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Shanghai's edge

The city that embodies China's bold contemporary spirit is crafting a role for itself as a distinctive place to show new art made at home and abroad.

October 23, 2005|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Shanghai — DOES anyone go to Shanghai to see contemporary art? It isn't even mentioned in standard tour books touting the Shanghai Museum's ancient bronzes, Pudong's glittering skyline and shopping, shopping, shopping. For most visitors, the quintessential Shanghai experience is sipping a drink at a bar overlooking the frantic traffic along the Bund while watching fireworks frame the Oriental Pearl Tower -- the UFO-like spire that symbolizes the city's ambitions -- after seeing a few sights and maxing out a credit card.

But the forces of growth that have filled Shanghai's sky with construction cranes -- China's national bird, in current parlance -- have sparked a profusion of nonprofit exhibition spaces and commercial galleries devoted to avant-garde art. Against the odds, these showcases have popped up in a central park, a historic pedestrian street, a suburban shopping mall, abandoned banks and a derelict industrial complex. Beijing remains the undisputed cultural capital of China, but Shanghai is fashioning a role for itself as a distinctive place to see new art made in China and elsewhere.

Consider the Museum of Contemporary Art, or MOCA Shanghai, which opened in late September with way too many speeches, a retrospective of purposely kitschy portraits by the French duo Pierre et Gilles and a party that rocked well past midnight. It was definitely the place to be for the Shanghai art crowd and a slew of French diplomats and businesspeople.

Bankrolled by Samuel Kung, a Hong Kong-based jewelry designer, the museum is housed in a modern glass structure built as a greenhouse in the People's Park, smack dab in the middle of town. Because of the building's original use, the museum is surrounded by trees and a lily pond, in what feels like an oasis of tranquillity. But it's close to the Shanghai Art Museum, which focuses on traditional Chinese art made in modern times, and within easy walking distance of the Shanghai Grand Theater, a performing arts center, and the Shanghai Museum, a stronghold of historical Chinese art.

"It would be impossible to do this in Hong Kong," said Kung, whose gentle manner belies his concern with every detail of the improbable project. "We could not find such a place in Hong Kong. There are more opportunities in Shanghai."

Kung got permission to transform the greenhouse into a museum and operate it for 20 years from officials of Shanghai's central Huangpu District, who were looking for an alternative use for the building.

"I first thought of making a jewelry museum, but it seemed too limited," he said. "I know a little about contemporary art, and I'm going to learn more. It's quite interesting to have a location like this; it will definitely draw attention. I don't have any experience running a museum, but we have good ideas about showing Chinese and international art and design under one roof. I think we will build a museum with its own character and style."

In a city often said to be obsessed with appearances and inclined to build something -- anything -- before planning or providing the infrastructure, MOCA Shanghai has become a reality. Although the glass walls let in far too much light for sensitive artworks, the 13,000-square-foot building has been outfitted with 6,000 square feet of enclosed gallery space approached by a dramatically sweeping ramp. Decks off the third floor, adjacent to a sleekly appointed restaurant, offer views of the park and respite from city noise and traffic.

The first few items on the exhibition schedule feature European art. Pierre et Gilles' show was staged as the final event of China's official "Year in France" cultural festival, which also brought artworks from the Louvre to the Shanghai Museum. Coming attractions at MOCA Shanghai include "Swiss Design Now" and "Italy Made in Art."

But the new museum's mission statement indicates that Chinese contemporary art will be a major part of the program. Detailed on the museum's website, the goal boils down to something like this: to promote, collect, research and provide information about Chinese contemporary art; bring high-quality international contemporary art and design to China; inspire creativity; and provide training for museum professionals in China.

It's an ambitious agenda and, as Kung pointed out, the museum faces plenty of challenges. He has already put $1.25 million into the project, and he can't continue paying all the bills.

Admission fees and the restaurant will bring in revenue. A small selection of museum-related products might be expanded and marketed. But sponsors must be found for exhibitions -- in a country with no tradition of corporate or private support for the arts. And to do that, MOCA Shanghai must form partnerships and build an audience.

"The museum needs an image," Kung said, "and a lot of help from specialists and friends."

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