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Author Archive | Joe Patti

Wandering The 798 Arts District

One of the big visual arts attractions in Beijing is the 798 Arts District. If nothing else, the story of the district proves that artists face the same issues in every country: The abandoned factories were inhabited by artists; it became a hub of activity; it was decided the area was good for other things (including a highway) and artists were pressured into leaving (including turning off the utilities and services); international attention, interest and investment helped preserve the area; gentrification set in and many artists had to move elsewhere in the face of rising rents.

The district is a fun place to visit, especially since many of the buildings retain elements of the original East German factory design. Many online articles about the district feature pictures of the gallery below where machines remain amidst the display of works and faded slogans adorn the ceilings.

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One of the more significant galleries in the district is the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art which was established as a non-profit gallery. (Though non-profit status is a much more nebulous, still developing concept in China). I was taken a little aback when I went in and I saw what was essentially a massive BMW ad.

A large area of the gallery space was devoted to a lounge surrounded 360 degrees with screens showing a video in both English and Chinese that talked about BMW’s commitment to renewables, fuel efficiency and how awesome their cars were. Beyond that area was a showcase for their cars, including Rolls Royce and Mini, that included a bar with refreshments.

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I was prepared to write a lengthy post about commercialization and debate the differences in expectations between US and Chinese gallery patrons. The fact that admission to the gallery was free on a Friday (Thursday is the posted free day) lead me to suspect that BMW was subsidizing admission to help sell/hype their cars to the Chinese market. I was also a little suspicious of the fact that they don’t list the BMW show at all as an exhibition on the website, only Wang Yin’s The Gift, show. (There was barely anyone in Wang Yin’s part of the building.)

I since learned that founder Guy Ullens divested his interest in the center some years back and Chinese partners are running it. Also, the BMW show was only in there for 10 days.

None of this means the center isn’t heavily commercialized and wouldn’t come under heavy criticism for claiming to be non-profit were it in the US. I think the philosophy and approach to art of the European baron who founded the organization are probably different from those of the Chinese partners who assumed control.

There is a difference between a week long BMW adverting showcase and an event simulating an art show that occupies the space for months. Even if it didn’t fit your mission, if BMW wanted to rent your space for a week to show themselves off, what would your reaction be?

Granted, I would question whether the other visitors to the gallery would understand the distinction between the status of BMW show and the Wang Yin’s paintings in the adjacent space. Before doing a little research, I certainly thought the BMW show had been there quite a while given the amount of equipment and technology packed into that area. Now that I know they spent so much for such a short time, I am a little envious of the amount of money they have to throw around.

For your general enjoyment, here are some pictures of other works I took around the district and in various galleries.

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Will We Pay A High Price For Our Neglect?

(Sorry about the late posting. I had some issues with inserting images.)

The last couple weeks I have been in China on vacation. I will be writing about my trip on and off for the next couple weeks as I am able to sort out my notes.

A friend invited me to join her in accompanying her father as he returned to his hometown near Tianmu Lake to celebrate his 90th birthday. While we were in the area, we visited the site of a Buddhist temple complex being built nearby. With the support of the local and central government, the temple, surrounding access roads, dormitories and other buildings have been constructed very quickly.

Great Awakening Buddhist Temple, Yixing, Jiangsu Province, China

Great Awakening Buddhist Temple, Yixing, Jiangsu Province, China

My friend noted that the government was very happy to have the temple there because the head monk had fled to Taiwan during the Cultural Revolution but had agreed to return.  The fact that the temple will attract the monk’s predominantly Taiwanese followers probably factors well into the central government’s long term goals to remove relationship barriers with Taiwan. Apparently not long before we visited there was a large pilgrimage/gathering of about 40,000 people.

While we were there, my friend made a comment that China had made a mistake in rejecting its culture and alienating/persecuting the practitioners and scholars and now was paying a large price to get it back.

That comment got me thinking about about cultural policy in the United States and whether the country might be in a position at some time in the future of paying a high price to reclaim what it has rejected/neglected.

China’s 5000 years of history gets mentioned so often by Chinese that it is almost a meme. Except that it pre-dates memes, so I guess along with everything else, China also invented memes.

In that context of such a long history, it can seem horrifying that a country would decide it needed to essentially reject 5000 years of culture in order to advance. Granted, this is a gross simplification of a tumultuous time, but was encapsulated during the Cultural Revolution by the call to destroy the “Four Olds” – Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas.

