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Show of emerging Chinese artists may debut at Tampa Museum of Art

Author: Lennie Bennett, Times Art Critic 2013-06-08

Todd Smith has a plan, and if it works, a landmark exhibition will

debut at the Tampa Museum of Art in June 2014.
Smith, who is director of the museum, has commissioned "My

Generation: Young Chinese Artists," a special exhibition that

would assemble a large group of emerging Chinese artists in a

U.S. museum for the first time.

"There was an opportunity to do a show of this size and scale for

the first time in the U.S.," he says. "It seemed like the perfect time

to begin an important conversation."

Smith has already invested time and several thousand dollars in

preliminaries, including a trip to China with arts writer, teacher

and contemporary Chinese arts expert Barbara Pollack to visit

studios and galleries and meet artists who might be part of the

show. Pollack has been retained to curate the show and write

the catalog. (Catalogs always add luster; they signal the

uniqueness and seriousness of an exhibition.)
Smith, 47, became the museum's director in 2008 and has

overseen its programming since a new building on downtown

Tampa's riverfront opened in 2010. It has a prestigious antiquities

collection, but its special exhibition mission is to exhibit the art of

our time and the art that has influenced it. Since he arrived,

Smith has crafted a smart mix of beloved modern forbears such

as Matisse and Degas with contemporary artists. He has a

particular gift for finding important emerging, younger ones.

Inspiration for special exhibitions can come from anywhere.

Most often museums build them around art they already own.

The source for "My Generation" was especially unusual.

Smith had curated a show by video artist Janet Biggs in 2011.

Pollack, a good friend of Biggs, came from New York for the

opening. Over dinner with Smith and others from the museum,

she talked about a followup to her previous book, The Wild Wild

East, that she was researching, about the new generation of

Chinese artists.

"Someone said it would make a great art exhibit," Smith said.

"So we began talking."

Despite the exploratory trips to China, the exhibition is not a sure

thing. To help finance it, Smith has to find at least one other

museum, preferably two, maybe three, who want to rent it and

has sent proposals to dozens of museums around the country.
The museum's hard expenses for bringing the show to Tampa

are about $200,000, he says, but it's "a sliding scale" at this point

because decisions about what art will be in it and how much

shipping will cost (it can be a lot) will be based on how much

funding he raises from sponsors and how many museums want

to participate. That figure also doesn't factor in operational

costs absorbed by the museum such as staff time. He'll

probably know by late summer if the plan can go forward.

Special, or temporary, exhibitions are the lifeblood of most art

museums. They garner publicity and coax return visits from an

audience, especially a local audience, that is often more

interested in seeing something new than going to see the art

that's always on view in the permanent collection galleries.

They're important to a museum's reputation, capable of

conferring added prestige, and they're part of the educational

mission all art museums must have to be accredited by the

American Alliance of Museums. The viewing public rarely has

any idea how much time, effort and money can go into

creating one.

Most of our regional art museums offer at least five special

exhibitions every year. They're a combination of those

organized by the museum itself and those rented from another

institution, such as a museum or an exhibitions company, that

has assembled one and sent it on tour. Sometimes several

museums band together to share expenses and contribute art.

A common homegrown exhibition is made up of art in a

museum's permanent collection but not on regular view, such

as prints or photographs that are light sensitive and spend most

of their time in dark storage. These are popular with museum

professionals because they're inexpensive and have quick


A more complicated and ambitious type involves loans from

other museums, commercial galleries and/or private collectors.

They can be very expensive and take years to organize, which

is why they usually have to be lent to other museums for a fee.

The Tampa Museum would charge $75,000 in rental fees and up

to another $75,000 for shipping and insurance.

"Shipping is the biggest unknown," Smith says, because some

artworks are more expensive to crate and send than others.

"We're guaranteeing that shipping won't cost more than that,

and it could cost less."

"That's not an expensive exhibition," says Marshall Rousseau,

director emeritus of the Dalí Museum and former interim director

of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, who has

overseen exhibitions that cost hundreds of thousand dollars.

"Most museums just try to break even on them. They're

colleagues and friends."

Chinese artists with a new sensibility

Smith would like many media to be represented in the show,

including installations, but it depends on the funding.

"We'll have about 20 artists all born in 1976 or later," Smith said.

"They were all born under China's one-child policy and after the

Cultural Revolution, which was so restrictive, even terribly

punitive to earlier generations of artists. They were born after

Mao's death. Many of them have shown or traveled

internationally. They're a differently engaged group."

Both Smith and Pollack make the point that all the artists

received training from prestigious arts academies in China,

which have a rigorous and traditional approach with little room

for conceptual innovation. They are in the process of deciding

what of the old they keep while developing their individual

approaches and styles. They have access to technology and

McDonald's. They have aesthetic ideals along with commercial

aspirations. All of those things were unheard of 30 years ago.

While some of the artists being considered have shown their

work in U.S. galleries or museums individually, this would be the

first one to provide a larger philosophical framework.

"These younger artists grew up in an entirely different country,"

says Pollack. "They could travel. The older contemporary artists

came of age in a very isolated community. They think this

younger group is spoiled. After the Cultural Revolution, they still

made work about social issues. The younger group is much

more experimental, more diverse. A lot of the older artists have

symbols that are explicitly Chinese. This group is not explicitly

about Chinese identity. They're mostly apolitical, interested in

the landscape of China and how it has changed in their

lifetime. They're looking at their own youth culture, some with

exuberance and some as alienating and sad. They find, unlike

their elders, that being Chinese is not that unique."

China is becoming a major player in the international art world

both as an incubator for exciting contemporary artists and as a

source for wealthy collectors. Pollack says that most of the

artists under consideration are well known to collectors in their

own country and some have sold their work in China for as

much as $100,000.

"It's a gamble," Smith says, "but I feel really good about finding a

venue or two besides us for it."


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