‘If we don’t work together, we will see very dark times,’ says outgoing V&A director Martin Roth

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The Art Newspaper
by JULIA HALPERIN | 26 September 2016

Dozens of museum leaders from the US and China are gathering in New York this week to compare notes and brainstorm ways to promote cultural exchange between their two nations. The US-China Museum Summit, which kicks off today (until 28 September), is the third biannual meeting between the two groups and is co-organsed by the American Federation of Arts (AFA) and the Asia Society.

As the speakers at the summit revealed, cultural exchange is much easier said than done. In recent years, practical challenges, including costs, cultural differences and language barriers, have limited exhibition sharing between China and the US. A “marketplace” for exhibitions ready to travel between the US and China, first proposed in 2014, has proven difficult to get off the ground.

Meanwhile, the number of museums in China has exploded—and so has their appetite for travelling shows. Between 2011 and 2013, an average of one museum per day opened in the country, according to Pauline Willis, the director of the AFA. By 2020, China is expected to be home to 6,000 museums.

The V&A is one of the few Western institutions to develop a long-term partnership with a museum in China. In 2017, the V&A will open a gallery inside the Shekou Design Museum in Shenzhen. But this kind of collaboration was not easy to pull off, said Martin Roth, the outgoing director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. In his keynote address, Roth recounted small cultural misunderstandings that he encountered early on in his relationships with Chinese museums. “Do you go left or right entering an exhibition? Is red a lucky colour or a communist colour?” he asked.

Roth also emphasised the importance of compromise. As director of the Dresden State Art Collections, he co-organised the exhibition Art of the Enlightenment, which travelled to the National Museum of China in 2011. During initial planning meetings, “our Chinese colleagues came with a shopping list”, he recalled. They wanted to borrow works by artists—including Claude Monet and Andy Warhol—who were household names internationally, but whose connection to the Enlightenment was tangential at best.

In the end, the two sides came to an agreement. Monet stayed behind, but select works by Modern and contemporary artists were included in the show to illustrate the continued impact of Enlightenment thought on artists working today. “It evolved from a shopping list to a highly interesting collaboration,” Roth said.

The Getty in Los Angeles had a similarly rocky start when planning the exhibition Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road, which closed earlier this month in Los Angeles. The Getty’s Chinese partners at the Dunhuang Academy proposed including replicas of three ancient caves, complete with painstaking reproductions by local artists of the Buddhist murals lining the walls.

The Getty was initially put off by the idea because replicas are frowned upon in US museums, says Hsueh-man Shen, an associate professor at New York University, who served as an adviser to the show. But the obstacle “was an excellent opportunity to explore different traditions and highlight the importance of replication in Chinese culture,” she said. In fact, the replicas were so highly prized in China that the Getty had to apply for special permission to export them. In the end, the power of the replicas translated to Los Angeles, where they proved so popular that the Getty had to introduce timed tickets.

Many emphasised the importance of the summit and the impact of cultural exchange amid the increasingly isolationist political climate in the UK, Europe and the US. “I grew up in West Germany in the Cold War—I learned what it means when you don’t speak to each other,” Roth said. “If we don’t work together, we will see very dark times.”

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