Actually, though it had never been done to such an extreme degree as the Cultural Revolution, destruction of literature and killing of scholars is  part of China’s 5000 years of history and culture. The very first emperor burned books he considered subversive and purported buried 460 scholars alive (the latter which may have been a bit of revisionist propaganda written 100 years later).

The Cultural Revolution sought to replace old art, culture and literature with proper, approved material that included everything from new songs, plays, names and architecture. However, 5000 years of culture doesn’t go quietly and easily. Just as every conqueror of China ended up being assimilated into the culture rather than importing their own, the country’s cultural heritage appears to be reasserting its presence and influence.

So contrast that with the United States. Instead of actively trying to destroy our own arts and culture, there seems to be more of an attitude of neglect. There is a sentiment that arts/literature/cultural careers aren’t worthwhile. There is a belief that the arts have no value in ones life. (Possibly attributable to the fact people don’t perceive themselves as having the ability to participate and create.)

We have probably all heard the idea that the opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference. In this context, I wonder if the philosophical approach to arts in the US may ultimately prove more destructive than the active rejection that occurred in the Cultural Revolution. While it may have been dialectical and replete with propaganda, the Cultural Revolution at least recognized the need to continue to create works of art and literature.

Of course, it is often noted that there is no lack of literature, art and culture being created every day in the United States on social media channels, Hollywood, bedrooms and backyards. Just because it may not match the classical definition of art with which we are comfortable and accustomed and just because it is difficult to make a living practicing it doesn’t mean there aren’t more opportunities than ever to generate it.

Going back to my original question, does the current activity represent authentic expression of our culture or will we regret neglecting/rejecting things 40 years down the road and end up paying a high price to reclaim those things?

Is the Cultural Revolution idea that the old is not appropriate for the future any less of a utilitarian view of art than the expectation that arts organizations need to be self supporting?

A book could be written on the subject and not come to a satisfying conclusion so this blog post sure as heck isn’t going to resolve even a fraction of the factors and forces that need to be taken into consideration.

We so often compare the arts and culture in the US to Europe, it may be worthwhile to make an effort to ponder the same questions in relation to the longer history and culture of Asia.

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You Probably Don’t Know Just How Good You Are

Over the years I have read a lot by Peter Drucker on his ideas about leadership and organizational management. I would probably do well to go back and think on what has said again.

With that in mind, I wanted to draw attention back to an entry I wrote about his short essay, Managing Oneself. If you have to choose between them, read Drucker’s piece.

One of the things he says is that people often don’t really know what their strengths and weaknesses really are. The first step one often needs to take is to discover these things for themselves.

As I wrote in my entry a number of years ago,

“Drucker gives a number of interesting examples of how men like Patton, JFK, Eisenhower and Churchill were hampered by situations which emphasized their weaker areas.”

Many tests, especially those administered in schools, measure our skills according to a very narrowly defined set of standards that may not have any relevance to our post-graduate lives.

Knowing that, it really is often incumbent upon ourselves to discover what we are good at, how and in what situations we work best, what our values are and how we can contribute. Managing Oneself strives to teach you how to do just that.

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Cleaving The Executive Director In Twain

In plumbing the old archives to find some entries that might stand the test of time, I found an entry where I cited a suggestion made by The Non-Profiteer that social service non-profits follow the example of arts organization leadership structure.

What she was praising was the practice of having an executive and artistic director focused on different aspects of the organization’s activities. The thing was, even at that time arts organizations were moving in the opposite direction consolidating leadership under a single person in order to save money.

Reading The Non-Profiteer’s post, she presents an argument against using overhead as a measure of effectiveness years before it was the topic of conversation it is today.

Wouldn’t social service agencies operate better with someone at the helm whose expertise was effective service to clients and someone at the rudder whose expertise was squeezing every dime til it shrieked? These are not identical skills–they’re not even complementary–and for charities to insist on combining them into a unitary Executive Director means one part of what they need done will almost inevitably be done badly.

And if donors are serious about wanting to see rigorous metrics of charities’ effectiveness, they’ll recognize that it takes two: one leader to innovate, experiment and rethink client services and another to measure, evaluate and assess the results.

Since evaluation of organizational effectiveness is shifting toward outcomes over time, ensuring the organization is adhering to their planned arc of progress and collecting requisite data will require an investment of greater attention.

Think about your arts organization, are the top executive(s) able to provide the appropriate leadership to accomplish both the programmatic and administrative goals? Are the top people in charge of these areas invested with appropriate authority to accomplish these things? (In other words, does the program manager really need to be at least a director or vice-president?)

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