When Philip Dodd, then director of London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, first visited China in 1998 there were effectively no galleries or museums of contemporary art. He was invited by the prime minister Tony Blair to stage an exhibition of contemporary British art. In the absence of galleries or museums, he brought small works by artists such as Damien Hirst and Gillian Wearing into shopping malls in Shanghai and Beijing (not to mention the ICA's bookshop) as part of an ICA residency. The next year, with Karen Smith, he staged at the ICA a guerrilla show of art from Beijing, including works by Wang Gongxin, Lin Tianmiao, Zhang Dali, Wang Jianwei and others, as well as 3 lines from close film screenings and a dance performance by Xingxing. Hardly anyone came. It was too early for London.
But the visit to China and the show in London persuaded Dodd that China would be to the 21st century what the United States was to the 20th century—so began an intense love affair with the country that ultimately led to his decision, upon leaving the ICA, to found the agency Made in China, which works on developing major projects between China and the United Kingdom. One such project included acting as a strategist to Art HK (now Art Basel in Hong Kong), and it was this involvement with the fair that triggered the launch, in 2010, of what was then called the Private Museum Forum. Travelling through China, and more generally Asia, Dodd recognised that private museums were often changing the art ecology of Asia much more than public ones. But there was no network to connect them with one another.
In 2010, the Forum brought together around 40 owners of private museums of contemporary art from Asia with the intention of providing them with a platform of support, which would also enable discussion and cooperation between both the members and the wider art community. To his surprise, it met an intense need and there was clearly the desire amongst the participants to make it global rather than regional. Three years ago Dodd moved the event to London to coincide with the art fair, Art13 (as it was then) and reconfigured the event as a Global Private Museum Summit, with owners from Mexico, China, Germany, Dubai, the US and Indonesia taking part. Participants have included Artur Walther, Wang Wei, Dai Zhikang, Gina Diez Barroso, Dr Oei Hong Djien, Harald Falckenberg, Dakis Joannou, Ramin Salsali, Can and Canda Elgiz and Don and Mera Rubell.
In this Ocula Conversation, Dodd discusses why and how he started the Private Museum Summit, the reasons it has evolved from being Asian to globally focused, its development into the Global Private Museum Network, and why private museums are becoming increasingly important in the art world ecology.
ADYou visited China for the first time in 1998 when you were director of the ICA. Can you please describe some of the main aspects of the art scene you discovered in China?
PDThere were two things that were clear. First, it was in the private sector that things were happening. In 2004, I remember trying to persuade a district government in Beijing to take some foreigners to the 798 Art District in Beijing, and they said it was too dangerous—what they meant was ideologically dangerous. So it was perfectly clear to me that the private sector in Asia, and particularly in China, was the place where very, very interesting things were happening and going to happen. The public sector in China was still finding contemporary art too difficult.
Of course there was a certain moment in Europe in the late 18th century when, in order to get out from under the Church and the State, the privatisation of culture allowed it to become a kind of dynamic force in Europe. That is the argument of Jürgen Habermas. And I think in an odd way that's what happened in China. So that's the first big thing. The other thing that became perfectly clear to me in China was that there was no forum in Asia—and I'd been to Taiwan, Indonesia, Korea and all these places—to allow the private museum owners, who were often working in a kind of ruthless isolation, to discuss and share what they were doing.
ADAnd how did this then develop into the first Private Museum Summit, which you launched in 2010 at Art HK?
PDThe Summit really started, to be frank, on a wing and a prayer. I contacted some of my friends in China, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and I also spoke to Magnus Renfrew, who was then the director of Art HK. We pulled together 40 private museum owners from across Asia, and also some Western private collectors, like Don and Mera Rubell.
ADHow many of those people are still part of the Summit today?
PDIt's a bit like the early days of Hollywood: there is a whirlwind of activity. Only some of it will stand the test of time. Some of the museums who were there in 2010 are not there anymore, but some museums have continued to be a part of the development.
ADWhat are the numbers now in terms of private museums in China?
PDWell, the difficulty is to know if there are any reliable numbers. But at a recent dinner with somebody who has good grounds for knowing, he said that China is going to build 600 more public museums over the next five to ten years, and that over the next ten years there are going to be 1,200 new private museums, and of those about 600 are going to be contemporary.
