US museums are facing delicate choices as they strive to meet a growing interest in China, cooperating with counterparts across the Pacific despite alarm over the detention of top Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未).
Directors of museums across the US said in interviews that they found a strong public appetite for work from China, with Americans eager to see everything from ancient treasures to modern art from the rising Asian power.
However, the US art world has also led calls to free Ai. One of China’s most provocative artists, Ai had been begrudgingly tolerated but was seized last month and accused of tax evasion as Beijing mounts a sweeping crackdown on dissent.
The Milwaukee Art Museum on June 11 opens a major exhibition of Chinese art that features more than 90 objects— many long hidden from public view — made for the 18th-century Qianlong emperor (乾隆帝) and kept inside the Forbidden City.
The exhibition is a collaboration with China’s Palace Museum, which worked with the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts on the three-stop tour that also stopped at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Dan Keegan, director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, said his institution’s “Summer of China” was aimed at the general public and would include discussions touching on many aspects of Chinese art and culture — including Ai’s case.
Keegan said he considered the museum to be a “forum for public understanding rather than a platform for academic protest.”
“The museum’s role is to build bridges, not walls. In this country, conversation is better than self-censorship,” he said.
A very different dilemma is facing the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, California, which recently decided to acquire work by Ai — two chairs crafted from solid marble — that it now has on temporary license.
Director Hugh Davies said the museum was recently told by the shipping intermediary that the chairs — which are on display and popular among visitors — needed to be returned to China.
“It might just be a bureaucratic snafu, but I would guess it probably isn’t,” Davies said.
“It’s our intention to keep these chairs and we will fight vigorously with that goal in mind. But we also don’t want to do anything that would deepen Ai Weiwei’s problems or lengthen his incarceration, so we have to tread very carefully,” he said.
Davies said the chairs showed “exquisite craftsmanship” and hailed Ai as an historic figure in art.
“This is the equivalent of Andy Warhol or Jasper Johns being arrested without charges and then being accused of tax evasion or something like that,” Davies said.
Ai’s best-known works include Sunflower Seeds, an exhibition at London’s Tate Modern of millions of seemingly identical, but in fact unique mini-sculptures.
British novelist Hari Kunzru, writing on Saturday in the Guardian, called Ai’s detention “a watershed moment for the international art world.”
He wrote that the case was “the equivalent of the moral tests so badly flunked by technology companies like Cisco and Yahoo when faced with the dizzying financial vistas of the Chinese market.”
Museums led by New York’s Guggenheim issued a petition for Ai’s release that was signed by more than 130,000 people on the activist site www.change.org.
However, Melissa Chiu, museum director at the Asia Society in New York, said she had not seen any hesitation from US institutions about dealing with China and said that too much pressure could hurt Ai.