Last week, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts announced that the VMFA will be the first museum to exhibit its collection in the Palace Museum in Beijing. (The dates for that exhibition are to be determined.) The Palace Museum, which is part of the Forbidden City complex, will reciprocate by sending an exhibition of its collection to Richmond in the summer of 2014.
The VMFA announced the deal with the Chinese as China’s detention of Ai Weiwei was in its second month. The arrangement prompts the question: Is it appropriate for an American art museum to be engaged in this kind of transaction with the Chinese when the Chinese have demonstrated their hostility to — and fear of — their country’s most internationally prominent artist? [Image: Alex Nyerges, via VMFA.]
Earlier this week I talked with VMFA director Alex Nyerges about his museum’s arrangement with the Chinese. I started by asking him to describe the scope of the two museums’ exchange:
Alex Nyerges: Let me give you the big picture of what is actually a pretty interesting and amazing relationship. The part of the agreement that we made front-and-center was the exchange of collection exhibitions, but clearly the heart-and-soul of it is a much broader and deeper partnership between the Palace Museum and the VMFA. It’s really predicated on the simple notion of collaboration and sharing. First is the exchange of personnel from each of our institutions at two levels: One, where we introduce everybody from our head of exhibitions design, to our head of conservation, to people in other areas of the museum to the Palace Museum for a week, two weeks, relatively brief visits. And then the same thing happens from the Palace Museum. Part of that is in preparation for exhibitions, but part of it is on the basis of having a collegial exchange of ideas and processes and approaches and the rest. Then we’re going to exchange longer terms for three-month segments, such as having someone, say a paper conservator for example, to have a three-month residency at the VMFA working with our people on works of paper of Chinese origin.
Then the most public part of this partnership is that the Palace Museum curators will come to VMFA and curate an exhibition from our great treasures. Our initial conversations have been focused on American collections and European decorative art collections — we excel in French art nouveau furniture, English silver, Tiffany and Faberge. Basically we’ll have the entire museum at their disposal to essentially mine, to do a ‘highlights of’ or ‘treasures of,’ depending on how marketing people package it later. We’ll be doing the same from the Palace Museum side. Our curator, Li Jian, will spend time [in China] and do research, so that the focus [of the show at VMFA] is more finite than a ‘best hits’ kind of show. We’re going to do something much more from a scholarly perspective than that. [Image: Palace Museum, Beijing, via Flickr user Wilson Loo.]
MAN: For how long have you been working on this?
Nyerges: This has been in the works for two years in terms of serious conversations, but really we started talking with them three years ago. We have a couple of other projects in the development stage in China that aren’t actual projects yet, in Shanghai for one.
MAN: As you know, Ai Weiwei has been detained by the Chinese since April 3. Did your staff and your board talk about whether it was appropriate to make deals with the Chinese at a time when China has imprisoned the Chinese artist who is best known internationally?
Nyerges: Maybe to answer the question backwards, it hasn’t become a policy question for the board at all. On a practical level in terms of the staff, certainly Ai Weiwei’s arrest was a topic of conversation, but quite simply our partnership and relationship with the Palace Museum has nothing to do with the Ai Weiwei situation whatsoever.
We’ve signed on with a memo of understanding for a long-term exchange. We’ve concluded it’s a relatively straightforward approach by our two institutions. By continuing this relationship, we are helping to bridge the gap of understanding and appreciation between China and America, whether we’re talking Chinese culture in general, and Chinese art in particular. For every misconception there is about China in our country, there are an equal number of misconceptions in the US. We think the good that comes of this outweighs any other consideration. [Image: Palace Museum, Beijing as seen from Jingshan Park via Flickr user thewamphyri.]
MAN: Are you concerned that the VMFA’s exhibition/deal with China could be a propaganda coup for the Chinese, that the Chinese government can point to a deal such as this one and say, ‘Look, prominent American museums aren’t concerned about our treatment of Ai if they’re making deals with us’?
Nyerges: No, never once would that thought have crossed my mind.
It’s an interesting thought though, because our conversation and our partnership with with the Palace Museum predates all this by several years. [The conversation about Ai] is not a conversation that’s come up between us. We’re two institutions that are both governmental agencies – we’re part of Virginia and they’re part of the national patriomny there in China — and we deal with each other on art-historical levels. We focus on that as an important educational vehicle for our respective audiences. Speaking for my counterparts in Beijing and for that matter anywhere, their focus is about art history, education and cultural exchange. So I guess they probably would be equally surprised by the question as I am. [Image: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts via Flickr user rvaphotodude.]
MAN: The United States doesn’t have a culture ministry or a culture-focused cabinet agency, which is a little unusual among Western democracies. That means that individual museums and such are effectively ambassadors of a cultural sort, independent entities that conduct a particular part of our nation’s foreign policy on their own. So when an American art museum deals with the Chinese government, what are its moral or ethical obligations? Should an art museum consider anything outside the exhibition it offers to Beijing and the exhibition Beijing offers to the US?
Nyerges: Certainly in our case, working with our museum colleagues across the entire country of China, they are as thoroughly professional and modern in their practices and outlooks as any art museum in the US — or anywhere in the world.
The history of art in China is an important facet that is often neglected. If you look at traditional art history programs, which are Eurocentric, one of the things I’ve enjoyed starting when I was the director at the Dayton Art Institute was starting to bridge that lack of understanding.
So no, it’s no different. We did two major Chinese exhibitions when I was in Dayton. Working with our Chinese colleagues is easier than any international relationship, and we’ve been involved in a lot. We have not encountered a single piece of red tape in all of those years. Not in the local, provincial or cultural bureau level. [Image: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, via Flickr user mimmyg.]
The lack of understanding between the two countries always encourages me to do more in terms of working with China. I love the country, I love the history. The people could not be more wonderful.
When the Olympics were awarded to Beijing I was in China working on something. In the newspaper, a reporter had gone out to where they were going to build one of the Olympic stadiums and went to talk to a man on the street, one of the fellows with the whisk brooms. The reporter walked up to him and said, ‘Have you heard about the Olympic bid?’ The guy said, ‘It’s wonderful.’ And the reporter said, ‘Aren’t you concerned that people will come here and there will be police on every street and military patrolling and don’t you think the foreigners will be frightened?’ The guy kept sweeping and said, ‘No, this isn’t Chicago or New York.’
I have to say that I’ve been in little villages in the middle of the desert and I’ve been to virtually every major city in China. I go out in the morning at 5:30 or 6:00 to run and I run past soldiers marching and police on corners. All ti takes is one ‘ni-hao’ and their faces light up and they try to say, ‘Hello’ back in English. The friendliness and openness of the Chinese people is amazing.