EX: 1/30/2012
  >> Search features
>> Confirm subscribe
2016.07.08 Fri, by Translated by: Sophia Ong
Private Museums and the Curatorial Brain Drain

This piece is included in Ran Dian’s print magazine, issue 2 (Winter 2015–2016)

After surviving a mere ten months working in an Chinese institution, with incompetent waffling leadership, no funding strategy, a lack of transparency, no respect for curatorial knowledge, or even basic issues such as budgeting and prompt payment of suppliers, there were days when I wanted to carve “redrum” into the walls of my cubicle. They had begun to spread malicious rumors about my professional conduct (accusing me of corrupt dealings with galleries, things which I was pretty sure they were doing) and they had cut off the resources I needed so that I was unable to properly install art works. I had downed one glass of dubious Bordeaux too many. It was time to make a move.

And not a moment too soon. I had begun to look and talk like a cast member of the Living Dead and was filled with rage on a daily basis. When I saw friends afterwards, they remarked on how much better I looked—my skin, my hair. I no longer had a litany of complaints every time we met. I was well . . . balanced and contented: normal for the first time in the good part of a year. A few months later I heard about jobs in other institutions and though they seemed to be well funded and run by prominent names; I thought, “No. Not until I have an informant who can vouch for the sanity of the institution. I cannot survive another year of living in a strange Orwellian universe where the earnest and idealistic curatorial team works hard to make interesting things happen meanwhile trying to shield themselves from the torrent of excrement raining down from above.”

摄影:袁小鹏 / Photograph by Xiaopeng Yuan

摄影:袁小鹏 / Photograph by Xiaopeng Yuan

Yet my intention in writing this article is not merely to rant—it’s in the interest of drawing attention to a very real problem: the remarkably high turn-over in Chinese museums and the growing exodus from the museum system due to a lack of confidence and experience in the highest levels of management.

Are my colleagues still there? Including some admin people, we had six resignations. But most are still there because they know that if they leave they are just trading in one dysfunctional museum for another. They prefer the devil they know—they have no energy to learn the habits of a strange, new beast.

Since I left, I have had the time to talk with a lot of other curators who have recently left museums in China. They have shared their experiences and frustration. I have kept them anonymous, as well as myself, in the interest of protecting them and also my former colleagues. In writing this article, I interviewed or had informal discussions with ten odd curators to try to discover the extent of this curatorial malaise.

My general feeling is that levels of disillusionment are reaching code-red. “’Dream’, this is really too big a word”, said a young museum worker who left a chaotic Shanghai institution before its opening show, “For most people, work is a means of livelihood or social status: it has nothing to do with so-called ideas, or dreams. Art institutions are also institutions, or ‘work units’—they are just one choice of a job. So there is a fundamental contradiction between personal dreams and institutions.”

Another young museum worker who also used to study abroad told me, “In New York, you’ve got to have a dream. Otherwise there is no point in being there. It’s too hard. But here, you’d better not have any dreams. Otherwise you will never survive.”

Dreams, one might say, could be seen as a luxury; but more than being severely de-motivated, staff are frustrated because no one respects their professional knowledge and they simply cannot do their jobs. They are bogged down with paperwork and endless meetings—certainly a relative of the struggle sessions of yore. There is very little time for research; to take time off to visit an artist’s studio is a rare occurrence requiring a permission form to be submitted and approved.

Because the top managers are so insecure, the staff hired tend to be in their early 20s to 30s; people who have completed their Masters and PhDs abroad, who have even quite a few years of experience under their belts but are still continually reduced to the role of assistant curator or producer—merely carrying out the administrative tasks such as writing contracts while certain “guan zhangs”—museum directors who haven’t studied a page of art history—send down decrees in high-pitched tones from the front of the boardroom.

“Ideas, goals and strategies have constantly changed and most of the input was rejected”, I was told by a foreign curator working in a Chinese institution, “My position has changed several times since they kept hiring random people who brought ‘new ideas’ which had devastating consequences,” he laments; “Curators in China seem not to be able to work independently. Either the sponsoring museum’s owner or any party member mostly has the last word.”

