One of China’s oldest private art museums is closing as the Covid lockdown leads to an economic downturn

The Guangdong Times Museum in China’s Guangzhou region announced yesterday that it will close its doors after nearly 19 years. The private museum is among the oldest and most respected private art museums in China, known for its thoughtful curation and academic programming focused on South China as well as Southeast Asia and the Global South. The space will close after the current show ends River pulses, border streams on October 9, according to his WeChat channel.

The Times Museum is at the forefront of shaping the art scene in the Cantonese-speaking Pearl River Delta (PRD) region, including Shenzhen and Hong Kong. The region has a “historical culture as a frontier of imperial China and post-1990s reform policies and real estate boom,” says deputy director and chief curator Nikita Yinqian Tsai. “The Times Museum has witnessed the transformation of this frontier over two decades.” Compared to Shanghai and Beijing, the area has “never had a very strong art infrastructure or a large commercial gallery,” Cai says, with “the Times Museum as one of the oldest investing heavily in promoting the local ecology of contemporary art.” . She adds: “For the region, this is a great loss, and also for a generation of mid-career artists and emerging artists across China, because of our focus on curation and research. We are not an admission-fee-driven model.”

The tall building that housed the Guangdong Times Museum Photo: Courtesy of Guangdong Times Museum

The closure is due to the economic downturn in China, the publication said, with strict lockdowns and other Covid control measures in the first half of this year further strengthening the slumping property sector from mid-2021. The property developer backing the museum, Times China, has spent 200 million yuan (£24.7 million) for the museum since 2010. That year, the company ended its partnership with the Guangdong State Museum of Art and established a non-profit division to manage the Times Musuem independently. In 2018, the Times Museum was the only Chinese institution to date to expand to the West, opening a space in Berlin that also closed this June.

Located in a high-rise in the northern district of Guangzhou, the Times Museum’s 1,200 square meter exhibition space on the building’s 19th floor will be closed, as will the offices on the 14th floor. A cafe and event space on the first floor will remain open, and scheduled public programming will continue through November. Huangbian Station, now an independent side project started in 2012 by Liang Jianhua, Times Museum curator from 2011 to 2022, will continue.

Installation view of the exhibition Big Tail Elephant: One hour, no room, five shows in 2016 Photo: Courtesy of Guangdong Times Museum

Recalling highlights of the Times Museum’s programming, Cai recalled the 2016 retrospective of the groundbreaking 1990 Guangzhou collective Big Tail Elephant, which “inspired a younger generation of artists who graduated from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts.” She also highlights the All the Way South research network, which explores the Global South through research, dialogue and scholarship. “Guangzhou has a rich history interacting with Southeast Asia and with Africa through its former large African community, which we hope will inspire a new generation,” Tsai says.

The museum will retain a skeleton team including Cai, Director Zhao Qie and Administrative Director Liu Qian. Its staff has already been reduced to ten from 16 in early 2022. The remaining dismissed employees are negotiating with Times China’s human resources team to receive their statutory severance pay, which is equal to one month’s salary for each year of service. Times China offered to pay compensation in April 2023 rather than upon termination, three of the officials involved said Art Gazette anonymously. Cai confirmed that the team is negotiating with the property company’s human resources “as there is no cash flow to pay the compensation all at once”. She adds, “The [jobs market] it’s not very positive, so they need this payment and I fully support them.”

The museum aims to reopen in some form next year, according to the WeChat announcement. This will require “introducing a different model,” Kay says. “There is no place for such a private museum, based entirely on corporate funding, without government support. We will have to downsize and restructure and tell a different story, integrating the cultural scene with the realities of China. I’m optimistic about a smaller-scale experiment developing a more diverse ecosystem,” she says, adding that ultimately, “people are our most important asset.”

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