China’s contemporary art scene is on the rise, as is the number of private museums in China, most notably in Shanghai. The Long Museum West Bund and the Yuz Museum are the two most high-profile private museums; both opened in 2014 and have caught the attention of international media outlets such as the Guardian and the New York Times. The museums are located in the newly developed West Bund Cultural Corridor (WBCC), a cultural megaproject in which the Shanghai government is deeply involved.
The WBCC is located on a 9 km² (3 sq. mi.) tract of formerly industrial land on either side of Huangpu River. It will eventually feature a cluster of cultural institutions, including theaters, an opera house, and artist residences. It aims to “create a unique, world-class waterfront on a par with the Left Bank in Paris and the South Bank in London” (West Bund 2018). The WBCC amounts to an effort to secure an edge in global city competition by way of “the production and consumption of culture and arts, taking the form of the construction of megaprojects” (Yeoh 2005, p. 945). Shanghai’s city-led cultural megaprojects, pursued in combination with private-led art-museum development, follow a familiar public–private partnership model. However, due to lack of regulation and transparency, the details of these partnerships (negotiated on a case-by-case basis between the government and private entities) remain ambiguous, raising questions about economic privilege and artistic freedom.
The state-driven development of the West Bund Cultural Corridor
As in other Chinese municipalities, the Shanghai government takes a state-centered approach to cultural megaprojects. Cultural development is a national policy in China: in 2009, a State Council meeting upgraded culture to the level of a “strategic industry.” The five-year plan for 2011–2015 proposed that culture needed to “gradually become a pillar industry of the Chinese economy,” defined as a sector that makes up at least 5% of the country’s gross domestic product (CCCPC 2010). Following the state’s five-year plan, the Shanghai municipal government and the county-level Xuhui district government in turn made a five-year plan that featured the West Bund Cultural Corridor. The large increase in the number of private museums in Shanghai is thus not coincidental: the Xuhui district government actively recruited the Long and Yuz museums to the WBCC, and it took only two years to build both.
The West Bund has historically been a center of transportation, logistics, and production, but the city closed most of its factories and a local airport in 2010 in order to implement a “Comprehensive Development Plan for Both Sides of the Huangpu River” to coincide with the opening of the Shanghai World Expo. The development of the WBCC is an ambitious endeavor to revitalize the disused industrial area, to open up the formerly inaccessible waterfront to local residents, and to create a new cultural brand for Shanghai. One of the central strategies of this urban branding and development project is “pioneering through art and culture,” which explains local leaders’ specific invitation to mega-collectors—and not real-estate developers —to build private museums.
Collectors Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei are the founders of the Long Museum West Bund. They were in search of large space in Shanghai to exhibit their extensive collection, and local leaders in the Xuhui district lured them with a prime spot on the West Bund riverfront, featuring a wharf where, throughout the 20th century, coal was unloaded from barges. The Long Museum West Bund covers an area of 33,000 m² (355,000 sq. ft) with up to 16,000 m² (172,000 sq. ft) of exhibition space, and showcases the contemporary art that the couple has acquired over the past two years at a cost of over $100 million.
© Siqi Tu.
The Xuhui district government also persuaded Budi Tek, the founder of the Yuz Museum, to move to the district. Tek is a Chinese-Indonesian entrepreneur listed by Art & Auction magazine as one of the world’s top 10 art collectors by money spent (Alberge 2014), and who was looking to build his own museum in China (Bergman 2015). The Yuz Museum is located in a former aircraft hangar, an ideal setting to display large installations. The Yuz, like the Long, promotes contemporary art, and fits in with the city’s cultural-development goal of enhancing the public’s understanding and appreciation of contemporary art.
Alongside the infrastructural development of the WBCC, a “free port” for the storage of fine art—owned by the state and jointly managed by the state and private import–export firms—has also taken off. The West Bund Fine Art Warehouses, which opened in 2014, have already housed art for an estimated 30 art organizations, including the Long Museum West Bund, the Yuz, and Sotheby’s. In an attempt to compete with Hong Kong and Singapore and secure Shanghai’s position in the Asian market, the development of this port allows art professionals and collectors to store art in mainland China and pay little to no import tax within the designated cultural district. Such infrastructure will further facilitate the development of museums, galleries, and high-profile art exhibits.
The WBCC quickly the caught attention of the art world, partly due to the local government’s active pursuit of well-connected mega-collectors. With these “purely art- and -culture-oriented institutions” in place, the next round of WBCC development will start to capitalize on these cultural platforms and bring in business clusters “in the areas of art, entertainment media, culture, and finance” (West Bund 2018).
