On the eve of Art Basel in Hong Kong at the end of this month, concerns are emerging about the ability of China’s private museums to meet the financial demands of maintaining collections and exhibition programmes.
When the Communist Party gained power in 1949 China had only 25 museums, many of which then fell into ruin and disrepair during the 10-year Cultural Revolution that started in 1966.
China’s first privately owned art museum only opened to the public in 1998, but now there are around 1,500, exerting a significant influence on the international art market and cultural appreciation of contemporary visual arts.
The expansion of the past two decades has been driven by the rising number of very wealthy Chinese art investors who want to leave a cultural legacy. They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into spectacular new museums that are as likely to be recognised for their spectacular architecture as the quality of their collections. In the process they have seeded cultural change in much the same way that “robber barons” such as Frick, Carnegie and Rockefeller helped to establish some of America’s great museums in the 19th century.
China’s private museums do not receive any funding support from the government, instead relying almost entirely on the sponsorship of their wealthy founders.
Despite their wealth, a recent report by a faculty member of Sotheby’s Institute of Art said that the considerable costs of running these institutions are beginning to wear some owners down. In the slowing economy many are struggling to break even as the burden of maintaining museum buildings and exhibition programmes outstrips earnings – even before they buy any art to further build their collections. Some museums have been forced to close after investors changed their direction while in other cases private museum collections are being depleted as works are sold off in an effort to shore up operating budgets.
In the absence of a government policy that would enable China’s private art museums to gain sustainable public funding and resources, there are fears that many of these institutions will face closure in the next decade. As China’s art community, critics, collectors and museum owners consider the future of the nation’s private museums, some are proposing tax breaks for collectors as a solution, like those offered in the US.
Thailand has also been undergoing a recent surge of investment in private art museums. The most complete collection in terms of scale and renown is the Museum of Contemporary Art, owned by telecom tycoon Boonchai Bencharongkul, and the nation’s first international-standard museum when it opened in 2012. In Thailand, as in China, there have been calls for the government to lower tax and duties on buying art so that these private art and cultural facilities can continue to support the growth of a dynamic local art scene.
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