering. The new museums in China are not only architecturally impressive interventions, but also urban interventions in the truest sense: they are intended to reconfigure social space. From banks (some state owned, some private) to private individuals and real-estate developers, a wide variety of players are involved with the construction of these new museums.

Arguably, each of these parties has their own agenda, their own vision, and their own version of what the social should be, and art is mobilised as the language by which these aspirations articulate themselves. For Phil Tinari, chief curator of Beijing’s Ullens Center, ‘the end of completely corrupt land-use politics means that art and culture become differentiators in the competition for the choicest plots’. Today, contemporary art spaces are more connected to the development of new urban practices in China than ever before.

‘On a fundamental level, Beijing’s society is still arranged in different layers of access to the organs of governmental power’

Traditionally, Beijing has been the hub of artistic expression in post-1949 China. A state-driven mode of development ensured that cultural expression centred around official governmental institutions, and Jean Nouvel’s new National Art Museum of China shows that the state still has a vital interest in articulating what Chinese identity might be, as well as an openness to articulating this in the form of international avant-garde architecture, as with the famous OMA CCTV tower. On a fundamental level, Beijing’s society is still arranged in different layers of access to the organs of governmental power.

Yet if we look south to Shanghai, a different picture emerges, one of a more organic and internally diverse middle-class society in the process of formation. Since 2010, developer Thomas Ou’s Rockbund Museum, Adrian Cheng’s K11 Art Mall, the OCAT Museum and the numerous projects comprising the West Bund development have all opened in the city, representing radically different models of what public space can look like.

The Rockbund Art Museum anchors a much larger commercial development, managed by Shanghai Bund de Rockefeller Group Master Development Co Ltd. Although the murky regulatory picture and lack of transparency in decision making makes it hard to say for sure, it seems very likely that Ou’s preservation of historical architecture and decision to endow a large museum facilitated the approval of his development.

It is worth noting that, as curator Tang Keyang told us, ‘theoretically there is no private land under the existing Chinese policy. The state or the “people”, in a collective sense, owns everything. But the government often doesn’t have enough cash that a development project would require. Therefore the theory is compromised for the sake of smooth economic growth. The real estate developers and the state, who need each other in practice yet have conflicting interests in the final analysis, have an ambiguous relationship regarding their respective obligations and rights.’

To Western ears, the idea of a real-estate oligarch running a museum might sound questionable, but the curators of these spaces often have more autonomy than they would in, for example, the National Art Museum. Li Qi, senior curator at The Rockbund, describes how ‘one of the major distinctions between a public-funded museum and a privately funded museum is perhaps the autonomy when it comes to the programme planning. Public-funded museums in China naturally carry the mission of cultural propaganda’. The Rockbund’s fifth anniversary this year makes it practically ancient in the landscape of Shanghai’s art spaces, and it plays host to prestigious international events like the Hugo Boss Asia Art Awards, and anchors an area still in the process of being developed by Ou. This genre of museum often takes the form of a specific intervention with instrumental value in securing a larger area for development; the museum component butters up local governments, but also adds cultural capital and augments real-estate prices of the development that gets built with it.

‘Not accounting for taste, this luxury mall with some art in the basement is arguably the most visited exhibition space in the city’

The K11 Art Mall seems a ridiculous concept to many Westerners. Scion of one of Hong Kong’s richest families, Adrian Cheng has opened up retail spaces across the country, justifying their existence by support for the arts, with the Shanghai flagship showing exhibitions of Monet and Dali, among others. Not accounting for taste, this luxury mall with some art in the basement is arguably the most visited exhibition space in the city. It can be hard to tell if the art is there to boost retail sales, or if the retail structure is a platform for the development of Chinese art. After all, Cheng also lavishly supports exhibitions overseas, especially in the Palais de Tokyo, whose co-founder Jérôme Sans has deep links with the Chinese art world himself.

Whatever the case and with all cynicism aside, Cheng has been immensely successful in bringing high art to the burgeoning Shanghainese middle class, while at the same time creating an immensely successful retail space that local government and citizens can feel happy about. Considering that officials from Huangpu District, the relevant local government, dropped by the recent Dali show, the idea of a value-added space that builds the tax base and real-estate values is clearly considered a major success.

The instrumental value of these spaces in making the city appear international, home to creative classes and in general in accordance with the stipulations of Richard Florida or Saskia Sassen is quite clear. As Tinari told us, ‘I don’t think humanist enlightenment is on anyone’s mind. The closest content discourse is that of “creative industry” and its relation to “innovation”, which are ultimately about economic gain rather than cultural uplift.’

