Private and institutional collecting

Reviving Chinese interest

With an ever-increasing number of Chinese having substantial discretionary incomes, comes an interest in how to spend it. Collecting artwork is one among many new passions that can be realized. There are many kinds of collectors, and they face different challenges and opportunities. For collectors of contemporary art, the difficulty is to distinguish what is ‘genuinely meaningful’ or will have ‘lasting importance (and value)’ amid the tide of production. They may incline to take reference from critics and leading galleries. The pleasure of collecting contemporary work is often the sense of closeness it holds for all the parties involved – it is the art of our time.

By contrast, collecting of past art is an adventure in coming to terms with the longer span of history and culture. It often implies an implicit comparison of the present with the past, and an imaginative interpretation of Chinese experience. In contrast to contemporary art, there is also the appeal of the past as representing a storehouse of value and treasure that is ‘beyond doubt’.

And there is the opportunity. The auction market has grown dramatically and there is now a sudden supply of historical art to choose from in many categories.This is seen by some as a once in a lifetime chance, especially with literati painting of the Ming (1368-1644) and early Qing (1644-1911) periods. While major Chinese and international museums have built some collections in this area—which serve as important reference standards—they have not yet swept all from private circulation. By contrast, owing to rarity and the sustained interest of earlier generations of museum curators, there are few significant Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) paintings in private hands.

Institutionally, China is pursuing a modernist agenda, creating and extending museums and university collections. There are plans to build 1,500 new museums in the next decade at national and local levels as part of its cultural development policy. These new museums will express the ambitions of China's emerging cities and institutions. Private individuals and corporations will have the opportunity to contribute, and prestige and recognition will be given to generous donors. This new phenomenon will likely mirror the experience of museum creation in the US in the late-nineteenth century and a process that took nearly a century in America may to be telescoped into little more than a couple of decades in China. Bricks and mortar and purchase of contents will however be more easily managed than operations, where mature systems and expertise may take some time to develop.

Important cultural heritage such as Chinese Classical painting will undoubtedly be the core of at least hundred new museums. With this, several new developments are anticipated. First, there will be a new generation of art historians entering museums, giving renewed importance to Chinese Classical painting and reassurance on quality and authenticity. Second, there will also be increased collaboration among Chinese and international museums for training, and for loans of important artworks and traveling exhibitions, making Chinese Classical painting more accessible to new audiences in China and globally. Third, as museum collections grow, remaining rare artworks will be permanently removed from the reach of private collectors.