The new speed record for setting up a major contemporary art museum belongs to the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened this month in a former power plant after less than a year of planning and construction. The museum opened with one of Asia's biggest art events: the Shanghai Biennale, also organized at warp speed.
In Beijing, the days are ticking down until the official word is given on the architect chosen to build the massive National Art Museum of China, a contemporary art museum that will rise next to the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium and cover an area the size of London's Tate Modern. The short list includes Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Moshe Safdie, though a leak to the architectural press in August suggested that the plum will go to French architect Jean Nouvel.
China's rush to build flagship museums of contemporary art makes sense, at a time when the work of artists such as Ai Weiwei, Yue Minjun and Zhang Huan has a global reach. But the building boom – which also landed the world's largest museum of any kind on Tiananmen Square last year – may be running ahead of China's ability to run and make sense of such institutions.
"In spite of this museum building boom, there's not a single place in mainland China where one could go and see the 35-year history of what we refer to as contemporary art in China exhibited in a coherent and systematic way," says Philip Tinari, the American-born director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, a private gallery in Beijing. "It's more about the wow and the now."
That suits the sensibility of the time, says Tinari, who opens Art Toronto with a talk about Chinese museums on Friday. "People are really excited about the culture of this moment. They're looking for aesthetic experiences that resonate with where they are right now. But there's a lack of overarching framework."
Museological schools are scrambling to train personnel who can provide that narrative context, and the curatorial skills to run China's museums at an international standard. "There are more opportunities than there are qualified people," Tinari says. "That's a piece of the puzzle that will take a few more years."
The hermetic outlook of old-style People's Republic art displays at places like the new National Museum of China in Tiananmen does not suit more contemporary work, or China's ambition to be a global art presence.
Tinari says the Chinese have developed a style of cosmopolitanism that is quite different from that of the Japanese and Koreans in decades past.
"There's lots of money in China going towards art, but nobody's buying Impressionist art or Old Masters," he says. "There's not this idea that one needs to master that story to be on equal terms."
That confident attitude has been crimped somewhat by the state's attitude to international auction sales – until recently not allowed in China – and tax rules on donations and art purchased abroad. China's huge cadre of the newly rich avoided the tax by stashing their finds in Hong Kong, which operates as a kind of free port.
"You have a lot less international contemporary art, or any art, making its way into mainland China than was the case a few years ago," Tinari says.
That trend prompted the central government to allow the new Tianzhu free-trade zone in Beijing, where Sotheby's held its first mainland auction late last month.
New cultural zones are opening up around the country, including one in Hunan, Mao Zedong's home province. Financial firms like Minsheng Bank and developers such as Shanghai's Zendai Group build and run their own museums. Industrial buildings from the revolutionary era are being repurposed as cultural sites. The Ullens Center, the first private contemporary museum in China, opened in 2007 in a former munitions factory, and now draws one million visitors a year.
As for the public, Tinari says that "it's extremely curious and attentive, but not as grounded in trends in contemporary art as maybe the Paris public or the Toronto public. People don't treat museums like cathedrals in China, which means you have to be extra-vigilant about protecting the works. And the idea that one might pay something for this kind of experience is quite foreign." The Ullens's ticket price is around $1.40, "and that's almost a hard sell," he says.
However, the gift shop does a roaring trade. The consumer society, held back for decades by the Communist Party, has descended on China with a vengeance, and its offerings include contemporary art and all the trappings of museum merchandising. Can I interest you in a Yue Minjun desk calendar?
National Museum of China: Word has it that this massive edifice on Tiananmen Square was specifically designed to be the world's biggest museum.
China Art Museum: Asia's largest art museum opened in the former China Pavilion at Shanghai's 2010 World Expo site, on the same day as the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art – mainland China's first state-owned museum devoted to contemporary art.
Jianchuan Museum Cluster: Developer Fan Jianchuan's 18 museums in Sichuan province display his private collection of eight million historical artifacts, many of which are related to the Cultural Revolution and the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Harbourfront Centre's The Power Plant and 2012 Art Toronto present a lecture by Philip Tinari at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Friday at 6 p.m.