Chinese contemporary art has become fashionable at auction houses around the world, where prices for works by established artists such as Zhang Xiaogang can fetch more than HK$20 million. But outside of the art cognoscenti, few mainstream art viewers are aware of the boom in creativity that has been taking place on the mainland since Wang Guangyi become famous with his pop art take on Cultural Revolution propaganda in the early 1990s.
Although casual exhibition-goers in the West may be familiar with artist Ai Weiwei, who had a high-profile exhibition at London's Tate Modern in 2010, the general view of Chinese art is still traditional: scroll paintings, calligraphy, pottery and the like.
An estimated US$10 million grant from the Hong Kong-based Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, announced on Tuesday, may start to initiate a change and bring visitors to the museum up to date with the artistic developments in China.
Although the Guggenheim did not reveal the amount, the museum described it as the "largest grant ever given to a US museum" . It will be used to commission new works from Chinese artists: the works will show at the Guggenheim in New York and then enter the museum's permanent collection. The grant also enables the museum to hire a curator of Chinese art, Dr Thomas J. Berghuis, who will commission the pieces.
The idea of the project, both the Guggenheim and the Robert H.N. Ho Foundation agree, is to provide a platform for Chinese contemporary art that will allow modern works to be seen by mass audiences in the West, rather than just critics, auctioneers and collectors.
Located on Fifth Avenue, on New York's so-called Museum Mile, the Guggenheim attracts a audience of art lovers and tourists, both local and international. Both sides hope that the commissions will push new art from China further into the mainstream.
The museum first worked with the foundation in 2008, when it was lead sponsor for a show by celebrated mainland artist Cai Guoqiang. The foundation also supported the exhibition "The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860 to 1989" in 2009.
"That experience impressed both sides," says Alexandra Munroe, the museum's Samsung senior curator of Asian art, and the prime mover of the initiative. "Over the following few years, we began to talk about the power and potential of contemporary Chinese art, and how reaching audiences with contemporary Chinese art could become a portal for a wider appreciation of Chinese culture on a global stage.
"Not everyone who comes to the museum is looking for [Asian art]. We attract mass audiences, who come to the museum because think they might see a Picasso. Then they get hit over the head with Asian art and fall in love with it," says Munroe. "The power of education, the power of introducing people to the realities, the currents, the ideas, and the images of contemporary art at the Guggenheim is very real."
Robert Y.C. Ho, who became the chairman of the foundation in 2010 (it was founded by his father, philanthropist Robert H.N. Ho, in 2005), believes that the initiative will help to change the perception of Chinese art in the West. "We think that this is doing our bit to establish, if that's the correct word, and integrate Chinese artists into the word in a proper way," he says.
"The museum has a global reach. It's a long-term project, a strategic partnership with the Guggenheim, which is a visionary institution," Ho says. "It is not just a one-off project, a one-off show. It allows us to reach out much further. We hope to build up educational programmes around the commissions, and we have ambitions for them to travel, especially to Hong Kong."
The fact that the Guggenheim is a museum that is committed to contemporary art is one of the factors that influenced the foundation's decision, Ho says. Founded in 1939 to exhibit non-figurative art, the Guggenheim was originally called the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. (It took the name the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum after its founder's death in 1952.)
Although figurative art began to be added to the collection in the 1950s, work by abstract painters such as Wassily Kandinsky still forms the core of the museum's collection. The Guggenheim continues to focus, as its website says, on "art of the 20th century and beyond".
"The Guggenheim has a focus on contemporary art, and we think that's important for what we are trying to achieve," says Ho.
"If you go to bigger institutions, there are a lot of curatorial demands, and there is competition for funding between departments. But the Guggenheim's focus is clear: it wants to develop a wide-ranging global collection of contemporary art from Asia, and especially China. We share that vision."
The grant will not be used to buy existing works, but to commission new ones. How many works, and by how many artists, has yet to be decided. According to senior curator Munroe, the artworks may be by a number of artists, or a group of artists. Chinese artists from Greater China, including Taiwan and Hong Kong, are acceptable.
Berghuis, who is known for his curatorial focus on performance art, says that the artists he has talked to so far individually focus on a range of media, and are not just dedicated to painting or, say, video art.
Ho says that the idea of commissioning new works was an important part of their concept. "It is not about buying art, but about commissioning art," Ho says. "We like that, as it allows artists to work for art's sake. In some sense, [the funding] enhances their thinking, their process, as they don't have to be concerned about the market. It gives artists the freedom to push art forward. In simple terms, for us, it allows the artists the chance to work for art's sake, to be seen on the world stage and to become established."
Berghuis agrees that freeing artists from having to fulfil the expectations and needs of the art market will liberate their creativity because market forces encourage artists to work in a certain style to ensure a sale. "We are witnessing a kind of brand making of Chinese art in the global market," he says. "We value the fact that artists are able to make a living out of their practice, and celebrate the success that artists achieve through market interest. But artists should not have to embed themselves in the market."
The notion of Chinese contemporary art is relatively new, and there is disagreement about what the term refers to.
In a piece published in The Guardian last September, Ai Weiwei said there was no such thing as Chinese contemporary art because government restrictions prohibit artists from addressing the country's most pressing issues. "Chinese art is merely a product; it avoids any meaningful engagement," he wrote.
Chinese contemporary art has also been criticised for taking on the ideas of Western modern art rather than developing upon its own art-historical roots. Other critics say contemporary Chinese art is a product created for the Western, rather than Chinese, market, and has been over-hyped by powerful art investors.
Berghuis, who also researches how art relates to culture in general, says that, although techniques have differed between continents, it's a mistake to divide art too deeply into Eastern and Western strands. "'Modern' is not a singular tree," he says. "We should not put paintings into a singular tree of modernity, in which the West, particularly Europe and North America, become the top branches of the tree. We should be talking about multiple trees of modernity, and how the trees connect."
Adds Munroe: "We recognise that Chinese art is in a state of transition. The political situation has obfuscated certain currents that are developing and the market has exaggerated and distorted the true construction of value. We feel that we can contribute to the global conversation about Chinese art, and, through Dr Berghuis' expertise, reach artists and illuminate ideas and trends that have not come to international recognition."
Claire Hsu-Vuchot, founder of the Asia Art Archive, describes the programme as significant considering the Guggenheim's global visibility, and very much in line with the shift in most major museums that are looking to diversify from their predominantly Euro-American centric collections.
"What is most promising with this initiative is the combination of support for both a dedicated curator and the commissioning of new works over an extended period."
It will be interesting to see whether the iniative will alter the overall vision and focus of the museum in the long term, she says.