Nicole Ching & Leigh Tanner, founders of Museum 2050: “There are new forms and models coming out of Chinese cultural institutions

Doors interviewed Nicole Ching and Leigh Tanner, the young founders of Museum 2050, a new platform for investigating key issues about the future of cultural institutions in China and abroad from a local perspective.

Museum 2050’s inaugural two-day symposium took place at the Long Museum (Shanghai) in June 2018. Young academics and industry professionals from all over China gathered to discuss the theme Looking to new institutional models: China’s cultural landscape by mid-century.

Twelve young scholars tackled a variety of issues from how China’s regulative institutions are shaping the development of private art museums, to the increasing role that technology is playing in these institutions, to conceptualizing the new kinds of museum models that may come as the result of innovation in the region. 

Hailing from all over China, staff from Museum 2050’s participating institutions attended workshops convened by Michael XuFu Huang, Co-Founder of Beijing’s M Woods Museum, S. Alice Mong, Executive Director of Asia Society Hong Kong Center, Shi Hantao, Chief Coordinator of 2018 Shanghai Biennale, Power Station of Art (Shanghai), and Erlend Høyersten, Director of ARoS Museum, Aarhus (Denmark).

A publication based on Museum 2050’s inaugural symposium and workshops will be released this Fall.

Poster Museum 2050

How did you come up with the idea for Museum 2050, a platform looking at the future of cultural institutions in China?

We met through an artist while Leigh was working at the Shanghai Himalayas Museum for the Shanghai Project. We realized we had a lot of the same ideas about what was going on in China in terms of institutions. Nicole has been working with Long Museum for a bit and Leigh had worked on the Shanghai Project. We both had experience and understood some of the challenges that these institutions are facing. Some private institutions like MOCA in Shanghai or UCCA in Beijing have been around for longer, but certainly a lot of these new contemporary art institutions that don’t have collections yet are facing the same challenges, the same kind of struggles. We thought it was very important to create an opportunity to talk about everything that is happening in China, not just from the negative lands of « things are just not as developed in China », but ask questions of conservation standards, lack of programming, or things like that, but actually just discuss what was going on right here in China, what kind of innovation was happening here because there is no pre-existing idea of what a museum should be, how people should be engaging with art… There are new forms and models coming out of China.

What was the focus of your inaugural symposium, which soughtto « critically examine the diverse museum practices in both official and private domains of the Greater China region » and « reveal the unique audience experience that is emerging in China »?

For our inaugural symposium, we did a call for papers on the topic Looking to new institutional models: China’s cultural landscape by mid-century. We wanted to get submissions from all over the world, and in particular allow for young scholars to present their research in a different way. And certainly because so much of what’s happening here is new, it is actually people who are still finishing up their PhD’s or young researchers who are doing a lot of the writing on this topic. We got 36 responses to our call for papers and our advisory committee chose 12 papers out of the 36. Our advisory committee is made up of four people: Michael Huang, M Woods founder, Alice Mong, executive director of Asia Society Hong Kong center, Wenny Teo, professor at The Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and Ying Zhou, assistant professor at HKU Faculty of Architecture in Hong Kong. They evaluated the papers, chose 12 of them, and those 12 people were invited to Shanghai to participate in our symposium at the Long Museum. We also invited two keynote speakers, Erlend Høyersten, director of ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum in Denmark (who gave a keynote address on the topic of The Museum As A Mental Fitness Center), and Phil Tinari, director of UCCA in Beijing (who addressed the topic of Museums 2.0: The Case of UCCA).

Check Museum 50’s inaugural symposium program

Another focus for the first edition of Museum 2050 was the workshops you organized at the Long Museum with young museum professionals from China. How did they go?

A key secondary component to the weekend, one thing that we felt very strongly about was, in order to strengthen the museum landscape in China, what we really need is more career development opportunities for staff members who work at these museums. These staff members are often quite young, they don’t necessarily have other work experience, and because the staff is so small, usually they don’t have opportunities for mentorship or people who are really helping them learn the craft of museum administration, museum curation, or museum production. On a very basic level, we wanted to start conversations around sharing experiences that people have in museums, shared problems that we have and talk about potential solutions. So the second day of our conference at the Long Museum was workshops. We had four workshop conveners, two of our advisory committee members, Michael Huang and Alice Mong, and also Shi Hantao, who’s the chief coordinator of 2018 Shanghai Biennale, and Erlend Høyersten, director of ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum in Denmark. We had morning and afternoon sessions, and it was essentially just breaking it down for our young museum staff members, giving them the opportunity to hear from people who have been in the industry much longer, tell them about their own career trajectories, how they got to where they are today, and then just doing Q & A and moderated discussion. In order to participate in those workshops, you had to be from a participating institution. So we talked to as many institutions as we could think of, inviting them to come and participate. The only thing required to them was to send staff members to participate in these workshops. We actually saw it as a way for them to demonstrate their commitment to enriching the system here in China, just by giving their staff an opportunity to meet staff members from other museums and hopefully develop connections and learn something that they can take back.

How many people participated in the workshops? Which institutions participated?

