Tao Wang, Pritzker Chair, Department of Asian Art, and Curator of Chinese Art at The Art Institute of Chicago

with Baiqi Chen, Jiayi Song, Yiqiong Flora Zhang

English-language text, available below


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The Relationship Between an Art Museum and its Art School

TAO WANG: In the early 19th Century, the operating system of an art institute often combined both a museum and an art school, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, or the Art Institute of Minneapolis. The rise of the art institute in the United States, I think, has to do with the importance attached to art education, which was a great concern in the early 19th century. However, after 100 years of development, most of the art institutes either have a well-developed art school but a less developed museum, or the vice versa.

I think AIC is a special case. The operating system of the Art Institute of Chicago is very flexible since it is not overseen by any branch of government but by a board of trustees. It usually consists of influential personnel who will help decide the development direction of both the the art school and the museum, and who will contribute lots of money to support the museum and the school. Therefore, since this kind of operating system does not need to rely on government, circumstances such as closing down the school or museum simply because of changing government policy won’t happen. The formation of this type of operating system has to do with the value of art by the city of Chicago. The school has been dedicated to produce great artists who are also influential all around the world; the museum has been dedicated to have an encyclopedic collection, and exhibitions containing the great artwork of different cultures and civilizations. Maintaining their fundamental objectives and dedications, both the school and the museum are growing with persistence to keep their objectives.


Asian Art and The Art Institute of Chicago

TW: AIC is now considered as one of the top museums in the U.S. in terms of its collection, influence, and other aspects. So how does the museum keep developing? I think now the museum is focusing on Asia. Why Asia? If you take a look at the history of American museums, you will know that the museums in the United States began to collect more Asian arts when globalization increased. In other words, by adapting and meeting the need of the time, the art museums in the United States also became even more ‘encyclopedic.’ Many museums in the United States have an excellent collection of Chinese arts. Also, in this next era, China and other Asian countries such as India have increased their influence in the international art arena. At present, the collection of a museum should even more reflect this social development.

Take the case of AIC—we think of one of the best collections of Impressionist painting in the U.S. when we speak of AIC. Its Western art collection is already good enough, and its Asian art collection was one of the best in the U.S. in the 1950s. However, currently, the effort made in collecting and promoting Asian art is definitely not enough. The next step should be increasing such effort. The aim is not simply to survive—AIC clearly does not need any effort just for survival, but it needs to work to be the best. At least, it should become a national iconic museum in terms of its Asian art collection, research, and the construction of the new Asian art hall.

Now our Asian art department certainly should include and promote all kinds of arts in Asia, but there should be an order of priority. I focus on the study of Chinese art, and my other colleagues focus on the art of Japan, India, and other Asian countries. We all have different orientations in our research fields. There is a consideration of the order of priority, but it does not mean we only focus on one particular culture. For the moment, we see many good contemporary arts from Japan and South Korea. Our contemporary art department also has a grand plan, which is the ‘Global Contemporary.’ It contains many great artworks from Japan and South Korea, and also the Wu Street made by Xu Bing and Ai Weiwei in the 1990s, which is now on display and was recently bought into the collection by our contemporary art department.


Traditional Based Contemporary Art

TW: The so called ‘contemporary ink-wash painting’ is a very interesting notion. So what does it mean? In the recent decade, many domestic Chinese artists including those who study Western art, contemporary art, and new figurative painting, have realized that they are detached from the contemporary art world inside China after living and studying abroad. Some of them have started seeking new art concepts in a new environment after living out of China. In such circumstances, many of them actually resort to tradition for developing new concepts. After seeing an excellent Chinese art collection in the museum abroad, many of them have started to create art from their own cultural perspective. The most important part of such a concept is the material for ink-washed painting. Chinese ink. The basics about Chinese ink-wash painting is just to use Chinese traditional art material to create artwork. Such creation does not have to be a landscape painting of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, because such painting is already far antiquated for us now. Therefore, when we use traditional art material, we need to paint with the contemporary point of view. Therefore, we call such painting which uses traditional art material to paint with a contemporary point of view as ‘traditional based contemporary art.’ It should be created by the contemporary. By the people today, probably with Chinese traditional art material—Chinese ink—but with a contemporary concept and representation.

