Western Art Goes To Beijing As More Chinese Art Goes West

“Art Relations” Between The Two Countries Increase, With Contemporary Chinese Art And Modern British Art Exchanges

ArtInfo posts today on efforts by the UK and Chinese governments to increase their artistic exchanges in coming years, as part of broader efforts to take a “wider approach to building understanding between the two countries.” While we have seen particular interest in the UK and other western countries in Chinese contemporary art in the last 30 years, and in Chinese antiquities and traditional arts for several hundred years, large-scale exhibitions of western masters are still relatively scarce in China. The exhibition of a number of works by J.M.W. Turner, which opened earlier this month in Beijing, is essentially an experiment by the British government on whether there is a sizeable audience for British art in China, whether funding can be gathered, and whether China and the UK can cooperatively build a cultural bridge that will increase exchanges of all kinds between the two in coming years.

The Turner exhibition, which includes 112 landscapes on loan to Beijing, has not been without major snags, however. As ArtInfo illustrates:

[M]uch of the promised commercial sponsorship for the show fell through after the British government had already sent the paintings. Organizers managed to raise only £100 million in commercial insurance, a fraction of the collection\’s estimated value of £650 million, and the Chinese government refused to cover the rest, leaving the British government responsible. The British Foreign Office made an emergency request to the treasury for permission to underwrite the collection, meaning that if any works are damaged during their stay in Beijing, taxpayer money will be used to cover the costs of restoration.

“The intention was for the cost of the exhibition and its insurance to be covered by private sponsorship,” said Caroline Flint, the U.K. minister for Europe. “Prearranged commercial sponsorship was affected by the economic downturn and although the [British] Council sought replacement, it had not been forthcoming.”

As this article shows, artistic exchanges are not without risk, particularly during a rough global financial environment, when commercial sponsors — who previously would have been more than willing to have their brand stamped onto an exhibition like this and get their name in front of as many eyes as possible in China — are holding back. However, I think it’s safe to say that this exhibition holds more symbolic meaning; While China’s domestic artworks — particularly contemporary art — are continually growing in popularity both at home and abroad, people in China rarely get to enjoy international artists. More two-way artistic exchange benefits both sides, and will increase interest in art among the domestic population while helping to elevate discourse and foster more fluid cultural exchange between China and the rest of the world. As the Independent notes,

The exhibition, the result of a partnership between the British Council, Tate Britain and NAMOC, opened in Beijing in April. The huge collection of paintings and works on paper, J M W Turner: Oils and Watercolours, had previously been hosted by the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

When the Beijing visit was announced, all senior figures connected with the deal made much of its wider political and cultural significance.

Martin Davidson, the chief executive of the British Council, said: “China will be an important economic partner for the UK over the coming years and cultural ties will be vital to maintaining strong links.[“]

Although the current Turner exhibition in Beijing might not be a commercial success, it may prove to have far-reaching positive effects. So while some critics may decry the British government’s use of taxpayer money to put on such exhibitions overseas, the cultural capital of these activities cannot be understated, particularly if they lead to more exchange in the future.

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3 responses to “Western Art Goes To Beijing As More Chinese Art Goes West

  1. its a good development. exchanges of art are a good way of building better culture relations aroudn the world.

  2. I’m going to try to see this exhibition this weekend — has anyone else been?

  3. me too!

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