Ambiguous public–private partnerships in Shanghai
The municipal government has played a significant role in the establishment of these private museums, but it is not clear exactly what that role is. There are no written regulations or explicit cultural policies to define the tax benefits or land-lease agreements between the city and the museums.
The West Bund Development (Group) Co., Ltd (WBDG), a solely state-owned enterprise authorized by the Xuhui district government, was created to operate the WBCC development project and thus is the agent for facilitating private–public partnerships. Shen Wei, the company’s spokesperson, told me in an interview that cultural policy is individually designed for different venues and does not have a fixed mechanism. She emphasized that the WBDG—the representative of the state—plays the leading role in this process.
While local officials invited the collectors to build both the Yuz and the Long museums, they have reached different land-use agreements in each case. The Xuhui district government has granted land to the Long and restricts Wang and Liu (the collectors) from transferring the land for the next 50 years (“granting” can likely be interpreted as writing off land costs). For the Yuz, by contrast, according to Shen, Budi Tek rented the land on which the Yuz Museum stands. Having the right to rent such an important space is already a privilege and a cultural policy incentive by the Xuhui district government. It is unclear why the land policy differs for these two museums. Critics doubt the intentions of collectors like Wang and Tek, accusing them of merely trying to profit from the large swathes of land they have acquired in the name of “art.”
Apart from the discount on land, the Xuhui district government has provided 800,000 RMB (around US$130,000) as a one-time subsidy to the Long. The city government has also agreed not to collect taxes on the admission revenues of the museum. Even with this support, private museums like the Long largely rely on the founders’ personal wealth to cover operating costs. The operating costs of the Long come to more than 25 million RMB (around US$4 million) each year (Qiu 2014).
Private museums are nonprofit institutions that undertake certain responsibilities with respect to art access and cultural education for the public. Both the Yuz and the Long host regular cultural and art events that are free and open to all. Private museums in the WBCC not only respond to the city’s cultural policy of promoting art education and the cultural industry, but also serve as early high-profile settlers to attract more investment. Whether follow-on investors will enjoy similar subsidies and land discounts remains unknown.
The future of private art museums in China: cultural centers for whom?
The WBCC emblematizes a planned mode of urban governance with a neolieral twist. The municipal government planned this cultural megaproject in concert with a national policy of fostering the cultural industry. Yet the state no longer builds most cultural institutions by itself. Instead, officials have invited mega-collectors to build private museums on WBCC land and exhibit their own collections. The directors of the private museums have most of the freedom necessary to organize and curate their own exhibitions—as long as their content does not go against prevailing political ideology. This establishment of public–private partnerships on ambiguous terms corresponds with global neoliberal practices: privatization, deregulation, and withdrawal of the state from some areas of social provision. But given the political structure and the still-dominant role of the Communist Party in mainland China, it is likely that the state will never leave for good. For the time being, the private museums seem to be a good fit with the government’s current agenda. It is unclear whether the degree of artistic freedom currently enjoyed by these museums will continue.
The increasing number of private museums and the development of cultural megaprojects in Shanghai demonstrates the city’s aspiration to become a global art center. Cities tend to devote resources to cultural facilities like art museums to signify cultural richness and sophistication, and to attract tourists and investors. With the establishment of cultural infrastructure, cities are more likely to become habitats for well-known international artists, thus enhancing the “quality” of cultural life. The broader question is: whose quality of life in the city is enhanced through this process? The international art world and the art media are excited about the opening of two art museums in Shanghai, but local residents do not necessarily share the sentiment. Although it arguably takes time and education for the public to develop appreciation for contemporary art, recruiting annual museum membership is currently a big challenge for these museums. Paris’s Centre Pompidou is currently coordinating with WBDG to open a temporary Chinese outpost in the WBCC in 2019 (Morris 2017). Shanghai’s increasing efforts and investment in cultural exchange and education will almost certainly push WBCC forward to become a world-class cultural district. However, there are lingering doubts as to whether these cultural megaprojects are primarily property-investment projects for those who have acquired land in the name of culture. Further, local residents will be forced to contend with the potential commercial and residential gentrification of the neighborhoods around the WBCC. The green space and waterfront of West Bund may have become publicly accessible, but are those cultural institutions reserved for the cultural elites and their favored artists? How can WBCC benefit more residents in the city? The development of WBCC is still in progress, and it is worth keeping an eye on it and scrutinizing who eventually benefits from this cultural megaproject.
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