One of the coolest things about being in Beijing at this point in history is watching the ways that the city processes the huge amounts of new cultural information that enter it each day. On its surface, Beijing’s cultural identity seems pretty fixed. It’s the PRC’s symbolic center, and it needs to look the part. But if you look below the surface, you see a city passionately seeking out and soaking in new forms of life and living. For the past few months, I’ve been interviewing some of the people who seem to be at the front of this process. I’ll post up some my favorites as time goes by.

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For the second installment, here is a conversation I had last week with Colin Chinnery, the deputy director and head curator at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art , China’s first not-for-profit art center. As you’ll see, the project is blazing several trails at the same time….

Quotables:

“I think, without a doubt, there is not single person in this team who has had this amount of freedom, or could possibly expect to have anything like this amount of freedom in an institution in the West.”

“It’s a little bit like social engineering.”

“This money from the market and the speculators is a tidal wave, and a hell of a lot of artists are going to be washed out to sea.”

“The French called the Americans and the Americans called the Chinese, and both the French and Americans said, ‘This has to come down!’”

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When we first met two summers ago, the Center was just a hollowed out industrial shell. And you stood in the middle to the rubble and basically described the UCCA as it exists today, with the three galleries, a cinema, library, etc. It’s crazy to think that that was less than a year and a half ago. Let’s talk a little about how you got from then to now.

We were given a clean slate by [UCCA's founders Guy & Myriam] Ullens. They said, “Just put together a program. Just do it.” That is unbelievable. No board of any museum in the West would ever say, “Oh just put together a program and do it.” You’d have committees and sub-committees, and everybody would be ‘grandees’ and if they said something you’d have to be worried that they don’t like it and you’d have to start from scratch.

We had a year and a half to do the entire building [renovation], programming, and exhibition. A year and a half, that’s all we had. You don’t get things done that quickly by going through three committees to make each decision. So I think the Ullens were very smart and very generous to just let the team do their jobs and get on with it.

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What other advantages have you found being in China, rather than Europe or the States?

Because we’re an organization that is beginning to make up lost ground in terms of the not-for-profit, non-commercial side of the art sector, we’re not in a tiny little niche. If we were in New York or Paris or London, we would have to be thinking in much narrower terms in terms of what our niche would be – what kind of audience do we want to engage with, what particular part of the artistic situation can we help with. But China is at the beginning of developing a non-profit sector. It’s just the beginning of actually engaging society in contemporary art. We have huge amounts of ground to cover. Basically all of the ground.

So, in a way, you’ve got two things to establish here – one part about contemporary art and the other about the concept of not-for-profit enterprise in itself.

They’re part of the same message. Through art, we want to get out the message of what not-for-profit means and how an institution like this operates.

It’s very strange for many people here in China: you’re private, you’re putting money in, and you’re not making money. They ask you, “Why would you do that?!” They look at you like you’re mad. And then you say, “Well, you know, there are philanthropists who help with medical causes or educational causes,” and they say, “Oh… right.” “Well, you know, art is good for society, and that’s why you have museums…” It takes a lot of work to explain why we don’t want to make money, why we don’t make a profit.

We’re still at that stage, and that’s one of the reasons that we can hopefully make a positive impression on society and the art world here. So that, on the one hand, is freedom, but, on the other, it’s slightly terrifying, because you’ve too much to explore at the same time.

Freedom is a loaded word in any context, of course, but especially when you’re talking about a place like China. But still it’s a word I hear again and again talking to people in the art scene here. I’m curious what particular forms of freedom or constraint you’ve experienced building UCCA?

The freedoms are phenomenal. In a way, that’s the most exciting thing about this project. Some of the team is very experienced, and a lot of the team has very little experience, especially the people at the assistant level. But I think, without a doubt, there is not single person in this team who has had this amount of freedom, or could possibly expect to have anything like this amount of freedom in an institution in the West.

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Working and talking with people in here in Beijing, I often hear a similar sentiment expressed. They talk about China as a land of opportunity for artists, curators, critics, etc., not because it has a well-developed cultural scene, but exactly because it doesn’t.

In the West, even if it’s for a new institution, you would be hiring people with decades of experience to lead the organization, you’d have people from other museums to come in and build the program for you, even assistant curators would have worked for years with other institutions… this would be unavoidable. As a part of the younger team, you’d have to wait your turn, you’d have to wait for years, you’d have to do tiny little exhibitions, before you could reach a strategic level where you can do major exhibitions.

Of course, when you are placed in a situation where you’ve got a pool of experienced people to draw from, you will always go for the experienced people, but that does not mean that the non-experienced people don’t have as much, if not more, potential than the experienced people. I would love to have recruited people with years of experience, who speak both English and Chinese, who are able to operate here in China as well as offer international experience. Unfortunately, that just can’t happen.

And so that is basically the experiment that we now have in place: we’re working with people who don’t have museum experience, generally speaking, and yet we have put together a major exhibition, we’ve put together a really exciting program, fantastic educational activities, film screenings, all of that from a team that, if you placed them in the job market in New York or London, probably couldn’t find a job. It’s a little bit like social engineering – seeing what happens when you place people with enthusiasm and some experience into places where they have a lot of freedom.

That’s really interesting and touching, I think, but I can also imagine that kind of experiment going horribly wrong.

Of course. I’m not a helpless idealist, I’ve hired very experienced people to deal with things that are very technical. So we’ve got a fantastic technical manager who’s got years of experience doing big exhibitions and huge installations all over the world. And our pool of curators all have years of experience, because, at the end of the day, without that experience you’ve got hundreds of thousands of dollars of logistics to take care of and you don’t want to jeopardize that.

