Mainland China differs widely from the UK in terms of funding available for art. Whereas in the UK it is possible to speak of a ‘funding landscape' which includes public bodies such as the Arts Council England, governmental culture departments, City Councils, charity funds and foundations, in China a ‘culture of funding' of this kind does not exist.
Contemporary Chinese art has not received the state endorsement that has long been present for art in the West. Funding - money given by the government with long-term development in mind - has consequently not been a feature in its development over the last 20 years. There is also no endowment infrastructure in place: the system lacks the built-in tax incentives that would help to channel money towards the arts from the corporate sector. These factors, coupled with huge foreign interest in the work, have resulted in an art scene that is highly commercial; since its spectacular debut contemporary Chinese art has been very much about money made in the short term by gallerists, artists and collectors, and galleries are still the most active exhibitors of contemporary art in China. It is hoped that the recent cooling of the market will stimulate a timely re-engagement with art works, their display and acquisition on a more long-term basis.
Institutional culture in China is still at an early stage of development. To date, governmental policy has not made provision for independent patronage for museums at all levels. This has inhibited the formation of the kind of art appreciation and educational structures that are taken for granted in Western countries. State-run museums are limited in terms of what they can show due to insufficient funding. In addition, the museums‘ directors do not necessarily have an arts background and are appointed from above on indefinite contracts. These dependencies can prevent the staging of dynamic, innovative shows so that, in the eyes of the Western public, strong mission statements from these institutions are not apparent.
In recent years, various ‘non-profit museums' have been established. The way that these operate in China, however, signals a departure from Western conceptions of the term. In the absence of private funding, these exhibition spaces must generate income from their exhibitions, from publications and from corporate events, for example, held on their premises. The Today Art Museum in Beijing is a good example of this. A ‘not-for-profit' mission informs its programming, but does not signify external support from the government or from independent patrons; the space has played host to events for companies like Adidas and Lane Crawford. These organizations are also often linked to broader commercial ventures. The Today Art Museum is strategically positioned in the southeast corner of Beijing and was launched in 2006 by a Beijing-based property developer. The enterprise has been successful, and the museum is now a focal point for the exhibition of contemporary art in Beijing. The fact remains, however, that such spaces are reliant on the revenue from the rental of their premises. On one hand, this influences their exhibition schedule and prevents the development of a focused curatorial programme; on the other, it offers great opportunities to interested parties who can provide their own funding to use the space.
A growing number of alternative spaces and artist-led initiatives in different regions represent a positive and individualistic response to the commercial drive that pervades China's art scene. The Arrow Factory in Beijing invites artists to use its space as a ‘creative laboratory' in which unfinished works may be displayed and altered during the course of the exhibition. The installations realized through these ‘incubator projects' represent a movement away from the treatment of Chinese art as spectacle to focus closely on the creative process of art-making. The display area is not a conventional ‘white cube' but a small glass storefront visible from the outside which aims to challenge the way audiences encounter and interact with art. Conceptual programs like that of the Arrow Factory encourage earnest engagement with the work against the ephemeral background of the international art market.
In Guangzhou, ‘The Observers Association' has been set up by three friends - two artists and one curator - with the sole purpose of keeping the space open in order to show their work, realise their own projects and host ‘free experiments and intellectual exchange'. Their budget consists only of contributions from the founders, and each has pledged to donate 10% of the income from works sold elsewhere to the fund the space. "I want to find a new way", says one of the artists: "I can imagine what I would become and what I would receive if I were willing to become a gallery artist". His comments are indicative of the pressures inherent in becoming affiliated with a gallery in China. Although, as young artist Molin Xie has acknowledged, some commercial galleries do support artists in making their work, this may carry with it certain obligations as to what is made and within what time-scale. ‘Small Productions', an artists' collective based in Hangzhou, was born of a similar desire for artistic freedom. The collective's activities, which are based around simple gatherings where like-minded people can meet and exchange ideas or show their works, have no fixed location or overriding theme. The emphasis is not so much on the art work as finished product as on the circumstances of its creation and viewing; Small Productions' motto, "Don't Stop!" promotes artistic involvement without the temptations and constraints inherent in the idea of art as business.
The work of the Intelligent Alternative, in Beijing is rooted in the curatorial process. Its mission came about in response to a situation in which an explosive art market encouraged the cyclical production of similar work whilst a lack of funding prevented the realization of more interesting ideas that were expensive to produce and whose commercial value was uncertain. It began by providing money for artists who had been invited to participate in exhibitions but had discovered that there was little funding available for them to produce their work as they desired. An important aspect of the Intelligent Alternative's project is therefore to allow art works to be created and seen, and in the absence of commercial influences. The organization has since expanded its activities to assist artists in first producing their art, working closely with them with the aim of collecting documentary materials such as photographs, presentations and written text - not to direct the process but as a source of support if needed. Recent projects include works produced for He An (the Ikon / Birmingham City project), films for My China Now, a sound installation for WAZA and, in September 2009, a first showing in Beijing of temporal installation work by Guangzhou-based artist Qin Jin.
From the point of view of a foreign artist, initiatives such as these could offer an initial platform or practical point of contact through which to get involved with the art scene. Whilst money remains an important factor in the staging of exhibitions and in artists' self-promotion in China - many pay for articles to be written that will publicise their work - these alternative spaces, artists' collectives and organisations are exploring new models of working and display. Although valid criticisms can be made of the current funding and institutional environment, a lack of structural precedents has granted a degree of fluidity where new relationships are forming. This may be seen as a positive alternative to a dominant Western art structure in which the work follows a conventional path from the artist, through a gallery, to arrive finally in a museum: in China, there are no preferred channels. Artists are responding with renewed energy to the recent art market downturn, and there is much opportunity available to both native and foreign artists; as Katherine Don has commented, China is developing ‘its own framework for the exhibition, promotion and preservation of contemporary art.'
Article by Iona Whittaker