OF MALLS AND MU­SE­UMS

The World of Chinese - - Ed­i­tor’s Let­ter - BY EMILY CONRAD在商业与艺术的边界

奢侈品牌大举入侵博物馆,商业与艺术的界限究竟在哪里? The line be­tween art and com­merce is be­com­ing blurred, as Chi­nese mu­se­ums host spon­sored lux­ury brand ex­hi­bi­tions—while malls deck them­selves with pub­lic art in­stal­la­tions. What do these col­lab­o­ra­tions mean for the fu­ture of art?

From pro­mot­ing lux­ury brands to up­ping the foot­fall in shop­ping malls, com­mer­cial in­flu­ences are prompt­ing ques­tions about the fu­ture of art in China

Fash­ion­istas vis­it­ing the To­day Art Mu­seum this sum­mer had the op­por­tu­nity to fork out 50 RMB for the priv­i­lege of view­ing “When El­e­gance Meets Art,” an ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tur­ing over 400 pieces by the French jewelry com­pany Van Cleef & Ar­pels. In­side, they painstak­ingly posed for the per­fect shot with a ruby pen­dant, pored over de­scrip­tions of each piece’s his­tory, and checked out the items like they were brows­ing a cat­a­log.

Chi­nese art mu­se­ums are in­creas­ingly re­ly­ing on com­mer­cial ex­hi­bi­tions like this to keep their doors open. Mean­while, mar­ket forces are driv­ing lux­ury malls to use art ex­hi­bi­tions to lure shop­pers through their doors and make their stores prof­itable.

Strapped by a tax code which of­fers few in­cen­tives for char­i­ta­ble con­tri­bu­tions, and un­able to rely on art-lov­ing phi­lan­thropists, mu­se­ums must get cre­ative to main­tain rev­enues. Lux­ury brands of­fer “rental in­come” for many mu­se­ums, “Rui,” a con­tem­po­rary art pro­fes­sional in Bei­jing, told TWOC on con­di­tion of anonymity. These ex­hi­bi­tions are al­most com­pletely or­ga­nized and cu­rated by the brand, rather than mu­seum staff. “Es­sen­tially, brands want to rent spa­ces in in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized mu­se­ums in or­der to en­hance their im­ages,” ex­plained Rui.

So­nia Xie, deputy edi­tor of the Art News­pa­per China, elab­o­rated on the ben­e­fits of these part­ner­ships, ex­plain­ing that they “im­prove and pro­mote the tone and voice of the brand, as or­di­nary peo­ple con­sider mu­se­ums and gal­leries to be dis­tin­guished, in­tel­li­gent, and elite places.”

Although os­ten­ta­tious dis­plays of new money helped de­fine China’s ris­ing eco­nomic clout over the last decade, the lux­ury mar­ket has foundered since Xi Jin­ping be­gan his pres­i­dency with an anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign in 2012. In 2016, the Fed­er­a­tion of the Swiss Watch In­dus­try an­nounced that global sales had fallen by over 14 bil­lion RMB, at­trib­uted to a mas­sive drop of sales in China.

How­ever, an equally im­por­tant fac­tor was chang­ing tastes and de­mo­graph­ics. As well-trav­eled, ed­u­cated con­sumers be­gan to dis­dain the flashy la­bels on which many Euro­pean de­sign­ers had fo­cused their main­land mar­ket­ing strate­gies, art mu­se­ums could of­fer an ob­vi­ous and ef­fort­less op­por­tu­nity for brands to sig­nal so­phis­ti­ca­tion to more dis­cern­ing shop­pers.

Part­ner­ships be­tween mu­se­ums and brands have pro­lif­er­ated in re­cent years. In 2014, Dior hosted its “Miss Dior” ex­hi­bi­tion at Shang­hai’s Sculp­ture Space; the next year, Gucci hosted an avant-garde ex­hi­bi­tion en­ti­tled “No Longer/not Yet” at the Shang­hai Min­sheng Art Mu­seum; and in 2016, Bot­tega Veneta hosted “Art of Col­lab­o­ra­tion” at the Ul­lens Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Art in Bei­jing. The trend has even ex­panded to non­lux­ury brands seek­ing an im­age boost: last year Chi­nese elec­tron­ics com­pany Xiaomi spon­sored the “Fu­ture of To­day” ex­hi­bi­tion at the To­day Art Mu­seum.

The rea­son why this is all pos­si­ble, sug­gests Xie, is that “the art in­dus­try in China is still at an early stage of de­vel­op­ment. The Chi­nese au­di­ence is com­pletely un­de­mand­ing, mak­ing it ex­tremely easy to do a prof­itable ex­hi­bi­tion.”

Yet there is also a great amount of op­ti­mism for the fu­ture. China’s art mar­ket is al­ready said to be the sec­ond largest in the world, at an es­ti­mated 13.2 bil­lion USD. In 2017, Qi Baishi’s Twelve Land­scape Screens (1925) joined the “100 mil­lion club” when it fetched 140.8 mil­lion USD at a Poly Bei­jing auc­tion, be­com­ing the first Chi­nese paint­ing to achieve this feat. Mod­ern Chi­nese artists are also highly sought af­ter: Art­price’s list of the “Top 50 liv­ing artists at auc­tion” in­cludes 11 from China.

