The National Art Museum of China is celebrating its 50th birthday. Lin Qi reports its mission to transmit culture looks set to expand further in the future.
The 37-meter-long arced wall inside the National Art Museum of China is seen as one of the country's most important exhibition spaces. The wall, which is in the middle of the first floor's center hall, is usually reserved for the best work of blue-chip artists.
At the current exhibition that celebrates NAMOC's 50th birthday, there are no paintings hanging on the wall.
Instead, curators have listed the names of several hundred major exhibitions at NAMOC since its opening. On the arced wall, in big characters, they list the names of dozens of people who have made donations.
The exhibition, titled Along with the Times, is a retrospective with 666 paintings, prints, sculptures, caricatures, installations and mixed-media works from NAMOC's collections, which together narrate a condensed history of Chinese art in the 20th century.
It features such well-known paintings as Luo Zhongli's Father and Xu Beihong's Horse, as well as masterpieces that are on show for the first time, like Jiang Zhaohe's hand scroll Refugees.
The exhibition occupies NAMOC's 14 halls but reflects just the tip of the iceberg, as the museum has 110,000 stored works, which range from ancient Chinese paintings and calligraphy, to modern fine arts, folk and Western art.
The collection was accumulated in tandem with NAMOC's construction. In 1961, a three-person team started collecting and purchasing and shortly after that came the first contribution - 116 ink-and-water paintings of Chen Shuren, one of the "three masters of the Lingnan School" - from his wife Ju Ruowen. By the time the museum was opened, it boasted a collection of nearly 5,000 works.
Three years later, Deng Tuo, an intellectual and journalist, donated 145 works and sets of paintings, several of which were appraised as national treasures. Deng's generosity inspired more artists and their families to do the same.
NAMOC's deputy director Liang Jiang says the museum's collection experienced explosive growth after the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).
One remarkable contribution was Refugees, the most influential work of Jiang Zhaohe, which his family donated in 1998. Jiang, a reformer of figurative painting, adopted a Realist approach to reveal the hardships of poor people and cruelty of society. The huge ink painting is 2 meters tall and 12 meters wide.
"From the perspective of art history, Refugees is one of the classics of 20th century Chinese painting. It is not overstated at all to call it a treasure of NAMOC," says Yang Lizhou, the museum's former director and an ink-and-water painter himself.
In 1996, the museum received its most significant contribution of Western modern art. The Ludwigs, German industrialists and collectors, donated 117 works of 82 Western artists, including four of Picasso's paintings.
Meanwhile, Liang, the deputy director, reveals that the family of photographer Lang Jingshan intends to donate his works, which will boost NAMOC's collection in an area where it could be considered weak.
For NAMOC Director Fan Di'an, in addition to improving storage, the museum needs to build an exhibition structure to show off China's modern art values to the world, especially artists like Qi Baishi and Xu Beihong. To attain this goal further academic research is required so that it can become a truly world-class museum.
"We're committed to leading the audience into an in-depth reading of the history," Fan says. "Only when we invest a lot in research about our collections can we curate novel shows and tell good stories."
Fan says museums should raise new issues and look at the development of Chinese art in the past 100 years from new angles. For example, he says, curators in the current exhibition have dedicated an entire section to the exploration of Chinese oil painters in the 1940s and their visits to West China.
Fan admits NAMOC doesn't attend to the dynamics of contemporary art enough.
NAMOC experienced a "golden age" of development in the first few years after reform and opening-up. It displayed a pioneering spirit by introducing modern art to Chinese audiences, for instance, by exhibiting Picasso's and Robert Rauschenberg's works in the early 1980s.
"The art community then had a thirst for seeing the world. The exhibitions fulfilled such a strong desire and eased people's doubts about fine art," Fan says.
The museum also played a vanguard role in supporting contemporary art movements. It held the Star Exhibition in 1979 and the China Avant-Garde Art Exhibition in 1989, which became social sensations and provoked controversies.
NAMOC today is more criticized for being too conservative and not giving contemporary art adequate exposure.
Fan responds that though contemporary art is very original it is still in a "nascent state" and many works haven't won academic recognition. For NAMOC, he says, the collection and display of contemporary art requires careful selection.
"We face the reality that we've lost the privilege of being a dominant art venue. We much appreciate the vigor of such art districts as 798 and Songzhuang village. But it doesn't mean we should adopt the same model."
He adds that as a national art museum NAMOC is responsible for serving the public's diversified art interests.
"It was quite natural that in the 1980s, museums helped promote art and served artists."
He says artists came from all corners of the country, enduring difficult rides on hard-seat trains for days, just to see an exhibition at NAMOC.
"Their excitement was unparalleled when seeing paintings of the Barbizon School, abstract art from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and works of Andy Warhol, Picasso and Rodin," he says.
Now people enjoy art via varied channels and artists often travel abroad. Meanwhile, there has been a boom in building art museums across the country. Fan says he has visited many of them, which are well designed and feature modern and creative works.
"But there is often no audience and it's a total waste of resources. So I often ponder the question, how can today's art museums better cater to the audience?"
The answer may lie in the design of NAMOC's new venue, near the Bird's Nest, or Beijing National Stadium.
"The museum no longer centers on exhibitions. It will have a collection and preservation system, provide digital art information, offer public services such as a library and art education programs," Fan says.
"It will act like 'a spring rain that waters things in silence', that is, to touch upon people's hearts and souls and transmit culture."