As Art Historian David Carrier drank his coffee and tapped into the Internet at a Starbucks in Beijing, he thought about how the Western world has exported many things to the Far East, from fast-food hamburgers, coffee lattes and pizza to the cultural highbrow of the public art museum.
A Fulbright-Luce Fellow, Case Western Reserve University's Champney Family Professor spent the spring semester in China. Between teaching contemporary Western art courses for the Department of Art and Design at Tsinghua University and the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Carrier visited art museums and archaeological sites.
An account of his observations of China's burgeoning art museums will appear in the article, "Some Museums in China, Macau, and Taiwan," in the October issue of Curator.
The concept of a public art museum is a modern idea, says Carrier, who has written extensively about art museum history and development in his book, Museum Skepticism.
"New public art museums reveal the power of the state," he says, meaning that for many years, to be considered a full city, you needed an art museum. Now that same idea has woven itself into the concept of what it means to be a country. Worldwide national art museums are appearing, and China's are among them.
China is now considered one of the major world markets for art and supports its artists from the present and the past in developing traditional and "kuntshalle" style, or modern art museums.
Its museum history parallels stories found in other countries, where the first public museums came from king's private collection. In France, the Louvre and the artwork it housed was turned from the king's palace to the country's public art museum in 1793. China's original art museum evolved when Nationalists placed the private collection of China's last emperor from the Ming Dynasty, housed in the Forbidden City, into the public realm in 1911.
That year marked the first of three major events to impact the history of art museums in China. Other historical dates were 1949, with the rise of the People's Republic of China and the Nationalists' retreat to Taiwan with major art works, and 1979, the end of the Cultural Revolution, which heralded the onset of modernization.
By the Western standards, China is late in establishing public art museums.
Carrier says some of the country's oldest art museums were from the 1950s, but much of China's art was "trashed" during the Cultural Revolution. Two places survived this turbulent period—the Forbidden City and a nuclear bomb site, he adds.
Major museums appearing on the city's landscape in recent years are: Beijing's Capital Museum, World Art Museum, and The Today Art Museum.
In a country populated by 1.3 billion people, China's growing middle class patronizes these venues as well as archaeological sites, in droves. The attractions include the recently found terra cotta warriors (1974) at Xi An, once capital of China; Forest of the Stelae Museum (first written account of Christianity in China from 8th century), Shaanxi History Museum, and the Buddhist cave art at Dunghuang.
"Westerners would be comfortable in the museum spaces with the grand entrances, galleries, and bookstores," Carrier says. But, he adds, "The content would be unfamiliar" with art forms in jade, bronze, porcelains, and calligraphy; displays sometimes set in darkened galleries.
China's government financially supports most of its museums. He found it hard to grasp their size from looking at tourist information, which was primarily in Chinese and difficult to understand for the non-speaker.
Carrier says that often, American museums are disappointing and are actually smaller than they appear in print or on the Web.
"The converse is true in China," where the museums are far larger than they appear online, he says.
In building these museums, China strives to have a "world art museum."
"In America and Europe, the natural goal has been to create a world art museum, displaying art from all visual cultures," says Carrier.
China was late to collecting art work and is now more focused on collecting Chinese art, he says. But, international loan programs have brought Western art to the museum to fill this void and help launch this world art museum concept in China.
Carrier also touches upon a concern shared by other countries, which lost antiquities to major world museums.
He says these new museums will struggle with the moral and ethical questions surrounding the recovery of a country's history in its art work pilfered during times when the country could not defend itself against others.
This visit to China was not the first. Several of Carrier's books on art history writing and art history have been translated into Chinese.
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