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"How and why public museums are no longer defining the art scene"


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Wallpaper magazine has an article about the growth of private museum around the globe, especially in China. Philip Dodd, former director of the ICA and chairman of the advisory board for London art fair Art15, says that private museums “are blossoming in countries where the state is withdrawing or is weak, and thriving in countries like China where it’s too strong.”

Last year, Chinese-Indonesian collector Budi Tek opened the Yuz Museum in a 9,000 sq m former aircraft hangar on Shanghai’s West Bund, reworked by architect Sou Fujimoto; and Chinese power couple Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei opened two of their Long Museums in West Bund and Pudong in the space of two years. All focus predominantly on Chinese art, although the mix is international. And so fast paced is Shanghai’s private museum building boom, it has been compared to New York’s in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Other cities are close to matching that pace. In the next five years, Beirut will have five new private art museums, designed by architects such as Jean-Michel Wilmotte and Christian de Portzamparc. The frst of these, the Aïshti Foundation, belongs to Lebanese retail mogul and major collector Tony Salamé and opens this October on the city’s seafront. Like K11, it will offer art and 17,500 sq m of retail under one roof, alongside a restaurant and rooftop bar, all designed by David Adjaye. ‘Private museums play a key cultural role in emerging markets,’ says Salamé. ‘They establish a dialogue between societies in developing countries like Lebanon and other nations in the region and in the West. They also create a platform for local artists to showcase their work’…

There’s a caveat when it comes to private museums; sometimes it can be hard to draw the line between vanity and genuine philanthropy, between the whim of one individual, and the greater good. Enlisting curators, creating solid education programmes and, of course, commissioning good art are a must if any private museum is to generate genuine social change and stand the test of time. As Cheng explains: ‘Our competitors are trying to follow suit, but our model is not easy to copy. Hardware is easy, but you need the software - that is, the right content; quality exhibitions and supporting programmes, such as seminars, workshops and forums, to make it all work.’ Without firm roots, these private foundations are little more than houses of cards. ‘We’re seeing a mixed ecology where private museums become as, or more, important than public ones,’ says Dodd. ‘For good or bad, the privatisation of museums is a reality.’

Image: Long Museum West Bund, Shanghai: a coal dockyard turned into a 33,000 sq m gallery by Atelier Deshaus. Via Wallpaper.