China’s 2023, post-Covid ‘reopening’ policy did not re-awaken the economy of the ‘sleeping giant’, against a global backdrop of low growth, inflation and higher interest rates, the country’s foreign trade continued to shrink. However, the ‘reopening’ did significantly revive the market and interest for visiting international exhibitions, which had, of course, ground to a halt. Crowded with exhibitions from The MET, Tate, Centre Pompidou, V&A, Thyssen-Bornemisza, Uffizi, Archives Yves Klein, The British Museum, Museum Berggruen and National Gallery, across public and private venues, particularly in Shanghai and Beijing. We recorded 141 international exhibitions presented in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau in 2023, some touring, some co-curated, others collections-based collaborations. Attached below is a brief review of this market in 2023, offering insights into this sector and how it might continue to develop in the near future.
Analysts: Lang Xiao and Xiaoyu Chen | ARTouch Consulting
Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen hosted about 64% of overseas-sourced exhibitions. However, the dominance of Tier-1 cities was somewhat diminished in 2023, compared to 2021, when nearly 80% of such projects occurred in those three cities. This decentralisation trend, witnessed growing audiences in tier-2 & 3 cities, such as Nanjing, Chengdu and Hangzhou and continues to grow, all be it Shanghai’s pre-eminent position remains untouched, with 39%. Thanks to new operators such as M+ and the Palace Museum in Hong Kong, the city has become a favoured destination for international exhibitions too.
2. Private or public venues?
65% of the exhibitions were in private museums, while the remaining 35% were in public venues and both larger in scale and of higher value. Compared to 2021, the private sector has shrunk 5%. In China, the development of private museums is highly associated with the expanding ambition of real estate developers. A sharp downturn and excessive borrowing in the real estate market has already brought negative consequences on the cash available to private museums, so in the short-term, public museums will be the driving force for top-level touring exhibitions.
3. Where did the exhibitions come from?
The UK contributed nearly a quarter of the total international exhibitions in China, followed by France (19%), Japan (14.2%), Italy (13.5%) , the US (9.2%) and Spain (6.2%). With masterpieces from Botticelli to Van Gogh, National Gallery made its debut in China with record-breaking 420,000 visitors in its 15-week run. As the market leader and early-comer, the UK is forecast to maintain its dominance in 2024. China’s foreign relations and policies have always been a major factor impacting the top-level international exhibition market. French President Emmanuel Macron’s three-day trip in China coincided with the 5-year renewal of the primary partnership between the Centre Pompidou and West Bund Museum – 2024-2029 in Shanghai. Also, to mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and France in 2024, Palace Museum in Beijing and Versailles will co-present an exhibition dedicated to the exchanges established between the two countries in April, and a multimedia immersive exhibition will tour in Hangzhou. No doubt, France will be in the spotlight in this sector this year. At the same time, Italy’s recent withdrawal from China’s Belt and Road Initiative might lead to a decrease of the amount of touring exhibitions in 2024, though the country’s renaissance masterpieces travelled from Uffizi to the National Museum of China in Beijing and Hong Kong Museum of Art in 2023. Frequent institutional lenders included the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Centre Pompidou and Tate, while there were also newcomers or one-off lenders, such as Archives Yves Klein.
4. What were the exhibitions?
The majority of exhibitions either focused on one artist, such as ‘Yves Klein – Painter of Space” at the Guardian Art Center in Beijing and “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Sound and Time” at M WOODS Chengdu, or were constructed around a theme, such as ‘Painting the Essential — Surrealism and the East” at West Bund Museum, featuring works by Andre Masson Joan Miro, Simon Hantai, Zao WouKi etc. illuminating the influence of the East on surrealism. Based on the contents, we’ve classified these exhibitions into 6 categories, namely Modern and Contemporary Art, Design and Architecture, Classic and Antiquity, Multimedia, Fashion as well as IP exhibitions. Modern and contemporary art accounted for 43% of the market, including the Raoul Dufy retrospective exhibition at West Bund Museum, Mainland China’s first Henri Matisse exhibition at UCCA, solo exhibitions of Yayoi Kusama at M+ and Philip Colbert at Design Society in Shenzhen. However, the share of Modern and contemporary art exhibitions has been reduced by 20% compared to 2021. At the same time, demand for the category of Classic and Antiquity has been on the rise. As the British Museum’s ‘Rome: City and Empire’ and V&A’s ‘Treasures from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection’ continued their touring within the country, “Old master” has become a hit in 2023, with exhibitions like the first Caravaggio-themed exhibition at Museum of Art Pudong, Botticelli and the Renaissance at Bund One Museum, springing up in the market. The upward trend of such types of exhibitions will be further enhanced by tighter government controls of the country’s culture and art sector, as there is hardly any “sensitive” contents compared to contemporary art.
It has been over a decade since China’s museum-building boom and both museums and audiences have learnt a lot from successes and failures. The criteria and calibre of international exhibitions touring China has become higher, while recently, budgets might have been slimmed due to the economic slowdown. Therefore, state-owned museums will be the driving force for top-level touring exhibitions. Working with such institutions, co-curation is the key. Shanghai Museum’s on-going exhibition “Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Dialogue between Renaissance and Chinese Painting” has set a fine example, with 18 authentic Renaissance art treasures on loan from Italian institutions paired with an equal number of ancient Chinese paintings from the Shanghai Museum’s own collection. This cross-cultural exhibition paradigm might be the way of the future. Another example could be the “Centre Pompidou x West Bund Museum Project”, which borrowed Chinese antiquity collections from Shanghai Museum to build a dialogue for local audiences in their past “Kandinsky The Pioneer of Abstract Art” and “Painting the Essential — Surrealism and the East” exhibitions. Visitors could also find that at almost every stop of the V&A’s ‘Treasures from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection’ tour, the Chinese partners have added in a section to show the venue’s own collection in juxtaposition with the touring exhibition. This demand for “co-curation” has great potential to change the business model of touring exhibitions in China.
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