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MOCA's Chinese future

In an unusual deal, the museum will acquire artwork just purchased by a bank.

August 29, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

East West Bank has purchased a $2-million collection of Chinese contemporary art for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, but you'll have to go to the bank's headquarters in Pasadena to see it.

Under terms of an unusual agreement, MOCA curators selected 11 paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs by six artists -- including leading figures such as Xu Bing and Cai Guo-Qiang -- and the bank paid for them. Starting Thursday, the works will be on public display at the bank, but they will also be available for exhibition at the museum and will become part of its permanent collection in 2026.

"This is a community thing," Dominic Ng, the bank's chairman and chief executive, said this week. "I was not interested in getting these artworks for corporate decoration or pure appreciation. It's important to provide exposure for Southern California residents who might not have an opportunity to see contemporary art from China.

"Everyone knows the terra-cotta soldiers in Xian, the Tang horses, the antiquities, but they may not know that contemporary artists are pioneers in China, making very bold moves and going into edgy areas," he said. "I thought if we were going to be furnishing our office with artwork, we may as well do something that means something to the community. If we can help make MOCA a leader in Chinese contemporary art, it will be a wonderful thing."

MOCA Director Jeremy Strick praised the gift as "a remarkably enlightened gesture" and an important addition to the museum's international collection. Although many individuals have transferred the ownership of art to museums over time -- partly to take advantage of tax breaks now restricted by changes in tax laws -- similar arrangements with corporate entities are extremely rare if not nonexistent, Strick said.

The partnership, which was worked out over several years, stemmed from discussions between Strick and Ng, who had developed an interest in Chinese contemporary art through friends in China and a trusteeship at the Asia Society in New York. He personally financed curatorial travel and research for the MOCA project as an exploratory venture. The bank became involved as plans developed.

The collection includes "Tiger With Arrows," a roughly 7 1/2 -by-23-foot gunpowder-on-paper abstraction by Cai. Xu, known for inventive explorations of language, is represented by a calligraphic version of Bob Dylan's song "The Times They Are A-Changin' " and a drawing incorporating Chinese characters in a traditional landscape.

Shi Guorui, who makes large photographs of famous sites with room-size pinhole cameras, is represented by images of Shanghai and the Hollywood sign. There are also colorful abstract paintings by Suling Wang, a large stainless steel "scholar's rock" by Zhan Wang and ink-wash paintings by Li Jin portraying food and the joy of dining with family and friends. The collection can be seen Mondays through Fridays at the bank's Pasadena facility on Los Robles Avenue.

Chinese contemporary art has made a big splash on the art scene during the last decade or so, grabbing attention at major international exhibitions and commanding enormous prices at auction. U.S. museums have been relatively slow to respond, but large group shows have made the rounds, introducing a host of new names, and a few artists have been featured in solo exhibitions.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York is organizing a retrospective of Cai's work that will open there in 2008 and travel to China and to the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain.

Incorporating Chinese contemporary work into museum collections takes time, but institutions such as the Denver Art Museum and New York's Museum of Modern art have made significant inroads. At MOCA, the new collection will join a small group of recent acquisitions, including pieces by Shi, Zhang Huan and Qui Zhijie.

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suzanne.muchnic@latimes.com

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