China Builds Museums, But Filling Them Is Another Story : Parallels China has been building museums with abandon, opening about 100 annually in recent years. Two of the biggest opened on the same day last fall on opposite banks of Shanghai's Huangpu River. But filling these museums — with both art and visitors — is proving more challenging.

China Builds Museums, But Filling Them Is Another Story

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

China is building at a frenzied pace - roads, bridges, high-speed rail and museums. In recent years, China has opened about a hundred museums annually. In 2011, it built nearly 400. But there's a catch. Museums are trickier to manage than highways.

As NPR's Frank Langfitt explains from Shanghai, you have to fill them with worthwhile exhibits and patrons.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Last fall, Shanghai opened two huge art museums. I'm in one of them right now. It's called the China Art Palace, and it has over 600,000 square feet of exhibition space, about the size of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The most popular work here is a digital version of an ancient Chinese scroll, where the characters come to life, move around, even talk.


LANGFITT: Xu Qinhua is a 62-year-old retired teacher. She marvels as the figures stroll across the arch on an old Chinese bridge.

XU QINHUA: (Through Translator) I think it's really beautiful. This is my first time seeing this. When I was young, my teacher told me I should see the original, but I never had the opportunity.

LANGFITT: The museum also has room for traveling exhibits. And right now, I'm strolling through a bunch of French naturalist masterpieces from the 1840s and 1850s from the Musee D'Orsay in Paris.

LIN WEIPENG: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: Lin Weipeng works as a designer and painter in coastal Fujian Province. When he was younger, he tried to copy some of these canvases.

WEIPENG: (Through Translator) I'm here mainly to see the techniques. The content of the pieces can be shown in printed versions but the details can't be shown in books.

LANGFITT: Lin is wearing a knock-off down jacket that says Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club. He's holding his 9-year-old daughter, Mowei, in his arms.

WEIPENG: (Through Translator) She can't really understand these paintings. But I just want to give her some feeling for it. If she doesn't get to go to France, this is probably her only chance to see the original work.

LANGFITT: The Shanghai government is trying to turn this mega-city into a cultural capital and magnet for global talent. The China Art Palace, originally built as the China Pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, is part of that master plan.

Teng Junjie is artistic director of the city's Administration of Culture, Radio, Film and TV.

TENG JUNJIE: (Through Translator) New York City and Paris are financial centers. They're also indisputably cultural centers of the world. Shanghai is now that process, but hasn't yet reached that level. Only cultural development and cultural attractions can bring true high-caliber talents to this city.


LANGFITT: I'm now hopping a ferry to cross the water to Shanghai's other giant new art museum. It's called the Power Station of Art. It's a contemporary museum built in a former power plant. And it's sort of like Shanghai's answer to London's Tate Modern.

Inside, the Power Station is kind of a huge industrial space. The atrium's about six stories high. They've just opened an Andy Warhol exhibit.

JACK WANG: The display of this art is really exquisite.

LANGFITT: This is Jack Wang. He's a first year med student. Wang doesn't have classes today, so he came to catch the show.

WANG: Andy Warhol, literally, I don't know his name but I've seen a lot of his art pieces before. So I think I'll Google it and then think, wow, it's pretty cool.

LANGFITT: One thing really surprised Wang.

WANG: I'm kind of confused actually. There are fewer people than I imagined.

LANGFITT: Indeed, by lunchtime on a weekday, just 200 people have shown up in a city of 23 million. One reason is the obscure location - a mostly abandoned section of the Shanghai Expo site. A second is lack of publicity. Until a friend told him about the exhibit, Wang didn't know this place existed.

You didn't know this old power station had been turned into an art museum.

WANG: No, not really, sorry.

LANGFITT: Li Xu, deputy director of planning at the museum, says there is a third reason. When it comes to contemporary art, most Chinese don't know where to start. Li says cultural education has lagged way behind China's economic boom.

LI XU: (Through Translator) My estimation is one-third to one-half of artworks are hard for average visitors to understand, if they didn't receive sufficient art education. Chinese graduate students' understanding of art only reaches the level of middle school students in the U.S.

LANGFITT: To try to change that, museums are starting young. The China Art Palace runs workshops for elementary school students on subjects like naturalist painting. But getting them in the door is tough. China's hyper-competitive educational system still emphasizes rote learning and tests.

Li says most schools see no practical value in field trips to art museums.

XU: (Through Translator) The sole purpose for parents to send kids to school is that they can get into college. Anything that's not related to the college entrance exam will not get parents' and teachers' attention.

JEFFREY JOHNSON: My name is Jeffrey Johnson. I teach at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning. And I'm the director of China Mega-Cities Lab.

LANGFITT: Johnson is among a number of professors studying China's explosive urban growth, in particular, its museum boom. He says local governments across the country are trying to create a cultural life and competitive identity for their cities.

JOHNSON: Having new and modern and in many times iconic new museums or cultural institutions, you know, provides a lot of sort of civic confidence and pride.

LANGFITT: But China lost a lot of art due to its civil war in the 1940s, as well as the Cultural Revolution, looting and overseas sales.

Johnson says many museums are going up faster than curators can fill them with works and audiences.

JOHNSON: They might have a grand opening or a grand - some kind of, you know, press conference with great photographs and, you know, the government officials are there. But in fact then, if you return possibly to this museum, which has been open officially for three months, it again might be closed and locked.

LANGFITT: Johnson likens it to the country's real estate glut in which new housing has outpaced real demand. In a crowded nation like China, though, emptiness can occasionally be an advantage.

Back at the Power Station of Art, Jack Wang is enjoying a rarity here: the uncrowded public attraction.

WANG: It's great for me. It's the environment here is very comfy and peaceful. But I think more people should have chances to visit here to see this art.

LANGFITT: China is banking that if you build it, they will come. Eventually, that bet should pay off but it's going to take time.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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