Todd Smith has a plan, and if it works, a landmark exhibition will debut at the Tampa Museum of Art in June 2014.
Smith, who is director of the museum, has commissioned "My Generation: Young Chinese Artists," a special exhibition that would assemble a large group of emerging Chinese artists in a U.S. museum for the first time.
"There was an opportunity to do a show of this size and scale for the first time in the U.S.," he says. "It seemed like the perfect time to begin an important conversation."
Smith has already invested time and several thousand dollars in preliminaries, including a trip to China with arts writer, teacher and contemporary Chinese arts expert Barbara Pollack to visit studios and galleries and meet artists who might be part of the show. Pollack has been retained to curate the show and write the catalog. (Catalogs always add luster; they signal the uniqueness and seriousness of an exhibition.)
Smith, 47, became the museum's director in 2008 and has overseen its programming since a new building on downtown Tampa's riverfront opened in 2010. It has a prestigious antiquities collection, but its special exhibition mission is to exhibit the art of our time and the art that has influenced it. Since he arrived, Smith has crafted a smart mix of beloved modern forbears such as Matisse and Degas with contemporary artists. He has a particular gift for finding important emerging, younger ones.
Inspiration for special exhibitions can come from anywhere. Most often museums build them around art they already own. The source for "My Generation" was especially unusual.
Smith had curated a show by video artist Janet Biggs in 2011. Pollack, a good friend of Biggs, came from New York for the opening. Over dinner with Smith and others from the museum, she talked about a followup to her previous book, The Wild Wild East, that she was researching, about the new generation of Chinese artists.
"Someone said it would make a great art exhibit," Smith said. "So we began talking."
Despite the exploratory trips to China, the exhibition is not a sure thing. To help finance it, Smith has to find at least one other museum, preferably two, maybe three, who want to rent it and has sent proposals to dozens of museums around the country.
Nuts and bolts of a special exhibition
The museum's hard expenses for bringing the show to Tampa are about $200,000, he says, but it's "a sliding scale" at this point because decisions about what art will be in it and how much shipping will cost (it can be a lot) will be based on how much funding he raises from sponsors and how many museums want to participate. That figure also doesn't factor in operational costs absorbed by the museum such as staff time. He'll probably know by late summer if the plan can go forward.
Special, or temporary, exhibitions are the lifeblood of most art museums. They garner publicity and coax return visits from an audience, especially a local audience, that is often more interested in seeing something new than going to see the art that's always on view in the permanent collection galleries. They're important to a museum's reputation, capable of conferring added prestige, and they're part of the educational mission all art museums must have to be accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. The viewing public rarely has any idea how much time, effort and money can go into creating one.
Most of our regional art museums offer at least five special exhibitions every year. They're a combination of those organized by the museum itself and those rented from another institution, such as a museum or an exhibitions company, that has assembled one and sent it on tour. Sometimes several museums band together to share expenses and contribute art.
A common homegrown exhibition is made up of art in a museum's permanent collection but not on regular view, such as prints or photographs that are light sensitive and spend most of their time in dark storage. These are popular with museum professionals because they're inexpensive and have quick turnarounds.
A more complicated and ambitious type involves loans from other museums, commercial galleries and/or private collectors. They can be very expensive and take years to organize, which is why they usually have to be lent to other museums for a fee.
The Tampa Museum would charge $75,000 in rental fees and up to another $75,000 for shipping and insurance.
"Shipping is the biggest unknown," Smith says, because some artworks are more expensive to crate and send than others. "We're guaranteeing that shipping won't cost more than that, and it could cost less."
"That's not an expensive exhibition," says Marshall Rousseau, director emeritus of the Dalí Museum and former interim director of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, who has overseen exhibitions that cost hundreds of thousand dollars. "Most museums just try to break even on them. They're colleagues and friends."
Chinese artists with a new sensibility
Smith would like many media to be represented in the show, including installations, but it depends on the funding.
"We'll have about 20 artists all born in 1976 or later," Smith said. "They were all born under China's one-child policy and after the Cultural Revolution, which was so restrictive, even terribly punitive to earlier generations of artists. They were born after Mao's death. Many of them have shown or traveled internationally. They're a differently engaged group."
Both Smith and Pollack make the point that all the artists received training from prestigious arts academies in China, which have a rigorous and traditional approach with little room for conceptual innovation. They are in the process of deciding what of the old they keep while developing their individual approaches and styles. They have access to technology and McDonald's. They have aesthetic ideals along with commercial aspirations. All of those things were unheard of 30 years ago.
While some of the artists being considered have shown their work in U.S. galleries or museums individually, this would be the first one to provide a larger philosophical framework.
"These younger artists grew up in an entirely different country," says Pollack. "They could travel. The older contemporary artists came of age in a very isolated community. They think this younger group is spoiled. After the Cultural Revolution, they still made work about social issues. The younger group is much more experimental, more diverse. A lot of the older artists have symbols that are explicitly Chinese. This group is not explicitly about Chinese identity. They're mostly apolitical, interested in the landscape of China and how it has changed in their lifetime. They're looking at their own youth culture, some with exuberance and some as alienating and sad. They find, unlike their elders, that being Chinese is not that unique."
China is becoming a major player in the international art world both as an incubator for exciting contemporary artists and as a source for wealthy collectors. Pollack says that most of the artists under consideration are well known to collectors in their own country and some have sold their work in China for as much as $100,000.
"It's a gamble," Smith says, "but I feel really good about finding a venue or two besides us for it."
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.