For years their work could not be exhibited in China, but now the country's leading contemporary artists are being courted by major art collectors abroad and their paintings set records at international auction sales. The local government in Sichuan Province -- the area in western China known for its natural beauty, spicy food and talented painters -- is taking notice.
It has offered to give eight contemporary artists, all under 60, their own personal museums to operate.
The group includes some of China's best-known avant-garde artists: Zhang Xiaogang (
All have accepted and construction will soon begin in Dujiangyan, a city near the provincial capital, Chengdu. The museums are scheduled to open in October next year.
In a country without a single major museum of contemporary art -- even in Beijing, where most of the eight artists work -- this is a novel development.
But in China, everything is changing at warp speed: artists who sold works for US$100 in the 1990s have become multimillionaires operating huge studios and driving BMWs. They are helping to transform the style of the country's biggest cities.
"Modern art used to be neglected," said Lu Peng, an associate professor at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, who selected the artists. "Then modern art became popular in the market."
The new project, which will also include a public museum, is expected to bolster tourism and to benefit a group of real estate companies that are redeveloping the provincial area. In addition to providing the land, Dujiangyan's government is investing around US$13 million in the museums.
The eight artists, ranging in age from 42 to 59, include a few from Sichuan, but the others come from all over China. They rose to prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s by producing paintings, installations and multimedia pieces that were often radical. Some of the work was viewed by the Chinese government as distasteful or anti-authoritarian.
But in recent years Beijing has significantly loosened restrictions on what can be exhibited in China as the global art market has fed a boom in new studios, galleries, museums and art districts in many of its cities. Today only the most controversial works -- those with explicit sexual images or harsh depictions of high-ranking Communist Party officials -- are banned.
How the artists plan to operate their own museums remains unclear.
"I was very happy when I heard that they were going to give me my own museum," said Wu, 47, whose radical red character paintings and nude performance art are well known here and abroad. "Right now, I have no idea what I'm going to do with it. In the future all the artists will sit down and discuss how these museums will be operated."
If the artists choose to display their own works, the museums will have an enviable collection.
Prices for art from many of them have skyrocketed on the auction market. Individual pieces by Yue and Zhang Xiaogang, for example, have sold for more than US$2 million.