Ruijun Shen is an artist and curator, now working at the Times Museum, Guangzhou, China. The following report is based on her presentation on January 23 2012 at Asia Art Archive in America, Brooklyn in which she introduced the museum and its programming.
The Times Museum was established in 2005, in conjunction with the Guangzhou Triennial of that same year curated by Hou Hanru. Hou invited Rem Koolhaas to participate in the Triennial and his project was to design a museum in a residential complex owned by the real estate company Times Property, one of the sponsors of the Triennial. The management of Times Property felt that building a museum in their residential complex corresponded well with their marketing campaign, as reflected in their corporate slogan ‘to bridge art and life.’
Times Property originally commissioned Rem Koolhaas to build a museum in the garden of the apartment complex, however when Koolhaas arrived in Guangzhou to inspect the site, he was not satisfied. Instead, upon climbing to the top floor of the complex, he decided that he would rather build the museum on top of the building. At that time the construction of the building had already been completed, and all the apartments had been sold, although no one yet had moved in. Despite all the complications that this ambitious plan would cause, Times Property agreed. After obtaining agreement from all the apartment owners, who were, fortunately, supportive of the project, the construction of the museum commenced.
Rem Koolhaas’s plan was to build ‘a museum without shape.’ As shown in the diagram above, Koolhaas created a 19th floor which serves as the exhibition hall of the museum. Three apartments on the 14th floor, which were originally designed as artists’ studios, are now used as the museum’s offices. The lobby on the ground floor is used as a multi-purpose space, for lectures and sometimes to exhibit artwork.
As the museum is located in a residential building, its connection to the community is very close. The educational department of the museum organizes programs, arranges guided tours every weekend, and involves the community in exhibitions.
Unlike Beijing or Shanghai, which are home to many organizations that support and promote contemporary art, Guangzhou has relatively few. Therefore, from the beginning, the curatorial team decided to develop a program, one that would be more production-based, that would help artists to generate ideas and conduct experimental projects. Unlike many venues in China, Times Museum does not rent its gallery space; all exhibitions are initiated by proposals that are then selected by advisory board members.
Despite the unusual configuration of the interior exhibition space, which was an initial concern of the curatorial team, Times Museum has so far successfully organized six exhibitions, including four in 2011.
One was called Out of Box, curated by Pi Li who first showed it at his gallery Boers-Li in Beijing, before it traveled to Times Museum. Reconfigured to accommodate the Times space, this exhibition focused exclusively on video and presented examples of early work of some of China’s most famous artists. The show was not only very well received, but was also nominated as one of the best exhibitions in China in 2011 by ArtForum.
The museum’s next show Shift, curated by Ruijun Shen, brought five New York-based artists to Guangzhou. These artists were asked to develop artwork for the exhibition from materials found in a local Guangzhou wholesale market. According to the curator, artists in New York often shop for supplies and material at Walmart or other discount stores where most of these items are made in China. Many of the manufacturers of these items are based in Guangzhou where there are more than 30 wholesale markets, and other nearby locations in the Pearl River Delta area. So the curator’s idea was to invite artists to Guangzhou, to the place where their materials are produced, to conduct research on these materials, and to make artwork. ‘But these artworks did not have to reflect what is happening in China,’ said Ruijun Shen. ‘The artists were free to do any work they wanted and reflect their “American” ideas.’
A piece by Roxana Perez-Mendez received particularly good response from the Chinese audience, partly because of the museum’s location. Times Museum is not located in the center of the city of Guangzhou, but at the border between the city and the suburbs. Through the window in which Perez-Mendez’s piece was installed, one could see the tall buildings of downtown Guangzhou, as well as factories, and farms. The view captured the spectrum of urbanization in China and reflected on the concept of progress.
In addition to the exhibition, five Chinese artists were invited to conduct dialogue with the five New York artists about shared concerns and interests. Richard Vine was also invited to give a talk during the opening.
The next show, curated by Nikita Cai, also an in-house curator at the Times Museum, took up the subject of institutional critique.
The exhibition included many side projects, for example one which was organized by Megan and KC Connolly, the founders of ChART, a curatorial lab based in Beijing. The Connollys invited Zhang Xiangxi, a Guangzhou-based artist who creates sculptures inside used television sets, to participate in a side project in which Zhang created a secondhand television shop to display his work. ‘In the shop,’ said Megan Connolly, ‘you could both look at artwork, and actually buy a secondhand TV. The reaction of the local residents was funny. People kept coming in and saying things like: “Nobody’s going to want this TV,” “People own flat screens here, you know,” “Actually, could you take our old TV?” The interaction between the artwork and the visitors made the project even more interesting.’
