Contemporary Curating in China
Report by Sarah Davies

The ‘Contemporary Curating in China’ workshop held in London on 22nd February 2011 was the first part of an initiative to connect contemporary designers and curators internationally. The second workshop on 30th March will take place at Shanghai Arts Museum where students from Kingston Universities MA Curating Contemporary Design programme will present work for an online curatorial brief together with staff and students from China’s celebrated China Academy of Art in Hangzhou.

The London Workshop held at the Design Museum, provided a rare opportunity to hear from the influential gallery owner Pearl Lam, a key figure in China’s arts and design industry. As the owner and Director of Contrasts Galleries, Lam’s focus is the exhibition and trading of contemporary art, decorative art and design. From her unique perspective she discussed the growing economic climate within the region, projected to be double that of the US by 2050, and its relation to the cultural sector.

For Pearl Lam the incline of the creative industries within China is a slow and often faltering progression. Government policy in the creative economy has not been effective, often providing subsidies in the form of land tax concessions allowing museums to be built regardless of sufficient content or staff. This support, in Lam's view is misplaced - funding through land as opposed to finance means the implementation of a design industry is forced rather than encouraged. By providing the art and design sectors with studios, museums and institutions they offer a platform for contemporary and innovative production however with a lack of reformation within education, there is little if anything to display. The notion that a design sector is not yet present or if present is not flourishing really comes from a differing in the definitions of design practice from the East to the West.

For the Chinese specifically, their arts and culture industries come from thousands of years of cross disciplinary practice. Pearl Lam placed emphasis on the notion of ‘literati’, referring to individuals with creative and artistic flair broadly allowed to practice within all genres of craft, fine arts, poetry and literature. As recently as the 19th century, she suggested that ‘Chinas biggest aspiration is cultural enhancement [and the thought was] if you enhance your spirit you will be a better artist’. With art and design seemingly reflecting the social and economic climate in which it is built, this development of one pure art form, without segregation or categorization is directly opposed to the hierarchical structures of Western art forms. Although the idea of ‘cultural enhancement’ was abolished within China in the early part of the 20th century, this separation has continued into the present day meaning the East’s understanding of the Western definition of design is inherently absent.

With government policies to advance design sectors aimed towards that of Western thinking, support and funding may be better placed within the education sector. Without a further knowledge and understanding of the inherent possibilities and characteristics of design, Chinese designers of the future could struggle to fill the new museums and institutions with design that can compete on an international scale. Although these creative industries are currently underdeveloped, the importance of the country for the future not only in economic terms but socially and culturally is clear. Connecting with cultural partners within China is undoubtedly more significant than ever before.

MA Curating Contemporary Design has focused on linking China with UK Curators through projects with emerging Chinese creative’s, artists and designers. The aim is to support emerging creative talent and build international networks using the developing field of online curatorial practice. This challenging and creative task will provide an exploration into how Western design practice definitions can be developed within China, whilst also discovering different and innovative ways for Chinese design to be promoted within the West. There will be difficulties in creating a common dialogue surrounding design along with the struggle of general language problems; however the trip will present valued steps towards creating long lasting working partnerships.

Crucial networking opportunities, new skills and understanding within the area of online curation will be gained and with the creation of international dialogues and exploration into Eastern cross disciplinary practice methods, contemporary design discourse between nations will be improved. The development of cultural exchange with China through professional working relationships and communicative practice now has recognizable significance for the future of creative industries globally.