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Contemporary Art and Soft Power: Lessons From Southern China

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China Power

Contemporary Art and Soft Power: Lessons From Southern China

Local governments emphasize modern art museums in a quest to attract visitors. But this may actually hurt organic art creation.

Contemporary Art and Soft Power: Lessons From Southern China
Credit: Flickr/ jo.sau

China is no stranger to soft power – a state’s ability to “persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion” due to an attractive culture or ideals and policies. Whether through establishing Confucius Institutes at leading universities across the world, providing grants to foreign think tanks, or spreading Party views on world affairs through state media channels like the recently created “Voice of China,” Beijing has actively developed its soft power on the international stage. Yet the concept of soft power is just as relevant when moving down to more local levels.

With a governance system that encourages fierce competition between local governments for budgets, business, and influence, investments in the arts and culture have become one way of promoting cities: by becoming part of a cultural and sophisticated elite, a city can gain recognition, attract visitors and promote their own view of modernity over other cities. In 2016 for example, over 200 new museums opened in China. This trend is concentrated especially in economically developed areas such as Zhejiang province.

Shanghai is a key example. Traditionally overshadowed by Beijing’s cultural might, Shanghai’s local government has actively worked to reshape the cityscape into a cultural rather than purely financial capital through investments in contemporary art. Encouraged by a national five-year plan to promote culture by building more museums, Shanghai has turned from a city with about 10 contemporary art museums in 2014, into a cultural leader on both the national and international stages that Conde Nast named “the place to be for contemporary art.”

The local city government has, for example, developed the industrial and insignificant West Bund area into the “West Bund Culture Hub,” a world-class arts and culture hub that aims to compete with London or New York. Through favorable economic conditions such as tax benefits, the government attracted property developers, private collectors, and gallery professionals, while old industrial buildings were repurposed to house their museums. This gave birth to notable museums such as the Long Museum (established by famous collector couple Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian), the West Bund Art Center, and the Yuz Museum (by Indonesian-Chinese billionaire and collector Budi Tek), which have welcomed works from international artists including Andy Warhol, Alberto Giacometti, and many other big names. Housed in impressive and expensive-looking architecture that highly resembles famous contemporary art museums in the West such as the Tate Modern in London, these are flagship buildings that visitors and newspapers would not forget – indeed, the Yuz Museum clearly states its commitment to “drawing the world’s attention to Shanghai” and shaping modernity.

Shanghai’s local government has also appropriated already existing cultural fragments to fit this strategy. Shanghai’s Moganshan Road art colony, today an official “arts district” called M50, is an example of this. M50 was originally set up in Xinhe Cotton Mill on Moganshan Road by artists looking for cheap rents and large spaces for their studios. In 2005 however, M50 was officially established as a culture park by the government and today M50 belongs to Shanghai M50 Cultural and Creative Industrial Development Co. It has been developed into “a world-renowned creative park specializing in visual art and modern design” with more than 140 creative institutions such as studios and museums that offer a sensory experience that attracts locals and visitors alike.

However, this kind of government-driven development and control of art is not always successful, nor does it necessarily have a positive impact on the organic creation of art. For example, some of M50’s more famous galleries, such as MadeIn Gallery and ShanghART, have moved to the expensive West Bund area, leaving only less popular galleries behind in the comparably more organic environment of M50. Meanwhile, behind M50’s image of an organic and artistic community itself, there is a certain sense of artificiality that cannot be ignored – many grassroots artists in Shanghai have had to move to other cities such as Chongqing or to the city suburbs, where rent is lower and the spaces are larger. While there are no official statistics on this exodus, it has caused experts to worry about the art ecosystem of cities like Shanghai. There is concern that recent developments have stifled the climate of artistic freedom, dynamism, and liveliness that is needed for the development of an innovative arts sector.

Furthermore, money and a mission to lead cultural developments are not enough to create a successful arts sector – it requires an interested audience, talent, and knowledge in areas ranging from curation to promotions. Despite a few relatively successful cases (e.g. Beijing, despite remaining politically stiff, and Chengdu, despite some political shake-ups), other cities have often failed to achieve much cultural influence through their museums.

Hangzhou, for example, has long been considered a cradle of culture, as the home to China’s leading and most influential fine arts college, the China Academy of Art. The local government-owned Zhejiang Art Museum website describes its mission as providing and presenting “academic research, education promotion, international exchanges, and public cultural services” and to become a “nationally significant art museum that spreads human civilizations, carries forward advanced cultures, and cultivates humanistic spirits” through a collection that reflects “the procedure of constructing Zhejiang as a great province of arts.” Yet aside from a spectacular building, the museum has little to offer. Like many government-owned museums, it remains largely empty of both art and visitors, displaying only highly traditional art on dirty walls surrounded by otherwise neglected interiors. When speaking with visitors and students of the Academy of Art, it was unanimously agreed that to see real art one had to go to places such as Shanghai. This is an experience that can be repeated over and over again in cities ranging from Nanjing to Ningbo.

In the future, as cities across China continue to develop economically, governments will inevitably seek not only financial leadership but also cultural leadership so as to gain a voice in defining modern culture and attracting attention and visitors. Shanghai has succeeded in this and despite its early critics, now impresses not only according to national but also international standards for its cultural avant-gardism. However, ambition is not enough. Without the right ecosystem — support for grassroots artists, and the right partners, operating capabilities, and commitment — building museums may just end up being yet another wasted investment that adds to already high levels of local government debt, without achieving any soft power at all.

Laura Grunberg is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University. Her research focuses on the modern Chinese consumer and China’s rapidly changing cultural industries.  She has worked for both major Western companies and rapidly growing Chinese conglomerates such as Fosun International.