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An Interview with Yan Yan on the Sense of Institution at Today Art Museum

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An Interview with Yan Yan on the Sense of Institution at Today Art Museum
Yan Yan, Vice Director of Today Art Museum, Beijing, China (Image courtesy of Today Art Museum)

Founded by Zhang Baoquan in 2002, Today Art Museum is the first private non-profit museum in China. As a museum, it strives to boost the development of China's contemporary art, as well as to introduce and display the essence of contemporary art from around the world. Since its founding, Today Art Museum has undergone significant institutional change, constantly establishing and revising its strategic positioning and goal as a non-profit art museum, with major efforts in standardizing the operational model as well as in enricing the Museum's social functions and responsibilities.

Today Art Museum was founded by Zhang Baoquan in 2002. In 2006 it was fully transformed into a non-profit organization. As an institution, what evolutionary path did the museum follow? And what are the motivations behind these institutional changes?

Initially, in 2002, Today Art Museum was located in Jindian Park on Xizhi Road, a location also owned by our founder. Throughout 2004 and 2005, our founder developed a new district named Pingod community, so we moved Today Art Museum there. It represented a great opportunity to enlarge and renovate the museum. Under the direction of our founder, various kinds of exhibitions have been held here, ranging from contemporary art, to traditional Chinese calligraphy and oil painting, and so on. In 2006, Zhang Zikang was appointed as the first director of the museum and worked here for 8 years, making great contributions to the museum’s development. First of all, he redefined the museum as a contemporary one. Then, he applied to the local government in order to transform the museum into a non-profit institution in China. 2006 was definitely a key point for Today Art Museum, as it became the first private non-profit museum in China. Since then, we have paid huge attention to contemporary art both nationally and internationally. Because the museum was set to run as a private museum without government grants, Zhang Zikang and his team had to acquire advanced managing expertise abroad, later publishing a book on museum operation and fundraising.

Image courtesy of Today Art Museum, Beijing

What happened then, when Gao Peng took over the museum management in 2013? What difference and contribution did he make to the development of the museum?

Gao Peng already worked here since 2011 as the vice-director at that time. Before him, a second director from Taiwan was in charge of the museum for a very short period. She had different strategies and approaches, and when she left the position, a lot of resources became no longer available. When Gao Peng took over the job in 2013, the museum had already lost a lot of resources when the first two directors left. It is indeed a big challenge for a museum to change a director, and it took a very long time for Gao Peng to adjust the strategies as well as his own ideas. Since 2013, we have been evaluating a new museum strategy based on our strengths and opportunities. First of all, it is a big advantage for us to be able to rely on the operating system that the first director had set up. Compared to other museums, our museum structure is quite comprehensive in terms of the facilities it offers. Apart from the exhibition spaces, we have our own café and gifts shop, and also publish several books and magazines. Secondly, as the museum spaces belong to the founder and property owner, he has provided us the basic conditions and necessary support. Thirdly, the museum encompasses a total area of 7,000 square meters, providing over 5,000 square meters of exhibition space.

Image courtesy of Today Art Museum, Beijing

The museum has a very peculiar architecture, bridging between the past and the present. Who has been in charge of the architectural design, and what has been its influence over the museum?

All the art buildings within the district belong to the founder and property developer, whose desire is to make the whole creative area linked together with a particular focus on art. The museum is somehow a cultural landmark that fuels an artistic ecosystem here. We have 3 exhibition halls, and this building, where we are talking, used to be a beer factory. Now there is a bookstore and a gift shop on the first floor, while the second floor is an exhibition space characterized by a 12-meters height – suited for large-scale exhibitions and installations. This industrial space has been renovated while maintaining its original design and configuration.

"Plastic Reflectic" by Thijs Biersteker, interactive installation, 2016 (Image courtesy of Today Art Museum)

How is the museum pursuing sustainable development in the medium and long term?

Since the first director, we have set up a model to attract patrons as we hope to gain more external support. We rely on venue rentals, exhibition and project fees, as well as on entrance fees, our stores and café to help balance the revenues and expenses. The only pity is that being a private museum, we receive no economic support from the government. In recent years, our founder has stopped providing us resources, though we have kept collaborating on some projects. Thus, we face the constant need to expand cooperation and increase the number of exhibitions and projects, and to make the exhibitions tour throughout China and the world. We need to overcome many difficulties and adjust our approach along the way in order to gradually improve the museum's operational model.

"Reading Plan" by Lien-cheng Wang, mechanica installation, 2016 (Image courtesy of Today Art Museum)

How does the museum compare to other institutions in the global context? What can you learn from them?

We are very similar to other international museums in terms of the facilities and departments that our structure provides. But our identity is different; we are the first private non-profit museum in China, though there are perhaps 400 now. So the operational model is similar but the identity is very different.

Do you think China needs an integrated museum network, or is it already in the development phase?

There are some networks already in place, but the conditions and contexts are very limited. In fact, there is a professional national museum management committee, which organizes and coordinates from time to time some educational projects and trainings but the scope is very limited. The committee makes an assessment once every 5 years, through which they select and rank the top museums. There are still many new-born museums, as well as closing ones each year, and such speed doesn’t offer the chance to reflect on potential collaborations. There is sometimes a competitive attitude between museums, I think more time is needed in order to setup a fully cooperative and resource-sharing museum network.

 

 


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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