Shanghai is undergoing an extraordinary boom in private museums. Given land and buildings by the municipal authorities, private collectors are then free to shape the museum according to their taste and collection. The first we visited was the Yuz Museum. I thought it was opening in 2017. I misheard. It is opening on May 17th. An aircraft size building, it was indeed constructed by the Russians in the 1950s. A beautiful large, industrial building with large galleries to the north and a new build by a Japanese architect at the front to accommodate bookshop, cafe, ticketing, restaurant and private members’ room on interleaved decks. The Power Station of Art is actually a public museum, built at great speed by the banks of the Yangtse to coincide with the opening of the Shanghai Bienniale on 1st. October 2012. We met Li Xu, the deputy director, who spoke charmingly and openly and in impeccable English about the problems of state funding, which are the same everywhere: an interest more in the building than the programme; a lack of commitment to the project’s sustainability; hardware more than software. By the time we got to the Jingan Sculpture Park, the sun was out, blue sky and blossom. This is a grand municipal project, opened in a public park in the centre of the city, next door to the new Natural History Museum, due to open in September. We were well looked after in a tea ceremony of curators. But the high import tax makes it hard for them to buy sculpture. And thus far they have no work by British sculptors. Then back in the van for the Himalayas art museum in Pudong: part shopping mall, part boutique hotel, part art museum in a development designed in a wild expressionist style by Arata Isozaki. Good exhibition upstairs of ink painting from the 1980s, demonstrating the antecedents of the current interest in ink painting neglected at the time by the China avant garde exhibition at the National Museum in 1989 and in the New Wave exhibition at the Ullens Museum, the two key exhibitions in describing the development of Chinese art since 1979. The last museum we visited was the Long Museum: the old Long Museum because the new one on the West Bund opens tomorrow. The ground floor had a collection of contemporary art, mostly realist. The middle floor had work from the Revolutionary period, endless pictures of Chairman Mao on hilltops and overseeing the harvest, plus woodcuts from the 1940s. The top floor is early twentieth century and older. I’m not sure what to make of all this frantic museum building. Do they have the audiences ? Do they have enough exhibitions to fill them all ? It’s by far the richest concentration of new museums in the world, unseen since the days of Frick and Pierpont Morgan. In the evening, we had dinner with Wang Wei who has built two museums as well as a large part of their collections in the last two years. She bought three carloads of pineapples to offset the smell of fresh paint. We ended up the evening visiting her new Museum to the sound of horns on the river boats. The building is on a vast scale. It cost $50 million. You get a lot for your money in Shanghai. Upstairs, it’s all shuttered concrete and high arched ceilings like Roman aqueducts without defined room spaces.
There’s a comprehensive collection of Chinese art post-1979, but it’s the building which will make an impact, its scale and austerity. I wish it well. There are pineapples everywhere.