ADBut how does this growth in the museum sector relate to the growth of the audience for contemporary art in China?
PDIn terms of museums per head of population, China is starting from such a low base that despite the speed of its growth and the acceleration of activities it's still way behind, for instance, the U.S. But it is changing. I recently had lunch with an influential Beijing-local in London who says that the city's government is beginning to understand the success of Shanghai and the importance of museums. They suggested that in the next three or four years, we might even see a struggle as to whether a public museum from the West can land and take root in Beijing. It's a really, really interesting moment.
ADI understand that since it started, you have expanded the Network to include more Western private museum owners?
PDThat was partly at the prompting of the Asian museum owners, but it was also because of something that the Rubells said. They have been with us since the first event, and at the first Summit they mentioned they were thinking of building a new museum. They were thinking of a new model whereby they would create a museum in the context of a retail and hotel development. In Western terms, this was an innovative model, but at the Summit about five of the Chinese put their hands up and said, 'Oh we've been doing that for a few years.'
The weakness of China, or of Asia, is it doesn't have the long uninterrupted museum history that the West has, but this is also a strength. China has had to be more innovative from the beginning, and so there are ideas the Western owners can benefit from. What is very interesting thing about Asia generally, and particularly about China, is that it went through a period in the first decade of the 21st century where it wanted to talk to itself about itself. This was partly the consequence of a kind of willed amnesia about recent history, and partly because it needed to rediscover or discover its own contemporary history. Today, Asian museums have turned remarkably outward, so it isn't surprising that the conversation has turned global.
ADYou then took the Summit to London in 2013?
PDI took it to London in 2013 because London struck me, for all kinds of good and bad reasons, as a place with a relatively interesting museum history. It isn't a history that includes a strong group of private museums, although that's now changing. It was always the strategy to take it to London and then to move it back to Asia, but not to take it back to Asia as an Asian museum summit, rather as a global one.
ADSo you've recently had another summit in Shanghai in November 2015, held alongside the art fair, ART021. How would you define the discussions held there?
PDThere were numerous things that came out of the recent summit, but the most interesting thing is the new level of the discussion. There is a cliché that Chinese people don't speak out in these type of forums. I don't think this is true at all. The Chinese contributors, and the Asians generally, were at least as vocal as anybody else. And the big issues that arose were: 'What will a museum of the 21st century look like?'; 'Where should it be sited?'; 'What should be its physical shape?'; 'What is the basis on which you should build a museum now to be robust for 50 years?'; 'In the digital world, what kind of museum building do you need?; 'What kind of funding?' and 'What of the dream of integrating museums into everyday life?'
Take Kiran Nadar, for example. She's got a very, very strong private museum in Delhi and she's moved into a shopping mall. She moved it into a shopping mall because she wanted to find the audience. At the Summit, there was this very interesting and intense conversation about where to situate a museum, and it was a conversation led by the Asian private museum owners. In a sense, I think these private museum owners are asking the questions that the public museums are not yet asking.
ADHow do you generally think these discussions relate to the public sector?
PDUnlike the public museums—who are now increasingly limited in their programming by the need to guarantee audiences to get their funding (take the Tate Modern, for example, with its blockbuster shows and biographical shows)—he private museums' virtue is that they are not subject to government edict and government funding. The private museums can be experimental; they can take risks and do less popular things. They do not always do it. But it is early days, and the best are very ambitious.
ADLast year you developed the Global Private Museum Network from the Summit. I understand one of the aims of the Network is very much to work together to promote the private museums as places to define the art of our time. Is there not a risk that the taste of a few select individuals come to define the 'art of our time'?
PDIt's a really interesting question. I'm not sure if I prefer the tyranny of curators in public institutions to that of the tyranny of private collectors. What marks the present moment is that no one has a monopoly on what now counts as the canon. Chris Dercon of Tate Modern has complained recently that private museums are interfering with the public museums, which are responsible for protecting the canon. But if you look at the history of public art museums, their track record in identifying the canon is, to put it mildly, variable. The Tate, for example, has no holdings, in effect, in Asia art. It might show Robert Motherwell but has no serious way of showing the interaction between Motherwell and Chinese ink painting which was so important to him.
Of course, there are issues with private museums, but they are often, especially in Asia, in the early stages of development. For instance, the notion of having boards of advisors is becoming more and more important within the private sector, and often this board will be of help connecting private museum owners to the wider world.
