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In China, the business of blockbuster exhibitions

Not only museums are booming in China, but also blockbuster exhibitions which flourish in the country and look for a viable business model.

(c) Yu Culture / Lijie Zhuo

The National Museum of Art (NAMOC) in Beijing has recently attracted more than 110,000 visitors over 10 days to its exhibition of “grands maîtres” such as Picasso, Dali, Warhol, Lichtenstein or Hokusai. An exhibition with one of these masters would have been as popular. It was the three paintings of Pablo Picasso which attracted most of the visitors – some even queued for three hours. The NAMOC has the most important public collection of Picasso paintings in China (or even in Asia) but had hardly put this collection on display since the donation by the industrial magnate and art patron Peter Ludwig in 1996. The Picasso artworks were exhibited all together at the time of the donation and partially once again in 2013.

Courtesy Tsinghua Art Museum

Other “grands maîtres” are also considered safe bet for exhibitions in China, including Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Salvador Dali or Leonardo Da Vinci. The Modern and Contemporary Art Museum of Saint Etienne (France) has organised a touring exhibition between 2017 and 2018 to three museums in China of some highlights of its collection (closed for renovation). The exhibition, entitled “From Monet to Soulages, Paths of Modern Western Painting (1800-1980)”, featured important works such the Waterlilies of Claude Monet.

Museums in China, whether they are public or private, expects to boost their visitor numbers with such blockbuster exhibitions. If the public museums, hugely subsidised, pay less attention to the production costs of the exhibitions, they are more interested in their media exposure and the visitor figures. However, exhibition producers in the private sector are more cautious about costs and look for a viable business model.

In 2011, an exhibition with 62 artworks of Picasso, on loan from the National Picasso Museum of Paris (closed for renovation works at a new venue), was popular with visitors in Shanghai. Organised by the local producer Tix Media in the former Chinese Pavilion of the World Expo Shanghai 2010, the exhibition attracted 300,000 visitors in 85 days for a total budget of 40 million CNY (4.9 million EUR), making it the most visited exhibition of the year. However, the visitor figure was far from expectations, despite the important works on loan from the Parisian museum. The peripheral location and the lack of public transport to access the venue were the major obstacles to a commercial success. The exhibition was also largely criticised for its high price tag: 80 to 100 CNY (between 9 and 11 EUR). The public in Shanghai was “spoiled” by high-quality free exhibitions at the public museums, on one hand, and on the other, they were not ready financially. In 2011, the annual GDP per capita in Shanghai was about 82,560 CNY (9,000 EUR). In comparaison, public museums and most of their exhibitions are free to visit because of the museum free entry policy imposed by the government; some exhibitions may still charge a symbolic entrance fee at around 20 yuan (2.25 EUR).

Three years later, the public was finally there, nurtured by an increasingly rich cultural programme in Shanghai, at another exhibition organised by Tix Media, which seems to have established a perfect business model for exhibitions in the years to come. The Claude Monet exhibition, on display for 100 days at K11 art mall of Shanghai, reunited 55 artworks of the artist and 12 paintings from other Impressionists, all on loan from Marmottan Monet Museum of Paris. The cost of the exhibition was estimated at 20 million CNY (2.5 million EUR), including the refurbishment and compliance work conducted at the exhibition space (800 m2 on the basement level of the mall, unadapted for fine arts exhibitions), rented to the exhibition producer for free. In China, the producers of “commercial” exhibitions at non-museum venues are required either to pay a rental fee in advance, or to share the revenue with the owner of the venue. Ticket sales contributed to half of the revenue: 400,000 people visited the exhibition proposed at 100 CNY (12 EUR). More than 800 product types composed the merchandising line and were sold in a dedicated space, making them an important part of the revenue, in addition to sponsorship. The shopping mall increased its sales revenue by 20% during the exhibition period. Even if the art “connaisseurs” or “real” museums may mock the exhibition as the artworks were not really “masterpieces” and criticise the organisers’ lack of professionalism, the exhibition set up an original business model which contributed to its success.

Many others wanted to copy the success. Over the time, the public in Shanghai has become more demanding. “Immersive” or interactive exhibitions are now on the market and have become commonplace, with lower insurance premium, an important criteria to judge the value – therefore importance – of the works exhibited. In 2015, the touring multimedia exhibition “Van Gogh Alive” attracted some 360,000 visitors, 20,000 of whom visited during the opening weekend. No orignal paintings were shown, but only life-sized projections in front of which visitors took selfies. Wifi was offered for free inside the exhibition space so that the public could share the experience live on social media. The full rate ticket was priced at 200 CNY (28 EUR) and 120,000 tickets at 11 EUR were gone during pre-sale: the ticket sales presented half of the revenue, while sponsorship (10 sponsors in all) and merchandising (1,000 types of products in a 500 m2 pop-up shop) accounted for the other half.

(c) Yu Culture / Jie Liu

But “grands maîtres” exhibition could also be of mediocre quality or doubtful origines. Contemporary artists are the most copied (TeamLab for example), while Picasso and Dali exhibitions were filled with (unauthorised) reproductions. Recently, two Leonardo Da Vinci exhibitions were held in Beijing: an “immersive” one in a commercial centre, entitled “Tribute to Leonardo Da Vinci”: reproductions of drawings, high-resolution images and some VR headsets were all that was to be shown. And the other exhibition at Riverside Art Museum, a private museum belonging to a real estate group, compared Leonardo with the Chinese engineer-architect-inventor Lu Ban (5th century BC) and displayed for the first time in China La Bella Principessa, attributed (with controversies) to Leonardo. The collector accompanied the work to Beijing in person. Visitors who made the trip to see the exhibition were disappointed by the reproductions and facsimiles which filled the room.

One masterpiece is enough to run an exhibition? Only famous artists can guarantee the success of an exhibition? Faced with the commercial practices of some private museums and venues, public museums have started to make the buzz in the last two years with exhibitions offering the public good value for money. In 2016, an exhibition on the pharaons organised by the Nanjing Museum (in a city 300km north of Shanghai), with loans from Royal Ontario Museum in Canada, attracted 300,000 visitors in five months. Even if its 50 CNY (7 EUR) entry ticket was criticised by the authorities, it was far less expensive than that of commercial exhibitions. The exhibition was a commercial success with 1.5 million CNY (210,000 EUR) of merchandising sales. In 2017, Shanghai Museum offered free entrance to the exhibition “History of the World in 100 Objects” from the British Museum: it attracted 370,000 visitors and was acclaimed by the professionals for the quality of education programmes, publications and merchandising products – visitors who were prohibited from taking photos could at least leave the exhibition with some souvenirs.

This article was originally published in French in L’Hebdo du Quotidien de l’Art on 12 October 2018 under the title “En Chine, le business des grandes expositions”.

The conversion rate from CNY to EUR was updated in the English version to use the historic rate at the different periods mentioned in the article, due to the high fluctuation of CNY/EUR over the last decade. There are some other minor changes to this article since its original publication.