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An Interview with Xia Yanguo on the Role of Architecture at Red Brick Art Museum

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An Interview with Xia Yanguo on the Role of Architecture at Red Brick Art Museum
Xia Yanguo, Art Director at Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing (Image courtesy of Red Brick Art Museum)

Over the last twenty years, museum architecture has become a focal point of the visitor experience, with the building providing as much of an attraction as the collections and exhibitions. The impact of the architecture on museums’ exhibition programming is increasing as contemporary exhibition experiences are placing new demands on museum and exhibition design. 

Red Brick Art Museum in Beijing provides a particular insight on the transition of Chinese private art museums from hardware construction to software development, shedding light on the impact of architecture on museum form and function. Red Brick Art Museum is indeed characterized by an outstanding architectural design that brings the Chinese traditional concept of the garden into dialogue with the contemporaneity, constituting a major highlight of the museum experience.

Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing

The museum is building its own collection, which includes works by Olafur Eliasson and Erik A. Frandsen among others. Do you follow a particular conceptual framework for the acquisition of works?

The director of the Red Brick Art Museum, Yan Shijie, started collecting traditional Chinese art more than 20 years ago. His collecting style has changed throughout the years, and the collection really began to take form with the works by Olafur Eliasson and Huang Yongping, who are also the artists currently displayed at our museum. We have displayed works by Erik A. Frandsen, Laure Prouvost, Tatiana Trouvé and Chen Jieren among others. They are renowned artists who are much recognized in the current art world. They have their own ideas and perspectives about the society, and I believe their quality is very high and concept strong, with great attention towards social issues. At the same time, the museum has also displayed Chinese avant-garde art from the last century as well as the artistic production of emerging artists.

Image courtesy of Red Brick Art Museum

Has the architectural design somehow influenced the museum’s identity, or has the museum’s identity dictated the architectural design?

Somehow both. Mr Yan did a comprehensive research before founding the museum. In the end, he decided to build a museum with traditional Chinese characteristics. More and more visitors are visiting the museum in order to enjoy and understand contemporary art. The architecture attracts a lot of audience, as half of them come here mainly to see the garden and take photos. Red Brick Art Museum has exhibited artists, whose works have a relevant criticality and concept. However, most people who come here don’t understand the art, and if it were only for the artworks they might not even come. But even so, the architecture has proved to be successful in leaving a deep impression in them. I think this also represents the original intention of the founder, to let the audience see and experience contemporary art in an environment that is accessible and easy to relate to.

'This Future of Ours', exhibition view, 2016 (Image courtesy of Red Brick Art Museum)

The museum offers a lot of activities such as screenings, performances, talks and workshops. What is the role of these activities for the museum development and audience engagement? What kind of audience are you targeting?

Contemporary art attracts a very niche audience. So we are trying to complement the exhibition program with educational activities, which are aimed at students, artists and art lovers. These activities offer, especially to the younger audience segment, the chance to better understand contemporary art. Red Brick Art Museum opened in 2014. At first, we staged 2 or 3 exhibitions per year, while last year we managed to organize 6 exhibitions, and the same holds for this year. The museum is being improved step by step, with each department making its own contribution to the overall development.

'Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-garde Art of the 80x and 90s', exhibition view, 2016 (Image courtesy of Red Brick Art Museum) 

What challenges have you encountered throughout the museum’s three years of life?

Most challenges are shared by many other private museums, such as the lack of financial capital. Most of the resources is provided by our founder, but we hope to get more patronage in the future. Also, building up a professional and experienced team has been quite challenging, as the museum is also facing a high staff turnover rate. We are looking for academic talents, and also trying to engage and educate the audience. It needs time, as we are seeking to find ways to make them come back and acquire knowledge in art.

'Haute Tension', exhibition view, 2017 (Image courtesy of Red Brick Art Museum)

Regarding the exhibition 'Haute Tension', how did the collaboration with the Association for the International Diffusion of French Art begin?

Today, more and more foreign institutions are looking forward to collaborate with Chinese art institutions, which is both an opportunity and challenge. However, it is very important for the museum to make clear its positioning and to specify the kind of cooperation it aims at. We have collaborated with the French Embassy in past exhibitions on Tatiana Trouvé and Laure Prouvost, and collaborated again this year on the 'Haute Tension' show. For this show, Mr Yan, the curator and I discussed on how to select artists, and in the end we decided to select 8 artists out of the 16 who were awarded. For us the aesthetics are not so important as the underlying meaning and relevance of each work. Indeed, we constantly ask ourselves what the exhibition can bring to China’s contemporary art world. We value works that can spark reflections on social issues, and this is perhaps what some Chinese artists lack. At the same time, we are also trying to focus on and promote the works by emerging artists.

Tatiana Trouvé, installation view, 2017 

The museum has also made quite a few publications regarding the past exhibitions. What role does academic research play for the museum? And in what ways is the museum contributing to the documentation of contemporary art?

Publications are very important to us. The curator is strict on the publications, and we have managed to publish only a few since every publication is usually re-edited many times after the exhibition. Since the founding of the museum, some important departments such as the academic, exhibition and public relations departments have been established. At the beginning of each exhibition, the academic department makes a huge research on the artists and usually publishes a small catalogue during the exhibition. Since the amount of work is substantial, we are currently looking for someone to take charge of the publication department, but we still haven’t found the right person. 

'Haute Tension', exhibition view, 2017 (Image courtesy of Red Brick Art Museum)

With the rapid rise of private art museums in China, how does Red Brick Art museum compare to them? And to other international museums?

The museum system was initiated by private collectors, who are art lovers but not museum professionals. They began collecting what they liked, and as they learned more about art, they became much more experienced. Their individual knowledge thus determines the breadth and scope of collections and exhibitions. There are still many museums linked to enterprises in China, with no clear separations, which may be a strategic approach to boost real estate prices in the neighbourhood. But Redbrick Art Museum is absolutely independent, as Mr Yan’s business is located in his hometown. His passion for art has represented the main reason why he founded the museum.

Museums in China still need a lot of improvement. There are more opportunities compared to the past, but I believe it will also become more challenging with increasing competition and public expectations regarding the quality of museums. The museum field needs more professionals, from management to academic research. There is indeed the need of young, active and well-educated people with an international background and knowledge in art history and management.

 

 


Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.


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