Unexplained scrapping of Guggenheim show in Shanghai illustrates need to tread carefully in China
Last-minute cancellation of Middle East contemporary art show in China raises questions about right way to work with museums there. V&A Museum’s deputy director offers a three-step strategy
Museum directors, curators and patrons from a record 78 international institutions visited this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong, many for the first time. It was simply “an alignment of the planets”, said Stephen Little, head of Chinese and Korean art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – who also led his museum patrons on a quick tour to Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou prior to the fair, as many of his counterparts did.
The presence of the 78 groups confirmed the unprecedented interest for Western museums to build bridges with China, be it for artistic and cultural exchanges, brand building or funding support.
But as many of their corporate sponsors would tell them, doing business in China requires following a new set of rules. Last year, the Ministry of Culture tightened its approval process for any exhibition featuring content made outside China (either by foreign or Chinese artists), gallery owners say. Meanwhile, news of the last-minute cancellation of a Guggenheim exhibition in Shanghai was making the rounds among the champagne-sipping set in Hong Kong last week.
“But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa” was going to open at Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum next month as part of the Guggenheim UBS Map Global Art Initiative to tour exhibitions from the US. However, the show died a second death after its debut at Istanbul’s Pera Museum was earlier scrapped.
“The two institutions agreed that it was not OK to move ahead and we are looking for another venue outside of China,” said Sarah Eaton, the Guggenheim’s director of media and public relations, last week.
Neither Mark Panday, a spokesman for UBS, the main sponsor, nor Larys Frogier, director of the museum in Shanghai, would comment.
The real reason remains a mystery, which raises more questions than answers about the right way of collaborating with Chinese institutions.
Tim Reeve, deputy director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, says the V&A had not come across issues of censorship with Design Society, a cultural and exhibition centre it is opening with China Merchants Group in Shekou in October.
He has the following advice:
1. Doing business in China feels like a dance sometimes. You don’t talk business straight away. Take time to know your partner and make sure you find a strong partner.
2. Enjoy the choreography of business but have a good understanding about what each of you wants. We have CMG’s guarantee that we will be independent in thoughts and deeds.
3. There are lots of narratives to explore in culture. Don’t be provocative just to be provocative.