One of the more visible characteristics of the Chinese frenzied construction boom has been the equally frenzied but less talked about construction of museums across the country. All over China, from smaller cities to the megacities museums are becoming a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape. The constructions are initiated by institutions and people as diverse as the museums themselves. There are museums of contemporary art commissioned by local authorities, developers, banks, the wealthy elite and many other institutions in China. In 2010 alone, some 395 museums were built in China. This number increased to 400 in the following year and hundreds more are being added annually as China embarks on an impressive construction of cultural infrastructure.
This obsession with museums and other cultural infrastructure reflects the tastes of the new Chinese middle class elite, freshly minted from the economic boom. The museum exhibits are inspired by broad themes ranging from contemporary Chinese art to Western art, ethnological, historical and the rich cultural heritage of China. One of the most impressive of these museums is the China Art Palace housed in the iconic Chinese Pavilion of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. It offers over 600,000 square feet of exhibition space, comparable to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Another impressive and really spectacular Chinese Museums is the Power Station of Art, it is housed in a 19th century power station. The gigantic China Art Palace exhibits works from 20th century Chinese modernism. While China’s impressive museums are an expression China’s great ambition, the bulk of China’s over 3020 museums are actually much smaller in scale and offer thousands of diverse displays. They range from the privately funded museums to the vanity museums of some of the Chinese wealthy elite. It is expected that some of these museums will become brandable domains of their own.
China’s museum construction boom however seems to outstrip the supply of art goers. Art education is still very low in a culture that places great premium on academic excellence so the museums are still relatively empty in spite of the very low charges for exhibitions, sometimes as low as $1.30. Is China risking developing thousands of “ghost museums”? Another key challenge faced by developers of China’s museums is the general lack of curatorial talent in the country. Many Chinese art schools are currently on a crash program on museological courses to plump up the country’s talent and increase administrative oversight. For the foreseeable future however, it seems the museums will keep on coming as the economy revs on. China like Japan, which at its peak had over 3000 museums down to today’s 900 museums, will eventually hit a plateau and then a dip to a sustainable number of museums which are well managed and which offer substantial and more valuable exhibitions.