What the Network wants to do is to connect owners with owners, and I think that too often owners are patronised, as if they are not quite as smart as art world professionals. It is unfair. Take Yinchuan's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), which is in Northern China. It has been built within the Muslim part of China. The museum was very, very interested in meeting the Elgiz [family] (Elgiz Museum, Istanbul) and Deborah Najar (Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, Dubai) because these are in places—Turkey and Dubai—where issues of Islamic art matter. One of the things that was talked about is how they can collaborate in sharing knowledge about work that is being, and has been produced that has an Islamic inflection. Of course you need boards of advisors, curators, and directors, and a number of the museums have them, but the other thing you really need to do is to network the owners globally so they can learn from one another and share resources, and not least knowledge.
The other thing about the private museum is that they can accelerate the presentation of different histories. The old established public museums, particularly in Britain and the United States, are still often telling the old Western story of art. They put out the odd exhibition (for example, the Guggenheim), but they're not transforming the canon of 21st century art; they are not integrating the histories of China, Japan, or the Middle East into the story of modern art. This is partly because they don't have the money to do it, and also because, intellectually, the curators are often still stuck in the Western model of art. If you visit some private museums—for example, the Boros Collection in Berlin, or one of the Chinese private museums—you are much more likely, at times, to find an exhibition that has a genuinely global ambition.
Given the nature of the art world now, you need to share serious knowledge between museums. And to my knowledge, this is not happening in a global way amongst the public museums; there's no genuinely global network where sharing is going on. There's a lot of opportunity for Western museums to put their work in the East, but very little opportunity for the flow to go the other way.
ADIs there any suggestion of any of the private museum owners from China looking to build private museums outside of China?
PDI think that is the next stage. You know, the first public museum of modern art is the Louvre, and it's only 200 years old. Maybe we're just returning, in a complex way, to an ecology where the public-private interact. In China for the foreseeable future, the private sector will be more ambitious in most senses than the public sector. The mantra, 'public good/private bad' is culturally and historically illiterate.
It looks to me as if Dubai may become a 'home' for museums built by nationals from other countries—there is Deborah Najar from France/Argentina, Ramin Salsali from Iran, and Owais Husain from India: all have built institutions in Dubai.
ADCan you see a future summit having a balance of attendance between these private museum owners and public institution directors?
PDWell, I think that is definitely a move, but maybe three moves away. It has to be because if a public institution wants to do, for example, an exhibition about modern Indonesian art, they are going to have to go to two or three private museums in Indonesia to get the work.
So if the public museums are serious about being truly global, as opposed to being what I think is often neocolonial—and they have to reimagine their responsibilities—they are going to have to engage with these private museum owners. If they don't, they won't have access to the very serious work.
ADWhat is your ultimate goal for the Network?
PDIt's a lovely idea that I have an ultimate goal; I don't really. But what I think has been one of the great outcomes from the Network and the summits is the extent to which the museums are starting to talk to each other about working together, for example, on educational projects. You know if these museums from different parts of the world can share knowledge that is very important.
An ambition I do have for the Network is to see touring shows between the private museums. The public museums in the West that work together are largely U.S. and Western European ones. A really interesting exhibition is going on in Romania at the moment about Romanian sculpture at a private museum. (When you look at Romanian sculpture, and you think back, there's a long and incredible pedigree of Romanian sculptors who, by migrating to Paris and other places, transformed Modernism.) It would be great to see this touring. I am hoping that by touring such a show, it will really transform and begin a genuinely global conversation.
This is when I sound slightly pious, but I think that this has to be the biggest issue: everybody thinks we live in a 'global world', but actually culturally we still live often in a very insular world. In the West (the Guggenheim is an honourable exception) we live without substantive knowledge of what's gone on in Korea or China. There is a need now for a major show called 'How Asia impacted European art in the 20th century', not necessarily the other way round; in fact, conversations on such a show actually have started.
I don't think of the summits and the Network as 'the' breakthrough, but what they have done is shine a light on the part of the art world that is emerging and is not going to go away.—[O]
Philip Dodd is curating 'Sean Scully: Resistance and Persistence. Paintings 1967-2015. London and New York' at AMNUA in Nanjing, opening on the 8th April 2016.