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Understanding China’s ‘Museum Boom’

An appealing but complex offer
17.01.2016

China’s ‘museum boom’ and the recent success of a Mandarin language War Horse herald attractive opportunities for UK organisations looking to build up trade and collaboration in the region. Cultural infrastructure is clearly growing and changing at a rapid pace, however looking beyond the big numbers, the picture becomes more complex, with each province telling a different story.

We recently conducted an overview of the operating context in China’s museum and performing arts sectors. We spoke with museum and theatre sector stakeholders, many of whom felt that addressing the UK’s lack of knowledge about the Chinese sector should be the first step towards unlocking future opportunities.

Director of the Shanghai Grand Theatre, Zhang Zhe said co-operation “will be much easier when we understand each other more”, and that at present China’s understanding of UK culture is far greater than the UK’s understanding of Chinese culture. Vice Director of the National Museum of China, Chen Lusheng suggested that the UK could acknowledge what China has achieved, and highlighted mutual understanding as crucial to building future partnerships.

China’s museum sector is described in the press as building ‘with abandon’. The downside of this are new museums lacking content or operational expertise; a potential opportunity for UK partners. The government, aware of this situation, encourages individuals or organisations with just the collections needed to construct new venues themselves. Special land prices and tax incentives are available for construction projects that include cultural elements, and privately funded museums now make up 21.8% of China’s total. However, venues are not blind to the time, trouble and costs they face, despite the incentives. Wang Wei, collector and chief curator at Shanghai’s new high profile Long Museum West Bund stated:

“It’s too much hard work…My advice to the people who ask me how to go about building a museum is to consider opening a private club.”

In the performing arts, despite high profile additions such as Zaha Hadid’s RMB 1.38bn (£142m) Guangzhou Opera House, the story is less focused on construction and more on structural change. Since 2000, government policy has encouraged performing arts venues to move away from an ‘iron rice bowl’ (constant unconditional supply) of government subsidies and towards a mixed economy model. Beneficial policies aimed at the creative industries more broadly encouraged investment into the sector, fuelling increases in scale, quality and sector consolidation. Parallel to this, rising incomes and leisure time amongst audiences are encouraging a new phenomenon of performing arts clusters. These herald a mixed economy model integrating retail, leisure and cultural functions. At least 10 such clusters are underway nationwide already.

Overall this paints a picture of abundance that fits well with China’s rapid growth story, however it is worth placing the big numbers in context. China had 4,510 museums by the end of 2014, however the USA, with a smaller population, is estimated to have 35,000. Furthermore, resources in both the museums and performing arts sectors are unevenly distributed across China. East coast provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu dominate, unsurprisingly as they are wealthy and have a history of nurturing high culture that goes back hundreds of years. 38% of all exhibitions in China in 2013 were in four provinces. These put on between 600 and 1000 exhibitions each across their museums, whereas the five least active provinces averaged less than 50. Zhejiang boasts 223 performing arts venues, whereas the 11 provinces with the smallest number of venues have an average of 19.

The picture therefore is more nuanced than it may first appear. A disproportionate focus on the big numbers, in addition to oversimplifying the picture, may risk causing offence. As former British Council Senior Arts Manager Ophelia Huang pointed out, “‘Market’ seems to be the word found in every discussion related to China…nobody would love the idea of being considered merely as a market.” Drawing on the advice of the National Museum of China and Shanghai Grand Theatre, a deeper understanding of these nuances will be key for UK organisations taking steps into China. As this work progresses, we will be exploring the best opportunities for collaboration and commercial partnerships.

Further Reading

Interview with Wang Wei, collector and chief curator at Shanghai’s new high profile Long Museum West Bund

Economist special report on China’s museums

Former British Council Senior Arts Manager Ophelia Huang draws insights from her experience

Please have a digest of some of our further reading suggestions and carry on the conversation in the comments section below.