Another show opened in December 2011 and was curated by Hou Hanru. Originally part of the Spain Photo Festival, this show, called The Power of Doubt, included 16 artists from around the world who were invited to raise questions about certain political issues. In response to Hou Hanru’s curatorial concept, a silk-like material was used to cover the walls, transforming the feeling of the space and creating a surreal-like atmosphere.
Besides exhibitions, Times Museum organizes an artist residency program called Open Studio. Inspired by the artist Zhang Lujiang who made a landscape painting across the glass wall of the museum, Ruijun Shen decided to develop a residency program that will launch in 2012 with four artists, including two from China, and two from overseas. These artists, whose stays will range from one month to 40 days, will be invited to create projects that are difficult to execute alone. Each artist will receive 25000 Yuan (about US$4000) for production costs, a stipend of US$1500, a round-trip ticket to Guangzhou, and two assistants. The museum will also provide assistance in other ways. For example, through an agreement with the Guangzhou Academy of Arts, one of the top art schools in China, they can arrange contact with scholars when needed, to allow artists use their wood and metal shops and engage assistants at the school. At the same time Ruijun Shen will conduct interviews with the artists once a week to document the process of their projects. At the end of each residency, there will be a small publication about each project, as well as a panel discussion with the artists about the process of making the piece. According to Ruijun Shen, ‘The idea is to support production, to help artists to finish projects which they would otherwise be unable to complete in their own studios.’
Times Museum also regularly organizes lectures and film screenings. For example, one screening called ‘To Live in China’, took place over 20 days. These public programs attract not only artists but also the general public. Guest lecturers come from diverse backgrounds, ranging from established scholars like Fei Dawei to emerging artists like Man Yu.
In general, the museum plans to organize four exhibitions per year, as well as educational programs and film screenings. They have just signed a contract with Lingnan Publishing House and will start a series of publication projects in 2012.
Though the museum is right off the subway line, it is not in downtown Guangzhou, so the museum originally had to find different ways to attract visitors, including renting buses to pick up students from the art academy. However, as the program has developed, more and more people are now visiting the museum, not only artists and students but also many non-specialist visitors.
Times Museum offers an opportunity to increase public awareness of the Times Property brand. Though it is a private museum owned by the Times Property, the museum is registered as an independent non-profit organization, which is very unusual. In China, most private museums are registered as for-profit companies. The director of the museum is seconded from Times Property, and his major duty is to take care of the finances of the museum.
Times Museum is funded solely by Times Property. The annual operating budget is 7 million RMB (approximately 1 million USD) for the museum. There is an additional 3 million RMB funding for exhibitions. Because the museum staff would like to raise additional outside support, they are planning to set up an independent foundation to accept donations. Despite the fact that there is no tax benefit for donors, many individuals make donations in China, just not to the arts. ‘So what we are trying to do is attract some of those donations, even just 1%. It would be enough,’ said Shen. According to Shen, the government has offered to provide some support, due to the museum’s non-profit status, but the staff has been hesitant to accept their help. In three to five years, the staff hopes that the museum will have diversified its funding sources so that they do not have to depend entirely on Times Property.
In terms of programming, the museum staff makes all the decisions and does not need to get approval from Times Property. ‘Although the budget is not large, compared to other museums in China, Times Property lets us make the decisions. They just take care of the money and otherwise leave us alone. That is our advantage,’ explained Shen. ‘We have an advisory board of two – curator Hou Hanru and the former director of the Guangdong Museum Wang Huangsheng. They meet with us twice a year in July and in January to give advice on programming. In addition, local artists and critics like Chen Tong and Xu Tan act as advisors from time to time. Right now we have 40 staff members at the museum.’
Like most of the private museums in China, Times Museum does not maintain a collection. Rather it acts like a kunsthalle, organizing temporary displays. While the goal is to assemble a collection, Shen believes now is not the right time. Despite the fact that the museum was founded in 2005, the programming was dormant for five years until 2010. Therefore, it has really only been an active museum space for two years. ‘While we have a general concept in mind, the details of the mission are still not set,’ said Shen. ‘Also, to manage the collection, we would need to hire experienced research staff. So rather than start a collection now, we feel it is better to get some practice under our belts, at least for a few more years.’
Until recently, the system of support for the arts in China was dominated by state-owned museums and commercial galleries. But the situation is changing. Private museums are springing up all over the country, and there are many hybrid institutions – part gallery part project space – that regularly organize interesting programs. But, like many things in China, the future is uncertain. The fluidity of the infrastructure for contemporary art in China can be problematic, but it also creates opportunities to rethink the way art is supported, produced, and displayed. Founded in 2005, dormant for five years, and now programming in an active and independent manner, The Times Museum is certainly charting a unique path. At the moment the future looks very bright.
All images courtesy of the Times Museum and Ruijun Shen.
Compiled by Xiaofei Mo and revised by Jane DeBevoise