In Curating Now: Imaginative Practice Public Responsibility, former MoMA Senior Curator Robert Storr underlines the necessity of having many voices to allow for disagreement and debate as something intrinsic to modern and contemporary art: “I can assure you that it is possible to hold an institution together and to maintain a degree of collegiality and still have those disagreements show to beneficial effect in the way exhibitions are organized and collections are built. It is necessary that this happen because modern art itself, and postmodern art, too—though I take the long view and think that the latter is actually a middle chapter of the former—has been a debate about what art should be or become.”[1]

摄影:袁小鹏 / Photograph by Xiaopeng Yuan

摄影:袁小鹏 / Photograph by Xiaopeng Yuan

Evidence of the lack of curatorial might is evident in the scant number of museums boasting high-profile curators. YUZ museum didn’t even have a museum director for many years, and a recent hiring for them of David Tung (formerly of Long March Space in Beijing), turned out to be short-lived. Huang Jian, the Managing Director of Long Museum, has openly said in an article published on Artron, “We don’t have curatorial positions, because today the brightest minds are publicly available [i.e. curators can be hired for one off jobs], access to information is unobstructed. For the important academic or controversial exhibitions held within the museum, we must invite only the best curators.”

At the same time, he continues that many of these curators are actually too busy to curate: “Being in contact with lots of curators, I’ve discovered that many of the big name curators are very busy. Sometimes when you ask them to curate an exhibition they only provide a concept, or perhaps at some point in time provide an article, so they are basically not fulfilling their function. So we separate it in two: for important exhibitions we invite a curator who will be responsible for the project; and the second is that we do the curating ourselves and then when the exhibition is in a relatively mature phase we invite an academic advisor.”

The lack of in-house curators in fact seems to be more the norm than the exception: let’s look around at the rest of Shanghai. Gong Yan is the director of PSA, but who is the chief curator? Minsheng and M21? Besides Rockbund, OCAT and Aura, most institutions do not have a curatorial presence; rather, they have faceless bureaucrats sitting snug in their offices cradling a thermos of tea.

This “headless museum” syndrome seems to be particularly bad in the privately run museums, especially those run by wealthy collectors. “I think this is very typical for China in general,” said the aforementioned foreign curator; “Especially when a private owner is involved, you are facing constant radical changes which sometimes might lead to absurd results or compromises”.

Another curator I spoke to in Beijing reiterated the same issues of the founder of the museum not only having a lack of vision in terms of positioning, but outright denying the need for a yearly exhibition plan. So bad was the situation that one exhibition would be ready to close and the next exhibition had yet to be confirmed; “Our problem is that there is no direction; we were wandering around blindly. This is a problem for many of the private museums: they never thought about how much money and budget [they would need]. They’ll spend seven million on the first show and then the whole budget for the year is only three million.”

In these circumstances where management is erratic, malleability becomes an asset—I have even heard of one case where a staff member’s extremely demonstrative filial subservience to his bosses earned him a curatorial award with a substantial cash bonus.

This lack of managerial experience means that hiring is skewed by guanxi networks. In one case, close to 40% of the curatorial staff had personal family connections—many of them were blood relations. Frankly, we’ve seen family run-restaurants with better hiring policies.

This nepotism perhaps stems from generational issues, said our Beijing informant, “This is also a generational problem—because the founders are 50 or so these people cannot trust younger people in their 20s and 30s. But China didn’t have curatorial training before, so most of the people who are trained in this area are younger. [The founders] are more likely to trust people of their own age. You can say “This is a really good artist” and show them the artist’s CV—you can tell them these things; but they don’t really trust the rules of this business. They will look for advisors of the same age and background.”

This kind of crony-curating is a rampant problem. A good friend of mine refers to it as “ge-mer” (哥们儿) curating, taking the advice of friends or simply inviting one’s friends to participate in an exhibition. Another curator told me that it was common at her institution for the upper management to routinely make decisions based on long-term friendships, refusing to even consider artists whom they did not have personal connections with. An artist friend of mine summed it up rather succinctly: “The serious curators have no authority. The curators with authority only use it for personal gain.” I was actually told during a staff meeting one time: “It’s important for us to develop connections with people, galleries and artists,” this from an individual whose name was associated with employing his official position for personal gain.

摄影:袁小鹏 / Photograph by Xiaopeng Yuan

摄影:袁小鹏 / Photograph by Xiaopeng Yuan

Another curator who had experience working both abroad and elsewhere remarked, “The private collectors are the worst case. They want to hire a puppet—they don’t want to hire someone with a brain. Their priorities are to showcase their collection. It’s private institution branded as a public institution, but ultimately it is not. It only works when the collector is not alive, like Peggy Guggenheim.”