About thirty in total, and we also had a couple of our speakers from the symposium participating. We had 12 participating institutions from all over China, from Beijing, from Chengdu, from Shanghai - those made up the core three components of where the staff members came from, but we even had an institution from Hong Kong. One thing for us too was talking about the Greater China region. Even within China, it can be quite insulated: Beijing museums are not as aware of what’s going on in Shanghai museums, and Hong Kong has no idea about what’s going on in the mainland. In talking to institutions we found that they were actually very interested in hearing more about what’s going on elsewhere. Even Para Site from Hong Kong participated, there was a lot of different institutions that were interested in being involved: UCCA, Long Museum – they also were our venue sponsor and were extremely supportive of our program, A4 in Chengdu, Zhi Art Museum, Yuz Museum, Rockbund, TANK Shanghai, Shanghai Himalayas Museum, M Woods, Inside Out Museum in Beijing and Guangda Art Museum.

Many of these museums share the same assets (financial support from their founders, remarkable architecture, impressive collections) and same problems (young staff, search for a unique identity). They can be seen as competitors to each other. So why would they gather and join forces?

It is actually one of the questions that was raised in one of the moderated discussions. The focus on young staff - as opposed to directors of these institutions - led to the fact that people were extremely supportive. But actually, at directors’ level, there is also a desire to create a more engaging community. For example, Phil Tinari, the director of UCCA, whom we started talking to in the fall, was extremely supportive. Something like Museum 2050 seems quite simple but can be quite effective. Everyone faces the challenge of having staff members that are kind of in and out of these institutions, and everyone is trying to find a way to build a community, so that they have that institutional knowledge. It is less a question of competition than a question of shared challenges, and everyone is trying to figure out how to solve them.

What are the two or three main conclusions that can be drawn from the symposium?

Leigh: We had 14 different presentations, so a lot of different viewpoints and issues came up and were opened up for discussion. I would say that the main thing that I found over the course of the weekend was the importance of having these conversations. More than the content or any of the conclusions itself, it was realizing that we’re not necessarily having these conversations in this type of forum. We were humbly surprised by the response we had, even on the Long Museum livestream: we had nearly 7000 people on the livestream. If you think about the museum landscape in China, it’s unlikely that these are only art museum professionals. Not just the art world is interested in these questions, we had a lot of positive feedback and interest from non-art world entities. Talking about how development is happening here and how different it is from the West, and how maybe the West can also learn from the way things are happening here, was one of the issues that was the most appealing to me. Of course the French model of museums came up, the Guggenheim model, the fact that the Centre Pompidou is coming to Shanghai… one of the questions was whether these models are effective and relevant for China, whether they serve the public. One of the questions was whether these new institutions should be catering to social media traffic, and how. 

China has a particular problem in that the audience attending exhibitions and going to museums is very young, compared to the rest of the world where the audience tends to be older and the museums try to attract the young. So China has a different problem in terms of audience engagement, which is: how to attract older generations to the museum, how to get families in?

Nicole: I think that one of the interesting things that came up was when Phil Tinari gave a keynote in his position as a « post » director. What is the museum in its secondary phase? It is obviously what UCCA has been going through this past year. (UCCA was founded in 2008 by Guy Ullens, and acquired in 2018 by a consortium of Chinese financiers. Phil Tinari has been director of UCCA since 2013). A lot of the other museums had questions about that: what happens after 10, 15 years of existence?

What is the perspective of these private Chinese museums on international models and institutions, and in particular on the opening of a Centre Pompidou in Shanghai in 2019?

I think it’s hard to speak for all of them, and at the symposium in terms of people representing Chinese museums, we had quite a few researchers and scholars who were doing research with Chinese museums but were not working at these museums. During the workshop, Alice Mong was talking about the Asia Society. Asia Society had a Guggenheim travelling exhibition and she was talking about the value that you don’t think about by organizing an exhibition like that, which is that the very trained Guggenheim staff not only went to Hong Kong but also welcomed Asia Society’s staff members in New York. For them as a young institution it was hugely informative to see how staff on every level from one of New York’s greatest museums were operating - they learned a lot of systems from them. I thought that was an interesting comment, because obviously there was a lot of discussion about whether the Guggenheim model is viable, about the Louvre Abu Dhabi… No one knows yet what Centre Pompidou in Shanghai will look like in terms of its format and oversight from France, but there were discussions about how to make these institutions more locally specific so that they’re actually serving their communities. The bigger question was whether this model can be used to engage with a local community in a more effective way.

What is your plan for the symposium in the future? Will it be an annual event? Will its form be renewed?

From the beginning, we have wanted to make this an annual event. With this inaugural edition, we have received so many contributions from young academics, there can only be more in the future, so we really want to be able to provide a platform and continue allowing these young museum professionals to build a community where they can share ideas, talk to each other about the problems they’re facing and the innovation they’re creating, and also for young academics to share their research. One of the things we are passionate about is that we don’t want to focus on just Shanghai being the locale, as we saw from the workshops and symposium, there’s really interesting things going on right now in Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Chengdu especially. Probably our next goal would be to move somewhere else and engage different communities there. For the call for papers and symposium, we will also shift topics from year to year, and from a broader perspective we will shift locales, because it’s good to work with different participating institutions, have a different mix of people, have different contexts and therefore different conversations. But I think mainly we see this as a long-term endeavor to build a community. It is not about one conference, it is about what this community can do over time. We’ll be making a publication from the inaugural edition with all the papers that were presented as well as content from the workshops, we are planning on launching it in the fall.

Participating Institutions

Luxelakes · A4 Art Museum 

Guangda Art Museum 

Inside Out Museum

Long Museum

M Woods

Para Site

Rockbund Art Museum

Shanghai Himalayas Museum

TANK Shanghai

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art

Yuz Museum

Zhi Art Museum