Museum galleries are meant to be temples of order and contemplation. Few people who visit the displays have any idea of the massive effort to create this calibrated aura.
That behind-the-scenes effort is especially true of "My Generation: Young Chinese Artists," which opens Saturday simultaneously at the Tampa Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, with most of the work coming from a country that still has some of the most stringent requirements in the world for art crossing its borders.
It's a historic show, the first survey in the United States of Chinese artists born after 1976, a time when the repressive Cultural Revolution was ending and the country was heading toward a post-Mao, more open-door era. Twenty-seven artists will be represented by more than 100 paintings, drawings, photographs, mixed media, video and installations.
That the show opens during the same week as the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest is coincidental but interesting. Many older artists were in the protests during which troops opened fire, but the group of artists exhibiting in this show knew little of the event until they were adults. Why "My Generation" came here and how it came here is an unusual, even unexpected story.
Putting together a special exhibition with works from multiple lenders is always a complex dance. "My Generation" was especially challenging.
"It's one of those times when you put on a positive front but inside, someone's always screaming," said Amanda Seadler, the registrar at the Tampa museum who began handling all the loan agreements in October with 12 galleries and a few private lenders, almost all based in China, and arranging for shipping companies to construct crates, pack the art and get it on flights to the United States.
There were glitches that could happen with any exhibition. A large painting, for example, was 1.6 inches too high, once it was crated, to fit into the cargo area of the scheduled plane. Its shipment was delayed until space in a larger plane was available, all of which had to be handled long-distance with language issues factored in.
Any art leaving China is vetted at the cultural bureau, Seadler said. "The ministry requires a full-sized image and then you apply for a permit. There's no guarantee that it will be granted. If it is granted, the next level is that police and customs agents open every crate and inspect the art. If one in the shipment is censored, the entire group has to go back through the permit process." That happened to her. And the censored work is often not returned to the artist or collector.
Based on that experience, the gallery representing artist Zhao Zhao canceled a loan, Seadler said. He had been the assistant of Ai Weiwei, an international art star and outspoken critic of the Chinese government who has been jailed and continues to be harassed by authorities there.
"Zhao had one of his works being shipped for another show seized," Seadler said. "Access to his art has been strictly controlled." After the Chinese gallery backed out for fear of losing more of his art, the museum was able to borrow a piece from a New York collector.
Zhao, who was born in 1982, is probably the most politically active artist in the group. Barbara Pollack, a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York, author and a respected authority on contemporary Chinese art, curated the exhibition. She found most of the artists she selected apolitical or not willing to address political issues.
All were born under China's one-child policy and being only children "was a big deal. Their ambition is not to be considered regional or Chinese. They work globally and want to make an impact on the international art scene. There's a big generation gap between them and older living artists and even their parents."
Her observations are borne out in interviews with two artists who have been in Tampa and St. Petersburg for gallery installations. Sun Xun, 34, left home at 16 to attend art school and went on to a prestigious art academy in China. He was, as were all of these artists, taught only traditional Chinese art and explored Western ideas of contemporary and conceptual art on his own. His grandfather fought as an officer against the revolution and was punished. His parents grew up under fear, he said.
"They don't understand my art," he said.
Jin Shan, 37, says his father, who worked in a factory but had wanted to be an artist, "never had that experience of being free. There were no galleries or museums to show art." Jin is using several small paintings by his father in his installation. They'll be projected onto the gallery walls and his sculptural work, No Man City. He said his father, remembering his oppressed past, is "a bit afraid about it."
The artists in "My Generation" had never heard of the Tiananmen Square protest that electrified the world in 1989, never saw the haunting photograph of a lone man standing in front of a line of tanks, until they were young adults. And none of them seem much interested.
That an important show originates in the Tampa Bay area instead of a big metropolitan art center is perhaps the most remarkable part of the journey. Pollack came to the Tampa Museum in 2012 for the opening of an exhibition by her friend Janet Biggs.
They joined director Todd Smith and several trustees for dinner one night, and Pollack told them about her hope for an exhibition of young Chinese artists. One of the trustees said, "Why don't we do it here?"
There remained a major hurdle. The Tampa Museum had a full schedule for 2014 and most of 2015, including an important summer show of antiquities. There wasn't room for a show as big as "My Generation."
"But I didn't want to wait a year to do this show," Pollack said. So Smith, the Tampa museum director, approached Kent Lydecker, the St. Petersburg museum director, about a show spread through both museums, also a big first in the national museum world.
And so it finally is here. Its cost is estimated at $200,000, not bad for a show of this scope. A number of arts writers from national publications and from Asia will come for the opening. It travels to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art after closing here in September, which will offset its cost. It is accompanied by a scholarly catalog, another mark of an important exhibition.
Pollack recently was asked, incredulously, by someone in New York: Why Tampa?
"Because someone there was interested," she answered.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.