Chinese authorities seem to be trying to force the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego to return to China artwork by Ai Weiwei that MCASD recently added to its collection, MCASD officials have told MAN. The works at issue are two sculptures from Ai’s Marble Chair series (2010, at right).
“The Chinese have contacted us through the shipping company that delivered the chairs and has demanded their return,” MCASD director Hugh Davies told me. “We’re in a bit of a dilemma trying to work around that. Needless to say, until compelled by the authorities to return the chairs, we have no intention of doing so. The situation is complicated because we don’t want to get Ai in trouble. He’s accused of economic crimes.”
The Guardian and other news outlets reported on May 20 that the Chinese have charged Ai with tax evasion and other financial crimes. MCASD officials say they aren’t sure if the demand for the return of the art is originating with Chinese government officials or if the Chinese shipping company, for reasons that are unclear, is acting on its own.
The story dates back to November, 2010 when MCASD started working with Ai’s studio on the acquisition. Ai’s studio shipped the work to the United States in March for presentation to the relevant MCASD collection committee, which formally voted on May 11 to acquire the work. The Ais are currently on view in MCASD’s “Prospect 2011,” a recent-acquisitions exhibition at the museum’s downtown, Jacobs Building location. MCASD’s recent 24-hour protest of the Chinese government’s detention of Ai was given its form — a sit-in — in part by the acquisition of the chairs.
According to MCASD, the Chinese are basing their demand on the export license that the museum acquired so that the works could be sent from China to California. MCASD, which has extensive experience in acquiring work from non-U.S. artists, says that it found the entire process to be business-as-usual up until it was told to return the work.
“We worked with the customs broker that handles most of our international shipping on this,” MCASD deputy director and chief financial officer Charles E. Castle said. “They have an office in China and they worked with Ai’s shipper to get the sculptures to us. The shippers made the decision that what made most sense was to export them with a ‘temporary with right to purchase’ export license on the theory that the works were going to be exhibited at the museum — which they were — and that they would then be shown to the museum’s collection committee for approval, which they were.”
Castle said that there are a range of potential export licenses that museums use, but given that the planned acquisition of the two Marble Chairs was the reason they were to be shipped to the US, MCASD’s selection of its export license seemed fairly clear. Castle said that typically the way temporary, with-right-to-purchase licenses work is that the work is released from the country-of-origin with no customs duty paid, and that the receiving party has a six-month option to make a purchase decision and to then pay the duty (or to return the work with no duty paid). MCASD received the artwork in March and voted to acquire it in May, even though under the terms of its export license it did not have to make that decision until September. [Image: Christine Forester and Megan Nesbit participate in MCASD's protest for Ai.]
“[After our committee's approval of the acquisition,] we asked our customs broker to notify the shipping agent that we would like to exercise our option and that we’ll keep the works here and pay for them,” Castle said. “The shipping company returned to our broker and said, ‘No, the option is not going to be honored,’ and that the works need to be returned within the six-month option.”
Castle said that the museum is unsure exactly who is telling the museum to return the art: The Chinese government or the shipping company, which Castle declined to name. “I can sit here in my office in La Jolla and assume that’s [it's the government demanding the return of the work], but the only contact we’ve had is the shipping company and our customs broker,” Castle said, adding that it’s not clear why a shipping company would insist on the return of art. “I assume the shipping company is being told [to retrieve the work] by the Chinese customs authorities,” he said.
MCASD’s situation is complicated by China’s ongoing imprisonment of Ai. The museum had worked out the expected purchase of the works from Ai between last November and March, with the understanding that the relevant committee would formally approve the acquisition in May. The museum expected a routine procedure, by which it would pay for the works after the museum’s collections committee approved the acquisition. However, since China imprisoned Ai and several colleagues in April, MCASD has been unable to find out where to wire the funds for the acquisition and its emails and phone calls to Ai’s studio have gone unanswered.
MAN has contacted major American museums in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York, and has been unable to find another American museum with an Ai acquisition in a comparable state of limbo. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced the acquisition of an Ai in April, but it acquired the work from a New York gallery. A museum spokesperson told MAN that the work had been in the U.S. for three years and that the museum had received no communications of any sort from China. Two U.S. galleries with which Ai has a relationship, New York’s Friedman Benda and San Francisco’s Haines both told MAN that they were unaware of any current situations comparable to what MCASD is experiencing.
Castle said it was unclear what the museum’s next step would be. “We’re trying to figure out what our rights and responsibilities are,” he said. “Our investigation has begun and is ongoing. We’re getting the best advice we can get, trying to make the most informed judgments that are best for everyone.”