Foshan, China – After five years of planning, a pandemic and a failed kidnapping, the He Art Museum, China’s most vibrant new private art venue in Guangdong province, is finally welcoming visitors.
Initially delayed by the COVID-19 outbreak, which scuttled its planned unveiling in mid-March, it was then almost derailed by an attempted kidnapping in June of the founders of Midea’s electronic empire – He Xiangjian, 78 years old, and his son, the museum museum. 55-year-old founder He Jianfeng – in a nearby villa complex.
But with the drama behind them and China, one of the countries least affected by the coronavirus currently, the He Art Museum [HEM] opened in the southern city of Foshan in October – on the Chinese National Day.
Shao Shu, executive director of HEM, told Al Jazeera that the He family hopes the place can present a balance between Chinese, Lingnan – roughly Cantonese – and Western artistic cultures and further develop art and culture in the family’s hometown; a city better known today for its vast landscapes of factories than for art.
“HEM would like to turn private pleasure into public pleasure,” he said.
The family commissioned world-renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando to design the glass-walled concrete building, which was inspired in part by the region’s traditional earthen rotors.
Tucked away behind the trees – across from Midea’s headquarters and a small building housing upscale offices, restaurants and tea rooms – the 16,000 square meter (172,223 square feet) structure features two spiral staircases around it. ‘a bright central courtyard which forms the heart of the museum.
The venue has started to display pieces from He Jianfeng’s own collection, which has been built up over the past 10 years and includes around 500 works, of which three-quarters are traditional Chinese or contemporary art and the rest are western.
The opening exhibition, curated by Feg Boyi, is called Mundane World and features scenes and materials from everyday life – colorful rooms full of light fixtures and a ‘mundane canteen’ filled with artifacts from Shunde’s culinary traditions. . Other rooms include sculptures ranging from a set of large tractor-shaped wheels made of everyday materials by artist Yin Xiuzhen, to an installation by Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum – a map of the world made of transparent glass beads that fill the ground.
There are also several Lingnan Art Halls featuring snow-capped landscapes and water buffalo.
From the HEM collection itself is Kohei Nawa’s impressive PixCell Deer, constructed from clear and golden glass bubbles and other materials, it stands on its own as visitors turn a corner between the halls of the gallery.
“In the future, depending on the content of the collection, it will be reinforced by [various] types and expanded by works of art from young artists around the world, ”Shao said.
The museum adds to the growing number of private and publicly funded art museums in China as the country claims to become a global cultural power.
Over the past 40 years, the number of art museums in China has grown from a few hundred to over 5,000, according to statistics from the National Administration of Cultural Heritage of China.
“From my point of view, the growth of museums – both public and private – is an exciting and good development to enrich community, culture, education and civic pride,” said Meg Maggio, director of the Pekin Fine Arts gallery in Beijing and Hong Kong, at Al Jazeera in Boston.
Recent government planning has aimed for greater inclusion of the arts in the education system. Over the next five years, this will only get stronger as provinces roll out ambitious museum growth plans, said Emily de Wolfe Pettit, founder and chief intercultural strategist at Peking Arts Associates at Al Jazeera.
And while its location in Foshan may have drawn some laughs, most of those who have followed the development of the place think it makes sense.
“I think it’s fabulous that they chose to place the museum [in Foshan] rather than Guangzhou or Shenzhen, ”said de Wolfe Pettit. “It’s brave enough to do that. There is a real opportunity here to disseminate knowledge and also a sense of local pride.
Foshan is a vital historic site for Cantonese culture, Maggio said.
“The He Art Museum also has close ties with Hong Kong and is a good example of Greater Bay’s regional growth and cooperation,” she said, referring to the Southern Cities Development Zone.
Shao says HEM wants to be a museum with local roots but a global perspective.
While the museum hopes to attract art lovers from big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere, the founders know that residents of these places already have plenty of opportunities to visit art museums and other cultural venues. , so the emphasis is on attracting people from Foshan. and the surrounding area of Greater Bay.
“For the local audience, they might not have a lot of opportunities to exhibit themselves to well-known international contemporary artwork,” Shao said. “Therefore, HEM is dedicated to showing the specialty of local culture to an international audience and presenting what’s happening in the art world outdoors to the local audience.”
With China’s strict border controls to prevent COVID-19 cases from flooding the country, there are few foreign visitors to the field, giving the local public a better chance to explore.
HEM had around 1,600 visitors per day during the National Day week starting October 1 and had drawn roughly the same number on weekends since.
Foshan currently has a population of around seven million, although the total population of the Grand Bay region is ten times greater.
“There are enough audiences, there are enough artists, who can support [museum growth] here and support the programs, ”said De Wolfe Pettit. “They are making serious commitments, with serious architecture and serious curators, it is a wonderful initiative. I will look forward to what they do next.