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Avant-garde art: The challenges of museums in China

Interview with Dr. Shen Qilan, Philosopher, Publisher, July 2016

1. What does "city", what does "citymaking" mean to you ?

City means a space of authentic life, a space providing nutrition to people, materially as well as mentally. The city is organic, it can update itself, and surprise people who live in it. City should be a space that people can have dialogues with. Citymakers are a group of idealists who are capable of making changes, they’re dreamers as well as doers. They want to create more community living spaces. They’re thinkers of city space, they’re pioneers of future social life, they are makers of city life. 

2. Qilan, you are working at the interface of culture, art, city and media. We recently talked about a new type of cooperation among museums, curators, estate developers and city planners in China. What is emerging currently in this field – in a nutshell? 

City and culture: This is indeed an important topic in order to create more city vitality. Let’s take Shanghai as an example. This highly developed city is updating its district development through cultural infrastructure. The west Bund area begins to boom after two major museums are built in this area: Long Museum and Yuz Museum. Its cultural identity enhances its importance in the future development of Shanghai. The West Bund invites first class galleries and artists to move in this area. These elements form the new brand for West Bund. The Harbor City in Pudong is another area which emphasizes the role of public art. The real estate developers and urban designers are very aware of the added value that culture and art can bring to the whole district. It creates identity and brand, thus building museums will become popular in future urban designs.

3. What is your city? 

Shanghai is my city, I was born here, and grew up here. It participates in the formation of my "Weltanschauung".

4. What are the challenges of museums in China? 

The increase of museums didn’t have much impact on the development of art and culture of the city, this is a problem. Because the museums are built in an economic category, they haven’t developed continuous dialogues with other cultural fields and walks of life. The future trend should be cohesion, these newly created spaces should be integrated into the spiritual life of the city. These newly built museums should be in dialogue with other art and cultural sectors, these spaces should be planted into the veins of the city; this way, they could prosper. Chinese museums are facing huge challenges. The state-owned museums need to educate people as well as serve the ideology, and in the meantime update their traditional operational system. The private museums need to develop the whole system from zero in every aspect: from exhibition to public education. They constantly face the problem of lack of funding. Plenty of professionals are urgently in need, they should be experts in art and able to do art management. These professionals are hard to find.

5. If you had to name 5 forward-thinking innovative museums in China, which ones would you choose?

Every museum has its own character, and the personal taste and perspective of a director might influence the museum a lot: 1) The Power station of Art in Shanghai is a good example that state-owned museum can be avant-garde too. High-quality exhibitions can be found in this museum as well as many experimental projects. It gives young curators and artists a lot of opportunities. 2) The Si Fang museum in Nanjing is a part of Nanjing Cultural. It has a unique and quiet existence. 3) UCCA in Beijing is a brand of 798 art district already. 4) The K11 museum in Shanghai is a perfect example of cohesion of museum and shopping mall. The K11 museum is located in the basement of the shopping mall, it provides a unique art experience to the consumers, which helps the whole shopping mall gain its revenues. This museum promotes young artists and attracts the young generation. 5) The Long Museum applies the Guggenheim museum model and opened branches in Shanghai, Chongqing and Wuhan. This museum has sufficient financial support, and therefore its collection is amazing. Its representation of exhibition is traditional, but sometimes there could be a surprise. For example, the solo exhibition of Olafur Eliasson was amazing.

6. You are also a participant of the "Grenzgänger"-program of the Robert Bosch Stiftung. It is about the role of museums. What exactly do you do in this project?

I did research on how German museums tell stories, especially the German stories. German museums are masters in telling stories with limited materials. From concept to presentation, they have first class experience. This is worth learning: how to generate meaningful content with beautiful structure.

7. This theme will also be relevant to our STADTMACHER-Forum in September in Berlin: What questions are interesting to collaboratively work on from a Chinese point of view? What appeals to museums in the exchange with Germany/Europe?

As mentioned before, to generate meaningful content with beautiful structure is a good point. German museums have a lot of experience in producing knowledge and in communicating with the public, as well as in operating an exhibition. These are very meaningful for Chinese museums to know and to learn from. Of course, at the beginning, everyone would be interested in "brand" artists and "brand" art works. But in the future, when exchanges go deeper and more professional, the exchange on methodology and mechanism of curating exhibitions will be a more attractive and more sustainable exchange.

8. Do you have a personal vision for a sino-german cultural project in the context of "Citymaking"?

I hope a sustainable system could be build to help sino-german city makers practice transdiscipline. It would be fantastic if there was a "knowledge tank" or "ability tank", then we can find the proper help whenever we need. 

Interview questions by: STADTMACHER-Editorial Team

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Shen Qilan has a background in cultural, religious and philosophical studies in China and Germany. She did her PhD in Germany based in the city of Münster. Earlier professional experiences were collected in the editing and publishing businesses, e.g. she worked as director of the editorial department for ART World China. Qilan is also the founder of UNderstandA, a wechat media based blog - an information and educational tool to instruct young people on art, their meaning, and relationship with life in general.