China Thoughts

SummitMtg2CroppedSo, I’ve now been to China, Beijing specifically. I was privileged to have been invited to speak for a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the arts management program at the China Conservatory of Music. A single trip does not make one an expert on China! It does not even make one semi-literate about it. That said, it was a wonderful experience that broadened my horizons substantially. It also reinforced the lesson that surprised me last year in Singapore. Issues related to the arts and community engagement are significant around the world. In Singapore it had to do with the hegemony of Western culture dominating arts funding. In China, it is related to  government concerns that arts and culture funding benefit as many citizens as possible.

Just before I left for Beijing, NPR had a story on two new major museums opening in Shanghai. (China Builds Museums, But Filling Them Is Another Story) These were just two of a number of cultural construction projects that China has undertaken. To quote the NPR piece: “In recent years, about 100 museums have opened annually here, peaking at nearly 400 in 2011, according to the Chinese Society of Museums.” The thrust of the story is that construction may have outpaced demand. The two museums in Shanghai apparently sit pretty empty. Since that is almost unheard of in a public building in one of China’s major population centers, those who have discovered them revel in the solitude. But it’s certainly not what Chinese officials want. Of course, there are a myriad of reasons for Chinese art museums to struggle. The legacy of the Cultural Revolution severed ties to the arts; a good deal of the educational system (and parental focus) is on college admissions–the results are heavy emphasis on math and science; and, especially with regard to Western modern and contemporary art, there is little context upon which the average Chinese citizen can build for understanding.

Jun-ting Tian, a Vice Director at the Ministry of Culture, spoke at the China Conservatory and gave an overview of their new directions. Two of his comments in particular resonated with me. One was that arts management programs needed to emphasize not just administrative problem solving but also big picture issues–like the future of the arts in the PRC. He also said that the arts themselves must be working to find (or at least support) answers to big societal questions. This is a clear acknowledgement that the arts can (and in terms of Chinese public policy, must) be a significant force in society.

798ZoneSculptureAnother arts-related surprise was discovering a massive arts district in Beijing. The 798 Arts District occupies a huge former factory complex that was abandoned in the early 1990’s. The empty spaces began to be populated by artists and, over time, as we’ve all seen happen in the U.S., the cachet of working artists attracted galleries, retail shops, and restaurants, raising rents and making it difficult for artists to continue to afford to stay there. Gentrification in the People’s Republic!

Let me acknowledge that issues of artistic freedom and censorship did not arise with my hosts or as part of the conference. (I did discover that Facebook, Twitter, Google Drive, and the online New York Times were not available there.) Nevertheless, the trip was an excellent opportunity for me to discover, once again, that issues in the arts vary far less from country to country and culture to culture than we might imagine.



Photo (from 798 Arts District):Attribution Some rights reserved by ahenobarbus

My Excellent Singapore Adventure

Regular readers of this blog know that I do not “journal” here. I attempt to maintain a myopic focus on issues related to the arts and community engagement. Therefore, I had not intended to write about my trip to the other side of the globe. That travel was related to my work as an arts administration educator. I was asked to address the inaugural meeting of the Asia-Pacific Network for Cultural Education and Research.

I am, though, virtually incapable of having a conversation about the arts without talking about community engagement. What I discovered doing so in Singapore surprised me. Whether talking with the staff of Singapore’s National Arts Council or arts administration educators from Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, or Singapore, community engagement (in the ways described in this blog) was a significant, if not critical, issue. In my naïveté, I had thought this was primarily a Western problem. What I discovered was that the root of the arts/community divide in the U.S.–European cultural hegemony and association of that artistic legacy with money and power–rings just as true in the Asia Pacific region as it does in my own backyard (although there it is European/U.S. cultural hegemony).

I discovered that there is work to be done in supporting native cultural heritages in the face of Western cultural dominance. The impression that I formed was that in much of Asia, funding for support of artistic endeavor is weighted heavily toward Western forms and expressions. (This fact is a fascinating one that deserves discussion by people far more versed in Asian cultural history than I. The closest I can come to understanding it is to draw a parallel to the situation in the U.S. through at least the first half of the twentieth century–our cultural inferiority complex. U.S. artists had to be “authenticated” by studying and/or succeeding in Europe.)

In the middle of a singularly challenging presentation by Benson Puah, CEO of Singapore’s National Arts Council, I found myself nodding so vigorously that he called me out on it after he concluded his remarks. What he was saying sounded exactly like the arguments many in the community arts movement in the U.S. use in advocating for broadening our understanding of “acceptable” arts practice, opening up the infrastructure to support artistic expression that speaks more directly to more segments of the population. I was having a cognitive dissonance/deja vu moment as I heard him saying things I have said on the other side of the globe in a vastly different context. He was talking about non-European cultures in the face of Western dominance. The cultural expressions for which he was advocating are, to some extent, different from those needing more support here, but the issues are nearly identical–for nearly identical reasons.

In addition, I got a good cultural/social history lesson from staff members of Singapore’s National Arts Council. Ai Liang Chua, the Council’s Arts and Community Director (You can imagine how much I enjoyed discovering that was a division of the NAC), explained to me that Singapore is, in the context of the Asia Pacific region, a uniquely multicultural nation. There is a strong presence of Indian, Chinese, and Malaysian cultures (to name just three). The multiculturalism of Singapore raises issues for its arts council that we face in our own highly diverse society. How are extant cultures adequately supported via cultural policy?

In short, the experience was a vitally important one for me, the arts and community engagement advocate. Seeing similar issues (and hearing them described in nearly identical terms) gave me valuable perspective on my own work. It showed me that my concerns about this issue are not as parochial as I thought. It also opened up the possibility of learning lessons about effective engagement from my Asia-Pacific colleagues. I look forward to that.