But at the same time, when there are no foundations for these private museums, it is imperative to have a strong leader at the helm. “In China you usually have a key figure to balance these relationships between people and political resources,” said our Beijing curator, “You need someone with a lot of resources. But if you are not someone who doesn’t have a lot of resources, if you are missing this personality then you can’t drive the museum forward”.

Perhaps a good solution is to incorporate these powerful personalities into the museum board—a board that also has the function of acting as a check and balance system on whatever rogue leadership may exist. This has worked well in the situation of UCCA, says our Beijing curator, “The UCCA foundation is very important. They give their ideas to build a system to help generate a funding model and to manage the team. A lot of these private museums do not have a foundation—people who understand art and running a museum. So I think the private museums are pretty chaotic. Lots of them do not have a good model, so it is hard for them to advance.”

Yet that’s not to say the situation is completely bleak across the board; there are more enlightened institutions. For instance, a curator at a Shanghai museum told us that they operate in a very independent way with little interference from their backers, government entities or other parties, “We don’t have any instructions from anyone outside the museum side. We make an annual report to the chairman or committee but they don’t interfere. They don’t give you a project to do. They make comments. They have the right to, but they have never turned down an exhibition proposal.”

This particular curator, unlike most I talked to, did feel that his curatorial knowledge was valued, even remarking that senior people in the organization would use an honorific title which was slightly above his age when addressing him.

“I get to do my own programs, and work on bigger shows. My own projects were very well received. The best part is I feel my knowledge and contribution are valued. For curators or critics, this is the most important thing.”

As someone who has worked in several museum environments, he has learnt some good survival strategies, “I am good with sensing the signals. I always keep a distance from most things. Never get too close so you can protect yourself. It’s better to connect with both of sides so as to have a better connection with both of them.”

He also feels that the curator needs to take more of the responsibility and really sell their ideas, “I feel that most curators need to have a stronger character to actually put things forward. It’s natural that the curator gets cut off from the whole process. Sometimes curators don’t have a very strong academic background and it is a power play in the art world; they need to make their practice more convincing.”

He also thinks that in time, collectors will become more open to letting curators take stewardship of their treasures, “First, you want to take care of these things yourself. Then you realize you’d better hire someone to take care of these things for you. They have to play certain games to convince the owner they can take care of this stuff. Overall I am optimistic. It may take a generation to surface. In the collector’s family they will see it not as possession, but like a legacy. For instance, the purse you just bought, perhaps you want to keep it for you, but if it’s a Birkin you got from your mom you might put it into [safe keeping].”

摄影:袁小鹏 / Photograph by Xiaopeng Yuan

摄影:袁小鹏 / Photograph by Xiaopeng Yuan

In the meantime, you have curators migrating into various other areas: independent practices, working for galleries or auction houses or leaving the profession. As Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, explains, “Finding a way for that practice to exist within an institution that might be something else. It’s like being in a relationship. It’s like you’re a carnivore and you marry a vegan. In some ways, that probably isn’t going to work; but there are other ways.”[2] And it’s true that the independent sphere is an important incubator of the art world, but the issue is that it is only part of the food chain. By scaring off talent, our private museums are greatly hurting the art ecology—who will train our next generation of museum curators? Who will staff the scores of museums which will open in the coming years as part of the government’s cultural mandate? A team of puppets?

[1] Marincola, Paula, Storr, Robert, Eds, How We Do What We Do. What We Don’t, “Curating Now: Imaginative Practice Public Responsibility”, Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, Philadelphia: 2001, p. 10

[2] Marincola, Paula, Storr, Robert, Eds, Curating Now: Imaginative Practice Public Responsibility “Panel Statements and Discussion”, Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, Philadelphia: 2001, p. 26

摄影:袁小鹏 / Photograph by Xiaopeng Yuan

摄影:袁小鹏 / Photograph by Xiaopeng Yuan

摄影:袁小鹏 / Photograph by Xiaopeng Yuan

摄影:袁小鹏 / Photograph by Xiaopeng Yuan

摄影:袁小鹏 / Photograph by Xiaopeng Yuan

摄影:袁小鹏 / Photograph by Xiaopeng Yuan