The Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai

Asad Raza

Root sequence. Mother tongue by Asad Raza at the Rockbund Art Museum, supported by the Rolls-Royce Art Programme (photo credit: Leo Aknin).

Over the last decade China has enjoyed an explosion of privately owned art museums, which have grown threefold from 2009, to nearly 900 in 2014.

At the mouth of the Bund in Shanghai there is a David Chipperfield-designed Art Deco building that would not look out of place in 1930s New York.

This is the home of the Rockbund Art Museum, a seven-year-old boutique private art museum owned by Thomas Ou, founder and chairman of Hong Kong developer Sinolink Worldwide. Since its opening in 2010 it has joined the growing ranks of private art museums in China, but it is different to its competitors, says Larys Frogier, its director.

Over the last decade China has enjoyed an explosion of privately owned art museums, which have grown threefold from 2009, to nearly 900 in 2014, according to the China Museums Association.

The nation is playing catch-up. There were only 25 museums when the Communist Party of China came to power in 1949. After the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) there were even less.

The rise of the private art museum in China goes hand in hand with booming disposable wealth, greater education and more global influence. But according to a report from think tank Larry’s List, recently opened world-class museums in China such as the Yuz Museum in Shanghai by Budi Tek (read our interview here); the Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing (read our interview here) owned by Lu Jun and his son Lu Xun; and the Long Museum by Chinese couple Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian, “demonstrate that Chinese private museums can keep pace with the West, not only in terms of the number of museums opened, but also in terms of the quality of the collections exhibited”.

What drives collectors to build museums? There are four main motivations, according to Larry’s List.

First, because there are no other private contemporary art museums in their region; second, because the public display of their collections helps them to achieve a personal sense of worth; third, for the simple pleasure of sharing contemporary art with the public; and fourth, because they hope to build a contemporary art ecosystem.

In the case of Thomas Ou, it was the third and fourth reasons driving the Rockbund Art Museum. It is unusual in that although Ou and his wife own an extensive art collection, they don’t show it in their museum. The couple are completely behind the scenes, says Frogier.

“From the beginning, they didn’t want to showcase their collection in this museum project — which is very different from others, who often conceive a museum to showcase their collection,” says Frogier, a soft-spoken French art historian who has been the director of Rockbund Art Museum since 2012.

“Mr Ou wanted to run the museum as a brand-new project. He said it should be autonomous; unrelated to their own collection and taste,” he recalls.

The museum’s approach is to provide a platform and funding (RMB17 million annually) for Chinese and international artists to tailor commissions specifically for the museum. There are no permanent collections, just three exhibitions and a special project every year, giving artists freedom to create exhibitions that nod to the space and the Shanghai context.

“They asked me to conceive the guidelines of the museum to make it professional and of an international standard,” says Frogier, adding that many competitors are considered little more than vanity projects.

“The exhibitions here are fully curated and conceived from the start. We invite guest curators and the artists put a lot of thought into producing projects tailored for the museum. At least 50 percent of artwork on show is made for our museum, which we pay for,” says Frogier.

“It’s also a place where the art community can come and enjoy debates, research and education, and take a critical position in the community of Chinese contemporary art.”

Now the museum is looking to develop support from other patrons: businesses, collectors or foundations, such as Rolls-Royce, which has signed up to support an annual Art Programme.

The carmaker provided sponsorship for the most recent programme called Displace, a series of “unexpected events” created by 10 global artists over a week in October. It included a programme that ran through one night until dawn that allowed the audience to follow time’s plunge into darkness.

Asad Raza was one of the 10 artists at the show. His installation, called Root sequence. Mother Tongue was a forest of 26 trees as characters, with humans charged as their caretakers.

“The Rockbund Art Museum is different because it makes space for quite experimental and unusual work,” Raza says. “It is not a collector-driven, showing-off museum. It’s a beautiful Art Deco building that shows cutting-edge work, such as the first Félix González-Torres show in China, for example. I can sense from the turnout of young people this last week that they are excited by this new approach.”

The Rolls-Royce Art Programme will maintain a relationship with the museum and artist to further show the work around the world, the next venues to be announced in due course.

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