Beyond Home: My Museum Experiences in China and the U.S.
July 15, 2019
by Larry Luowei Zhang
In this essay, I will share with you both some of my experiences as an NYU student coming from China and as an intern at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing and NYU’s Grey Art Gallery. In some cases, cultural differences are obvious. I treasure these two amazing intern experiences, which offered me precious knowledge of and understanding of how art museums operate.
The Ullens Center, which opened in 2007, was founded by Belgian art collector Guy Ullens, who has been supporting Chinese contemporary art since the 1980s. His collection included most established contemporary Chinese artists’ works. This was a golden time for Western art collectors to buy Chinese contemporary art at astonishingly low prices. At the time, China was still focusing on its socialist realism art tradition and showing little or no enthusiasm for avant-garde art. As a result, in its early years, the Chinese market for contemporary art was mostly dominated by Western capital. Another critical figure among those Western collectors was Uli Sigg, a Swiss media mogul who served as Ambassador to China in the late 1990s and who made a large donation of contemporary Chinese art to the Hong Kong-based M+ museum in 2012.
In 2009, Ullens began to auction his collection gradually, and he even made plans to sell UCCA’s collection. When I finally got the opportunity to intern there, the staff was just calming down from the unease of UCCA’s transaction: It was sold to a private equity company, Lunar Capital. This transfer of ownership was regarded as a milestone in the history of the Chinese art market, since it indicated the waning of Western power on the Chinese contemporary art market and the rise of Chinese collectors’ wealth and interest in contemporary art.
I first came to UCCA as a docent—the first step in my budding career in the art world. This seemly insignificant position actually forms a very important function at UCCA, which instigated the first successful attempt to build a volunteer docent system in a private art museum in China. UCCA’s docent program attracted a large number of art lovers, and its recruiting aim is always to improve its team’s vigor.
I made many friends during this period. Shaoqin Chen impressed me the most. She was over 70 years old, while the other docents were young, with most no older than 30. Mrs. Chen quickly became the star docent of UCCA. She approached her job with passion and plowed great effort into preparing her very effective talks. These always attracted additional audience members who just happened to be wandering through the venue. At the end of each of her guided tours, audience members always asked her for contact information to make an appointment for their next visit. Her pure love for art has, I believe, created an important foundation for me to continue my progress in the art world.
Following my time as a docent, my daily work at UCCA involved fundraising: developing prospective clients and maintaining the museum’s relationships with sponsors who provide financial support. It was my first experience in learning about this side of a non-profit institution’s operations. Apart from routine exhibitions, most Chinese art museums (as well as American) will rent their venue for commercial events. This is a profitable source of funding, and it enables museums to fully utilize their spaces to ease the pressure of high rent on their budget. I learned a lot from various co-workers in this process.
At some large institutions, staff turnover is high. Their reputations may endow beginners with an attractive CV page, yet limit their career development and salaries because of the institutions’ mighty negotiating power. For UCCA, if one wants to obtain a promotion, he or she may need to wait for years, and paths between departments are stagnant: one cannot change tracks once he or she is employed in a certain department. Therefore, during my three years’ association with UCCA, I often saw different fresh faces in the same position. Fortunately, my then-supervisor is still working there. She is a capable manager who has greatly helped to develop the institution.
Last year, I came to America to study Visual Arts Administration at NYU. I have been incredibly lucky to have the opportunity of interning at the Grey Art Gallery. Like the Ullens Center, the Grey was founded by a collector, in this case Abby Weed Grey, who collected modern Asian and Middle Eastern art in the 1960s and 1970s. Like many university museums in the U.S., the Grey focuses on art’s social contexts and views the museum as a laboratory for experimentation. On my very first day at the Grey, I already began to see the differences between museums in China and U.S. I was given a thick administrative handbook, The Grey Way, to help become familiar with some of the Grey’s office procedures, and I received a green intern handbook for my daily reference. This was brand new to me.
In China, I got the impression that people in the art world were the most casual types in society. There were no intern training process and formal rules for staff. If there was a rule, it was mostly transmitted orally rather than in writing. I’m guessing that this is because in China the art museum is viewed as a creativity-accumulated industry, so employers tend to not exert many limitations on their staff. But my experience at the Grey changed my thoughts on this. It is hard to say which style is better, but interning in America made me feel more efficient and service-oriented. I would like to bring this approach back to China in the future.
I also enjoyed the Grey’s pleasant working atmosphere. It has the advantage of small-scale institutions, where the office staff feels almost like a family. At the Grey, we often eat lunch together and share our desserts. Lunchtime is the best opportunity to get to know my colleagues better and to hear the news about happenings in our neighborhood and in the art world. In contrast, people in large institutions tend to mingle in smaller-sized subgroups, and relationships are more formal.
For me, working at a museum—whether in China or the U.S.—is almost like working at an amusement park. I’m able to take advantage of opportunities to participate in inspiring events, including lectures, film screenings, and so on. Working at both museums gave me an extra impetus to attend and to learn. And, importantly for me on a student budget, I saved a considerable amount of money, since many museum events are free of charge.
Of course, what I have touched upon here is just the tip of the iceberg. The art world’s multiple mysteries still lie ahead for me to explore. For a curious man, this is a great fortune—I look forward to exploring other dimensions of art’s universe—so novel, so attractive, and so mind-expanding.
Larry Luowei Zhang is a graduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. He expects to receive a M.A. in Visual Arts Administration from New York University in May 2020.