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'Museum diplomacy' as new Pompidou Center opens in Shanghai
The West Bund Museum, which houses the Pompidou outpost, is designed by the British architect David Chipperfield, in Shanghai on Nov. 4, 2019. The French museum will curate the exhibitions and provide works from its collection but Chinese officials are keeping a close eye on what gets shown. Yuyang Liu/The New York Times.

by Amy Qin

SHANGHAI (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When the Pompidou Center first floated the idea of opening a Chinese outpost more than a decade ago, skeptics back home in France were still fiercely debating the question of whether the country’s cherished national museums should have a role in promoting political and commercial interests abroad.

But with the opening in recent years of the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Pompidou Málaga, the country’s strategy of using “museum diplomacy” to raise its profile overseas is well underway. That effort took a bold step forward Tuesday when the Pompidou, the renowned Parisian museum of modern and contemporary art, unveiled an outpost in China. President Emmanuel Macron of France was in attendance at the ceremony.

Situated along the banks of the Huangpu River on Shanghai’s version of Museum Mile, the new outpost is a collaboration with the West Bund Group, a Chinese state-owned development corporation that together with the local government has reportedly invested more than $3 billion in recent years to transform a former industrial neighborhood into a 7-mile waterfront cultural corridor.

Called the “Centre Pompidou x West Bund Museum Project,” the new outpost is housed in the newly built West Bund Museum. Designed by British architect David Chipperfield and featuring more than 27,000 square feet of exhibition space, the museum consists of three exhibition halls clad in a jade-like glass and linked by a central atrium.

The Pompidou is calling the project the “largest ever cultural exchange” between France and China. Compared to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which is based on a 30-year agreement between the French and United Arab Emirates governments, the scale of the project is nevertheless modest.

Much like the Pompidou Málaga, which opened in 2015, the Shanghai project is a five-year contract in which the Pompidou Center curates shows specifically for the Chinese outpost using works lent from its vast collection, while also providing educational programming and vocational training for Chinese museum professionals. At the end of the five years, both sides will have the opportunity to end or extend the partnership.

In turn, the West Bund Group will cover the costs of the physical space and also pay the Pompidou a lump sum of about 2.75 million euros each year, excluding transport and insurance, according to a July interview with Serge Lasvignes, president of the Pompidou, in the French magazine Le Point.

But museum officials insist that the main motivation behind the Shanghai project is to foster dialogue, not to make profits.

“If we really wanted to make money, a better idea would be to sell shows one by one to major international museums,” Lasvignes said in an interview Monday at the West Bund Museum.

But in China, even the high-minded mission of promoting dialogue comes with its own challenges. The opening of the Pompidou Shanghai outpost comes at an uncertain time in the West’s relations with China, and the art world is not immune to politics. Censorship and self-censorship are ubiquitous in China’s creative industries and even private museums and galleries must often submit their programs and exhibitions for approval by local authorities.

Pompidou Shanghai has already had its first encounter with censors. In “The Shape of Time,” the first of three planned semi-permanent exhibitions, the Pompidou introduces the history of 20th-century art using 100 works drawn mostly from its collection.

The exhibition features well-known works like Pablo Picasso’s “The Guitar Player” and Vasily Kandinsky’s “Gelb-Rot-Blau” alongside works by Chinese artists like Zhang Huan and Zao Wou-ki. But despite being mostly pedagogical in nature, local officials requested before the project's opening that a few works in “The Shape of Time” be replaced for what Lasvignes called “various” reasons.

“We discussed, we explained, and in most cases they agreed to keep the work,” said Lasvignes. He said fewer than five works were ultimately replaced in the exhibition for reasons that were “not only political,” though he declined to offer specifics.

“I really believe — maybe it’s naive — that as long as you can make interesting things, as long as you can make things without betraying yourself, it’s better to be present than to not be there at all,” he said.

Lasvignes added that the limited scope of the partnership would allow the museum to evaluate the situation as the project progressed.

“For me the question is, ‘Are the rules that are being applied really changing the nature of a project?’” Lasvignes said. “If not, we go on. If yes, we will stop.”

A major reason the Pompidou does not want to see the Shanghai partnership derailed by minor censorship concerns is that the project was nearly two decades in the making. The French museum had been close to opening an outpost in Shanghai about a decade ago, but the deal collapsed at the last minute.

By the time Lasvignes arrived at the Pompidou in 2015 and re-initiated talks with officials in China, the country had become a much greater player in the art world. Buoyed by a booming middle class, China last year was the world’s third-largest market for art, according to the annual Art Basel and UBS art market report. It also boasts a growing network of art enthusiasts and professionals including curators, collectors and artists ranging from well-known names like Ai Weiwei to younger, rising artists like Cao Fei, who recently received a solo exhibition at the Pompidou in Paris.

As Pompidou officials looked around for locations, the West Bund emerged as a natural choice. Located not far from the former French Concession, the district was already home to several emerging private museums, including the Yuz Museum and the Long Museum, co-founded by a former taxi driver-turned-billionaire and his wife.

The deal received the highest-possible official blessing in January 2018 when Macron came to China on a state visit and personally discussed the matter with China’s leader, Xi Jinping. The project will open to the public Friday.

Experts say China’s motivation in creating the project can be explained partly by its desire to soften its global image, which has been marred recently by revelations about its mass internment of its Uighur Muslim ethnic minority and what many see as the country’s growing assertiveness abroad.

“China is very ambiguous,” said Jean-Philippe Béja, research professor emeritus in Chinese politics at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. “On one hand it is becoming more and more totalitarian and closed, and on the other hand it wants to represent itself as a very modern, avant-garde country.”

On Monday morning, the scene at the West Bund Museum was frenetic as a small army of workers scrambled to put the finishing touches on the installations in time for Macron’s arrival. (As if to drive home the point about the need for greater professionalization, one rogue Chinese museum worker was seen napping peacefully amid the frenzy, basking in the soft glow of a video work.)

For Macron, the museum opening will likely be a rare kumbaya moment in what is otherwise expected to be several days of tough discussions with Chinese officials about trade and climate change. The Sino-French relationship has been further strained in recent months by tensions over France’s decision to grant asylum to the Chinese wife of the former Interpol head.

For the Pompidou, Shanghai is just the start of what promises to be a busy international schedule in coming years. Last year, the museum signed on for another five-year commitment with its partner in Málaga. A project in Brussels is also underway and the museum is currently in negotiations for outposts in Seoul and the Czech Republic as well, according to Lasvignes.

Bernard Blistène, director of the National Museum of Modern Art at the Pompidou Center, waved away suggestions that the team was building a global Pompidou empire.

“This is for building something, testing something, experimenting with something,” Blistène said. “Otherwise you just stay inside your big château with your collection, always the same.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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