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A Battle to Become Art Capital of China

By KEVIN HOLDEN PLATT, BEIJING (NY Times): The sometimes-tense relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing appears set to move to another front: the world of art.

With the National Art Museum of China — or Namoc — planning to open in a new building in 2017, and Hong Kong projected to open its M+ museum in a new cultural district about the same time, the cities could emerge as twin titans of contemporary Chinese culture.

Namoc attracted some of the world’s leading architects, including Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel, to its design contest for the new museum in Olympic park in Beijing. Xie Xiaofan, a deputy director at Namoc, informally announced at the E.U.-China High Level Cultural Forum in November that Mr. Nouvel’s design had been selected, although the decision is subject to the approval of China’s new leadership.

The director of Namoc, Fan Di’an, said that the new building would house an ever-expanding collection of contemporary Chinese art. It will have 50,000 square meters, or almost 540,000 square feet, of exhibition space — six times the current space — with 20,000 square meters for the permanent collection and 30,000 square meters to showcase contemporary art, Republican-era art, and Western art.

State-run museums in Beijing have rarely been sanctuaries for experimental Chinese artists. But Mr. Fan said that many of Namoc’s new acquisitions would focus on art created after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, which ushered in the end of the Cultural Revolution and, in many ways, the beginning of China’s rapid social transformation. Namoc’s collection, now dominated by Chinese scroll paintings and by artists with state backing, would also be expanded to include experimental “paintings, photographs, sculptures and new media art,” Mr. Fan said.

The original building would then be used to exhibit Namoc’s traditional Chinese paintings, said Fan Ling, an instructor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

The updated collection will also highlight artworks produced in the period between the fall of China’s last emperor, in 1911, and the Communist Party’s seizing of power in 1949. A first wave of Chinese artists set off to study painting in France during this period, and some returned to establish what are now China’s leading art academies. Lin Fengmian, for example, who co-founded the prestigious China Academy of Art after studying in Paris, experimented with combining post-Impressionist techniques with Chinese ink painting until he was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution.

But Namoc’s ambitious expansion plans are not without challenges. “Any museum would love to collect Lin Fengmian’s paintings,” said a young scholar at Namoc who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “but price levels for his works are extremely high at auctions.”

This is not an option for the state- owned museum. “The National Art Museum is a nonprofit, government-run institution, and is not permitted to purchase artworks at auctions,” Mr. Fan, the Namoc director, said in an interview.

Funds for acquisitions are provided by the Ministry of Culture, which also has the power to block the purchase of works by artists who are deemed by the Communist leadership to be troublemakers.

In the former British enclave of Hong Kong, the M+ museum has outlined its plans to showcase Chinese visual culture of the 20th and 21st centuries, along with works from elsewhere in Asia and the West, in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. Architectural firms led by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Toyo Ito, and Renzo Piano — all Pritzker Architecture Prize laureates — were recently named among the finalists in the competition to design M+.

In China’s new arts race, the Hong Kong institution has already taken a remarkable lead over Namoc: One of the world’s leading collectors of contemporary Chinese art, Uli Sigg, recently donated 1,400 works of art to M+.

“Uli’s collection of contemporary Chinese art is the most extensive anywhere in the world — the greatest one,” said Evelyn Lin, who led a Sotheby’s valuation of the donated works at 1.3 billion Hong Kong dollars.

The decision to donate to an institution outside mainland China was not taken lightly. “My first impulse was to give these artworks to a museum in Beijing or Shanghai,” Mr. Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to China, said in an interview. But he said he was concerned that works by artists who are blacklisted in China’s state-run museums might never be exhibited in public. Before making a gift to one of these state citadels of culture, he said, he “wanted China to reveal its standards of censorship — what could be shown and couldn’t be shown in the collection.”

Because such details were not provided by the authorities, Mr. Sigg said, he opted for the M+ in Hong Kong. When Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the two sides agreed that the territory would be governed under a “one country, two systems” model, and Hong Kong has retained a wide degree of freedom of expression, as well as a free press and independent courts.

Mr. Sigg began collecting experimental Chinese art after he helped set up one of Europe’s first industrial joint ventures, involving the Swiss company Schindler Group, with China in 1980. He then stepped up his acquisitions when he became the Swiss ambassador to China in the 1990s. While there, he said, he was disturbed to discover that some artists were banned from government-sponsored exchanges and visits, and that Chinese museums had imposed a de facto blockade on creators of political pop art. He began collecting paintings, sculptures and installations that he hoped would tell the story of China’s cultural evolution to future generations.

Mr. Sigg’s collection includes works by the artist Ai Weiwei, whose public criticism of the Chinese government led to his detention in isolation for almost three months in 2011. Mr. Ai is now free but is barred from leaving the country, and all exhibitions of his work inside mainland China have been canceled.

Mr. Sigg, who is a friend of the artist’s, said that if he had donated to a government museum in mainland China, it was “highly likely that Ai Weiwei’s works would not be exhibited.” Deeming this unacceptable, he took his collection beyond the reach of China’s cultural commissars.

The executive director of M+, Lars Nittve, predicted that other art patrons and philanthropists would, like Mr. Sigg, bypass museums in mainland China in favor of M+ because of Hong Kong’s “long tradition of freedom of expression.” He added, however, that M+ would seek to foster exchanges with museums on the mainland.

The importance of reaching out to mainland China was echoed by Mr. Sigg, who said he hoped Hong Kong’s free and independent art world would increasingly interact with and influence the mainland’s government-dominated system. “M+ could become an avant-garde model for all mainland Chinese museums,” he said.

Curators at the Hong Kong museum said that if Namoc were to begin exhibiting the works of China’s experimental — and often controversial — artists, it would represent a remarkable move toward cultural liberalization. In the past, many vanguard artists were treated like members of a cultural underground.

“Their works were considered a threat by the state museums,” explained Aric Chen, a curator for M+. “Some artist colonies were attacked; they had exhibitions that were shut down; and some artists were arrested.”

The expansion plans at Namoc will be closely watched. Mr. Sigg, who has been appointed to the M+ board of directors, said that he would urge the Hong Kong museum to extend long-term loans of artworks “if any mainland museum — including Namoc — would considerably soften up in terms of freedom of expression and exhibition.”

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For Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-ve) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point

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