Still, the reality remains that major art exhibitions are thronged with people who’d have had to go to Europe to see these works otherwise. K11 might be a model all of its own, but since it is run by the man who is perhaps Asia’s most ambitious real-estate developer, this model will transform public reception of art in China. K11s are already under way in Beijing, Wuhan, Shenyang, and more.

Part of a nation-wide network of five museums, the OCAT Museum, in the Suzhou Creek area – the borderline between the traditional working-class socialist urban structure and the new luxury communities of Asian expats – has quickly become one of the most notable spaces for video art and photography in China. OCAT is part of a larger corporate structure: the funding and idea comes from one of China’s largest real-estate developers. If The Rockbund represents a specific spatial intervention with instrumental value for the developer, the value of OCAT is more abstract, a form of corporate responsibility that neatly dovetails with the needs of their governmental partners. It is clear why developers like OCAT or big banks like Minsheng see value in specific interventions. These interventions serve as a very public and high-end form of branding, and even if most of the residents of the properties of OCAT’s holding company or Minsheng bank’s account holders don’t go to the museums, the important government VIPs who are in positions to make decisions relevant to their business probably do.

An article about museums in China that didn’t consider the West Bund development would be remiss. In 2012, the area was a more or less suburban and vacant riverside spot; ‘West Bund’ is a misnomer, as the area is in reality quite distant from the Shanghai downtown waterfront of that name. In recent years, with extraordinarily favourable terms, a range of collectors have opened truly massive museums in this dock area as part of a major regeneration effort. Indonesian collector Budi Tek’s Yuz Museum, Liu Yiqian’s Long Museum (Liu was in the news recently for spending $170 million on a Modigliani painting), the new Shanghai Center of Photography, the upcoming opening of Qiao Zhibing’s space, not to mention a massive complex run by DreamWorks: nowadays, the so-called West Bund is host to no fewer than five recently opened art spaces that get free rent from the government, on the scale of ambition, if not realisation, of the Tate Modern. Across the street, weedy lots have been fenced up and new luxury high-rises are going up.

‘The West Bund is a conscious and concerted effort on the part of local government and a collection of philanthropists to create a sophisticated and dense urban district’

A far cry from the narratives of art-induced gentrification that we hear in the West, the West Bund is a conscious and concerted effort on the part of local government and a collection of self-aggrandising philanthropists to create a sophisticated and dense urban district out of marshlands in the space of a few years. As with the other projects mentioned, to describe the motives of the power players as ‘dubious’ would be an understatement. But as Robin Peckham, chief editor of LEAP magazine and a leading art critic in China, told us, ‘the inclusion of art projects in mainstream real-estate developments is indicative of the middle-class ambitions of these properties (and, perhaps, Chinese development as a whole), real estate as a product, after all, is not intended to be consumed by the oligarchy’.

Cut-throat developers have been throwing up condos all over China for the past 30 years, and the fact that such activities now are anchored around green space and cultural institutions that are open to the public bodes for a model of urbanism that is genuinely inclusive. At Liu Shiyuan’s opening at the Yuz Museum on 14 November, watching the sunset break over the river, the possibilities for Shanghai seemed endless.

Although not limited to Shanghai, the city most clearly demonstrates a model of development that is a hybrid of state and market forces. From the museum designed by Neri and Hu in Xi’an’s Westin Hotel, to collector Lin Han’s ambitious space M Woods in Beijing and new curatorial platforms and art fairs being held across the nation, the phenomenon of urban development branding itself with art in order to appeal to a growing middle class is a national one.

We could easily be cynical about art malls, abandoned and vast museums on the riverside, or the Rockbund’s canny manipulation of cultural discourse to secure a prime downtown patch of real estate. But these spaces have been the impetus for a major transformation of Shanghai and beyond for the better. As Robin Peckham states, ‘these public and private backers are quite literally the only way to resolve the question of where to show art in China’. Practically every week, one or another of these spaces hosts an art fair, a major opening, or some other event: sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always a place where familiar faces start to accrue. China’s art world is shifting from a world of collectors in suburban villas outside Beijing, to a de rigueur selfie opportunity for secretaries and white-collar workers. Slowly but surely, high culture and the arts are becoming accessible to a public knit together by these spaces. And that is without question a good thing.

Lead Image

Atelier Deshaus’ Long Museum in Shanghai