But, as I said, the freedom of working here is very special, and the way that I think things should be managed is to make that freedom as abundant as possible. Within the fact that you have to get the job done by deadline and within budget, the idea is to give the staff as much freedom as possible to use their imaginations. Then say, “Ok, you’ve come up with the idea, I’m sorry but you’ve got to make it happen.” And that becomes this exciting thing, because realizing that you do have that freedom, you don’t want to take it for granted, you don’t want to think it’s a free hitch. You take it very very seriously, because, if someone entrusts you with that, you don’t want to mess up the opportunity.

Not to sound overly pessimistic, because it’s very clear from walking around the UCCA that this approach is working, but I’m curious what other safeguards you’ve employed to make sure that this free approach doesn’t devolve into disorganization.

This is actually the first organization in China to use an international model to structure a museum or arts center. I personally find this aspect very important, because if you just place a lot of people with little experience and say, “Just do it!” almost anything can happen. If you don’t have some set of fundamental guidelines of ethics, then you have no sense of direction.

The one sense of direction that we did have from the beginning is to be based on an international set of codes and ethics. So, as a not-for-profit, you have to have a vision, you have to have curatorial ideas, you have to have a curatorial team that builds ideas over time. It has be based around those central principles, and those become the principles for all your activities.

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I know that education plays a large part in your vision for the Ullens Center, I’m curious about how it fits into this set of core principles.

Education is going to be the most important part of our program in 2008. I think that education is the best route to establishing the not-for-profit idea, because you’re making a contribution to society that everybody understands.

We’re one of the first institutions to explicitly reach out to society through contemporary art. There’s lot of galleries, and there’s several really good galleries, but it’s not their job to talk to society at large. And it is the job of a not-for-profit arts center or museum go do that.

We want to start opening up that communication systematically, reaching out to children, families, areas of society that don’t have so much connection to contemporary art. We have all sorts of ideas from the audio guides to the guides tours to workshops and children’s clubs. All that is fairly standard internationally, but it’s very new here.

What role is China’s art market boom having in terms of stirring up interest among the public?

The craziness of the market right now is both positive and negative. On the positive side it allows many more artists to make a living. It also means that a large sector of the younger generation has started to become acquainted with contemporary art through the media’s fascination with the art market. It has meant that there has been huge coverage, where before there was no coverage.

It’s a little bit like the sensationalism surrounding the YBA/Saatchi generation of artists in Britain. Suddenly art became sexy, and through that there was a kind of revolution in the way that the public related to art. Even though a lot of people complain about that and say it’s just become a media circus, and artists should be more reflective and shouldn’t be so savvy, at the end of the day, it means that more people go to Tate Modern today to see exhibitions. And that can only be a good thing.

And the same thing is happening in China, just for the wrong reasons. It’s like, “We’re interested in art, because it’s really expensive.” And you might not ask, “Why is it good?” You might ask, “What does it cost?” But even asking about the cost is an element of interest that starts something. It’s a connection to people’s lives where they are acknowledging that art is a part of society, whereas before it wasn’t. There’s been no connection to their lives directly, because they haven’t been learning about contemporary art from childhood. They haven’t been dragged by their schools to museums when they were kids.

Of course, there are lots of negative implications about this, but overall I think it’s probably a positive thing. This money from the market and the speculators is a tidal wave, and a hell of a lot of artists are going to be washed out to sea. But there are going to be good artists standing after the tidal wave washes over, and they will be so firmly committed to their own work and their own principles that they’ll be rock solid. They’ll make good work come what may, and the rest of it is for us to see now to forget later and for the next generation to not even know about. So that stuff is not so important for us, because what we’re interested in is what’s going to be positive for the next generation.

I think that one of the market’s most damaging influences is its insistence on the creation of practical, commodifiable products. Art, generally, doesn’t have that same burden of being immediately recognizable as valuable or useful. Do you and your colleagues imagine the UCCA becoming a space, a haven almost, for artists with less commercial ambitions so that they aren’t washed away by this money tsunami you’re talking about?

We would love to have that impression on artists – that, after we’ve been around for a while, artists will start to see us as that sort of a haven, in terms of a spiritual or metaphorical haven. In practice, we will always make work that encourages that side of the artists, and you can see that that’s how we behave from the projects that the Ullens Foundation has been involved with.

When the Foundation was first set up in 2003, one of the first projects it supported was Huang Yong Ping’s Bat Project, which was a one-to-one replica of the American spy plane that knocked into a Chinese fighter jet off Hainan island and triggered a full steam diplomatic standoff. That was a project that the Foundation supported, but which was hugely impractical. The airplane is still rotting away in Guangzhou, and now we have the huge task of actually bringing it to Beijing, finding a storage space for it, and so on. But it’s an amazing project and, of course, it mirrored the controversy of the event it took inspiration from, because it wasn’t allowed to be exhibited in the end. The work sparked another government to react.

The Chinese government?

Not the Chinese government, it actually got the French and American governments to react, and ban the exhibit. The French called the Americans and the Americans called the Chinese, and both the French and Americans said, “This has to come down!” The French, because they’re scared of the Americans and the Chinese, in terms of diplomacy, and so on… So the actual work wasn’t just a sculpture; it was a political event.

Of course, we’re not planning for our shows to get shut down. That’s definitely not part of the plan, but it does show that we’re thinking in terms of what are basically brilliant ideas, and those should always come first.

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