One man­i­fes­ta­tion of China’s ma­tur­ing art mar­ket can be seen in the un­usual venue of malls. Bank­ing on art as a pow­er­ful mar­ket­ing tool to drive shop­pers through their doors, many are jump­ing at the op­por­tu­nity to host art ex­hi­bi­tions and in­stal­la­tions.

Bei­jing’s Parkview Green Mall is

both a lux­ury mall and a haven for art lovers. Founded by a real es­tate mag­nate and art col­lec­tor from Hong Kong, the mall is stocked with 500 pieces from his per­sonal col­lec­tion, in­clud­ing what’s ad­ver­tised as the “largest col­lec­tion of Sal­vador Dali out­side of Barcelona.” In­stal­la­tions in­clud­ing a gi­ant shark and se­duc­tive pig in a re­veal­ing dress are free for win­dow shop­pers to peruse. The mall also has des­ig­nated gallery spa­ces fea­tur­ing up-and-com­ing artists, whose works are per­func­to­rily viewed by bevies of selfie-tak­ing shop­pers.

Cut­throat com­pe­ti­tion has forced malls to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves, pro­vid­ing in­creas­ingly elit­ist ex­pe­ri­ences. In 2014, the K11 Mall in Shang­hai hosted the first-ever ex­hi­bi­tion of Monet paint­ings in China. (K11 also op­er­ates “art malls” in Guangzhou, Wuhan, Shenyang, and Hong Kong.)

“The K11 malls are fol­low­ing the play­book of Euro­pean mu­se­ums,” says Rui. “They have no per­ma­nent col­lec­tion, but they have an en­tire cu­ra­to­rial team or­ga­niz­ing trav­el­ing art ex­hi­bi­tions. In that way, even though K11 is a mall, they act like a mu­seum by pro­vid­ing ac­cess to high­qual­ity art.”

The line be­tween art and lux­ury has be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to de­tect in China—and its state-run mu­se­ums aren’t help­ing. Af­ter three years of ren­o­va­tion, Bei­jing’s Na­tional Mu­seum of China at Tianan­men Square re­opened in 2011 with two com­mer­cial ex­hi­bi­tions: “Voy­ages,” ded­i­cated to the evo­lu­tion of Louis Vuit­ton, was fol­lowed by Bvl­gari’s “125 Years of Ital­ian Mag­nif­i­cence” a few months later.

Although the rest of the mu­seum was free to en­ter, LV charged 30 RMB for view­ing “Voy­ages,” a de­ci­sion crit­i­cized by Peo­ple’s Daily for be­ing “too com­mer­cial.” The irony of Chi­nese vis­i­tors pay­ing to peruse LV bags at a newly un­veiled sym­bol of na­tion­al­ist pride—the cen­ter­piece of which was a dis­play of pro­pa­ganda en­ti­tled “Road to Re­ju­ve­na­tion”— was not lost on many ob­servers. To avoid fur­ther con­tro­versy, prices were slashed to 10 RMB for the Bvl­gari fol­low-up.

When Dior hosted an ex­hi­bi­tion the fol­low­ing year, the brand’s name was re­moved from the ti­tle, re­flect­ing the newly aus­tere sen­ti­ments of the Chi­nese govern­ment. In spite of what might seem like a con­flict of in­ter­est, Xie notes that many staterun mu­se­ums now present jewelry or fash­ion ex­hi­bi­tions on a yearly ba­sis, cit­ing the 2017 Chaumet ex­hi­bi­tion at at the For­bid­den City’s Palace Mu­seum. “When peo­ple flock to ad­mire the rare jewelry mas­ter­pieces, they are more likely to visit some of the other less pop­u­lar shows at other ex­hi­bi­tions halls in the mu­seum,” she hy­poth­e­sizes.

As the line be­tween art and lux­ury be­comes in­creas­ingly blurred, it prompts the ques­tion: Can com­mer­cial­ized lux­ury brands and China’s nascent art mar­ket co­ex­ist in a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship, or will this re­la­tion­ship of con­ve­nience ul­ti­mately be detri­men­tal to the fu­ture of art in China?

Xie is op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of the art malls, ar­gu­ing that it is a busi­ness model that makes sense, as “art ex­hi­bi­tions and pub­lic art in­stal­la­tions bring in more mall vis­i­tors and there­fore in­crease con­sump­tion.” How­ever, she notes that one ma­jor chal­lenge is the lack of art ed­u­ca­tion in China: “As long as the ex­hi­bi­tion is ‘In­sta­gram-able,’ peo­ple will love it—and if it is easy to un­der­stand, then it is a block­buster!”

THE LINE BE­TWEEN ART AND LUX­URY HAS BE­COME IN­CREAS­INGLY DIF­FI­CULT TO DE­TECT—AND STATERUN MU­SE­UMS AREN’T HELP­ING

A woman pho­to­graphs a paint­ing at the “Miss Dior” ex­hi­bi­tion

Guangzhou’s K11 “art mall” fea­tures unique art ex­hi­bi­tions

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