Beijing and Shanghai have world-class opera houses, but they’re merely huge eggshells without the China Philharmonic, Red Detachment of Women or Kirov Ballet kicking up a storm inside. These cities, and Taipei, also have some of the world’s stodgiest, yet most stunning museums, holding some of the Chinese emperors’ best (old) clothes, as well as bronzes, jades, paintings and crockery from the past three or four thousand years.
But one treasure China doesn’t have is a single major public collection of art or cultural relics from countries that lie outside its borders. Now that China has invited the world to Beijing’s Olympic Games, it’s time for China to start building its own MetroTateGuggenLouvre, a world-class museum dedicated to the art of the rest of the world.
First, though, pick a city. Let’s try Tianjin, China’s third biggest city, less than an hour from Beijing. A city of over five million that no one’s heard of. If not there, then place it halfway between Beijing and Tianjin and let the two municipalities nurture it and fight over it. Build a new train station for it—that only takes three months. Then find a fine site, near a river or a lake and a train station. Or take advantage of the old Grand Canal.
Then buy and borrow the contents of the museum. Send out the terracottas, the Ming prunus vases, the pandas yearning to be free, not for dollars but in exchange for long-term, high-quality loans. Share art with your neighbors and trading partners as well as commercial goods. Start with African and Indonesian, cubism, minimalism, ukiyo-e and ancient Greek art. Show the world how broadminded Chinese culture can be. Go pre-Columbian, Korean, Inuit, Pop, Byzantine, 19th-century photography and Etruscan. Then add an art school, an art publishing house, an art website and an art television station, not to mention a killer gift shop.
Think like the Tang emperors, who did wonders for Chinese culture those three centuries eleven hundred years ago. Open the museum with a contemporary show called “The Chinese Smile and Frown: Portraits by Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang” and throw a few expressive Han- and Tang-dynasty burial figures for good looks and historical context.
Don’t expect to have a major impressionist in house until 2038, a Rembrandt until 2094. But Jeff Koons’ are available now. It wouldn’t be too hard to accumulate a superb group of Indian, Thai and Korean art from the early 21st century before 2099. What’s the hurry?
Capitalize on that broadmindedness to nurture donors and corporate sponsors, government departments, as well as curators, scholars and conservationists. Hire a Chinese architectural team that would die to have the world’s largest museum in their portfolio. And who in China wouldn’t want to contribute something to it? If a single horrific earthquake can galvanize Chinese civil society to remarkable acts of spontaneous generosity in a matter of days, then a single institution dedicated to some of the highest achievements of all mankind should be able to do the same over the course of one or two generations.
Don’t, by all means, leave Chinese art out of the equation. Before they break the USD 10 million mark, consolidate your colorful smiles. Gather your gray frowns. Tie your bloodlines in knots. Institute tax breaks. Trade quietly under the table. And get the big names under your wing now before someone else does.
There should be no ideological qualms about filling a museum with the finest products of “foreign friends,” or that of fraternal nationalities, from over the past 4,000 years. They sing, they dance, and they paint, draw, print, etch, sculpt, weave and conceive as well. Since All Men Are Brothers, all culture belongs to all.