I don’t know if you noticed the group of artists who lived abroad in the United States. Most of them went back to China, but some stayed in the United States. Such as Li, Huayi and Liu, Dan. This group of Chinese artists who stayed in the United States, in most cases, even though they paint subjects that are similar to the landscape painting of the Song Dynasty, the way they paint those subjects is greatly influenced by Western art education such as the practices of sketching and perspective drawing. In this way they believe that they are tracing back to the zenith of Chinese art history, the Song Dynasty. The art language may be old/traditional, but the way they are tracing back on tradition with a contemporary perspective contains new development to Chinese contemporary art world. Their paintings have already formed a great impact inside China and the way they paint is becoming an art movement. Their artwork is considered as ‘traditional-based Contemporary Art’ in the United States and Europe, because this kind of artwork can also be appreciated by scholars who study traditional Chinese culture and arts. Many of the scholars who work in the museum in China have gone through a very traditional training which led to the solidification of aesthetic perspective and standard over the thousands years of Chinese art development. Those traditionally trained scholars tend to be attracted to this kind of artwork at first sight. Today you can see many museums and collectors that love to buy this kind of artwork in the United States. Because those artists have lived in the United States and in Europe, they can comprehend the international evaluation criteria for Chinese ink-wash painting. Therefore, what some of the contemporary Chinese artists are doing is to truly find some interesting art exploration based on their own cultural background.


Journey in China

TW: Every time going back to China, you will find many new exhibitions, new artists, and everyone is doing different things. I think that is what makes China a particularly interesting place. Every time you went back to China, you will be very busy, because everybody is doing many novel things. Therefore, from this point of view, China is a very vibrant place. No matter which city you are visiting, you will always feel so energetic because many people are doing fascinating stuff.

The artistic atmosphere is getting better in recent years. If you go to large art fairs in Europe, you will see that the quality of Chinese artists is also getting better. A good thing about China now is that many private museums are domestically constructed. Certainly, there are many issues pertaining to their collections: many museums do not have any permanent collection or a high-quality collection. A museum without a high-quality collection will not be able to survive. However, I think such issues are understandable since China just start building such private museums. If you take a look at the private museums in the United States and Japan, you will notice that there are many private museums built in the 1960s, some of them kept growing, others went out of business. Those private museums that stayed in business usually are excellent in many aspects such as their collections. Therefore, I think domestic private museums in China need a kind of operating system to sustain their development, like the Long Museum has. It is one of the museums that is doing well in Shanghai. It produces explosive news every few months because you need hype in order to gain attraction from many more people. It does not work like a national museum, because a new collection needs more research time in a national museum before showing to the public, than in a private museum. By constantly renewing its collection and exhibition even without as much money and personnel as big national museum, such private museums like the Long Museum give pressure to many big national museums. In fact, I think in the next step, Shenzhen and other emerging cities will focus on the construction of museums and art galleries, like Shanghai, because usually the emerging cities need to include the promotion of arts and culture in their development plan.

  • with Baiqi Chen, Jiayi Song, Yiqiong Flora Zhang

    DR. TAO WANG is the Pritzker Chair, Department of Asian Art, and Curator of Chinese Art at The Art Institute of Chicago. He was previously the Head of the Chinese Works of Art department at Sotheby's New York.

    JIAYI SONG is an international student from Beijing, China, and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Arts Administration and Policy program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She obtained her bachelor degree in Art History and Media Studies at Beloit College. Coming from a background in traditional Chinese philosophy and art practices, her primary interest is to recontextualize Chinese traditional culture and aesthetics in a contemporary context.

    BAIQI CHEN is a curator and an urban farm owner. He aims to create connections between interdisciplinary arts and their audiences, in order to bring personal and social impacts and generate culture that moves people. With a marketing and economy academic background and working experiences, Baiqi has led and worked on projects in China and Hong Kong. His studies include research of contemporary curators working in Chicago and globally.

    Yiqiong "Flora" Zhang: