CHINA: A SMART, GROWING, SOPHISTICATED AUDIENCE. Shai Baitel is the inaugural artistic director of the Modern Art Museum (MAM) Shanghai. Born in Israel, he graduated from Tel Aviv University with honors, earning a degree in Law and Modern History of the Middle East. Baitel co-founded Mana Contemporary, a cultural centre in New Jersey with affiliate centres in Miami and Chicago. He has consulted for the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, among other institutions. Shai conceived and was the artistic director for the Bob Dylan exhibition “Retrospectrum”.
You can listen to a podcast of this interview here.
Shai Baitel, it must be a great experience to be the first artistic director of the Modern Art Museum in Shanghai. Is it all very different there?
Certainly, a great difference, and it gives additional spice to work that is already very intellectually challenging. When I first went to China and became acquainted with the culture, the art and the people, it was an absolutely remarkable experience. China developed culturally and artistically, and economically and socially, almost like a parallel universe to the rest of the world. The art scene is a mirror to that.
Why did they choose a Westerner for this prestigious role?
Every country, regardless of its location and circumstances, has its own challenges and day to day topics to deal with. It has a lot to do with the people, the geography and the historical development. China is a very large country and it is very diverse in many ways. It has a certain regime, and it’s been this way for many years. It has gradually opened to the West over the past few decades, and is looking all the time for dialogue. When it comes to cultural dialogue, the Chinese made a very interesting choice by allowing me to lead such an institution, because they come with a different approach that emphasizes storytelling in the presentation and exhibition of art.
Are you able to be a cultural bridge?
Yes. Art is undoubtedly an international language, able to succeed when other approaches or platforms like diplomacy, for example, will not necessarily do so. By selecting a Westerner as artistic director, the Chinese sent a clear signal that they would like to see a narrative that is told from another viewpoint, one that enriches their culture. This brings a lot of goodness to their people that otherwise would have been perhaps more limited, and I’m looking to involve artists from everywhere, not just the West, but local Chinese artists, and Asian for sure. Art is an instrument that connects and unites without any boundaries, limitations or discrimination. If art was the foundation for everything we would have been led to a much better goal than chasm and antagonism.
“Through history, areas of the world that were blessed with artists and great art were also very prosperous economically. Now it’s the time of China.”
Modern Art Museum (MAM) Shanghai from the Air, Courtesy Shai Baitel
Shai Baitel, do you plan to hold some big Asian or Chinese exhibitions at MAM Shanghai?
We are working on a very exciting exhibition of the rising stars of contemporary Chinese artists. This effort is led by Barbara Pollack, a well-recognized curator in contemporary Chinese art. The concept is to look into various facets of art-making in China, including prints and things that relate to the multiplying of art in the way that the Chinese have been doing for centuries. It’s a way for us also to recognize the rising power of new Chinese artists, their diversity, originality, and novelty.
Is there a big difference between African artists, Asian artists, European artists, American artists?
The first thing that interests me when I meet an artist is the authenticity of the artmaking. True artists are loyal to their DNA and continuously develop. You can recognize an artist by his or her language, and from one generation to another see how their art language has developed in their vocabulary as well as in their grammar. I see a lot of originality in China. Through history, areas of the world that were blessed with artists and great art were also very prosperous economically. Now it’s the time of China. It has become a superpower economically. Where there is wealth and money there’s going to be collectors and patrons.
But this has never changed.
They also contribute to art institutions, museums, university art departments and so forth, but now we are witnessing the phenomenon of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) that is directly connected to both art and investment, because NFT protects intellectual property and is also an investment vehicle. A form of patronage of art, the NFT mode of investment allows the artist to continuously hold on to their original IP and to enjoy the appreciation of the value of their artwork as it is sold and resold without a gallerist or dealer. It’s a new form of trading in art through blockchain linking to a cryptocurrency that is all on the internet, and the volume of NFT trade is already up in the billions of dollars. Around one sixth of the entire global amount of art trade is now NFT.
What about public spaces and museums vis-a-vis this kind of art?
Museums and art institutions cannot ignore it. It exists, it’s out there and it’s growing. We need to be part of this dialogue and present it for the public to discuss and to make their own call. Institutions should not take a stand because we don’t really know where it’s going.
“Art is made and belongs to everybody, it should invite, it should include not exclude. It should be less elitistic, less patronizing, less intimidating.”
Shai Baitel, at this time is there an art movement that we can identify around the world?
The various art movements, from the Renaissance to Cubism, Arte Povera and YBA and so on, were either local or declared the more global trend. Art will always be the mirror of society, and we live in a digital era. Society has become so dependent on and so used to the digital form of living our lives, even more so in China. Art, that is reflective of society, is certainly going in the same direction, on the same trend. Like it or hate it, that’s the direction the art world is going.
In the Museum of tomorrow are we still going to look at Botticelli, Gauguin, Canova, Caravaggio?
I wake up every morning with this question exactly, thinking about the responsibility on my shoulders for leading an educational institution. Museums are made to educate, to teach, to enrich the public through art; and art can tell a remarkable story. The story of an individual, or of a group, the story of society, of a nation, of a certain historic time, of an event, of a leader. It can tell so much.
How have the attentions of a modern audience changed?
Our attention span has changed because of, among other reasons, the use of smart devices. Therefore museum visitors have changed as well. In order for us to excite and engage that audience we must make them stop for a minute. The revolution of technology has changed the way the brain is consuming content and changed our sensory ability, but it is still based on a multi-sensory experience. I’m continuously emphasizing the importance of the experience of adrenaline. Today we have more and diverse tools that we didn’t have in the past, to give a different experience for the museum visitor, engaging people in the way they understand today.
From being elite institutions with knowledgeable visitors, museums became architectural cathedrals with more and more people queuing to visit, but are they in future going to become cathedrals in the desert, like the pyramids in Egypt?
It is true that museum buildings have become their own art form, with shrines like Zaha Hadid‘s MAXXI in Rome, Renzo Piano‘s phenomenal museums anywhere, Frank Gehry’s LUMA in Arles. Certainly it’s an attraction just to come and see the building and the way it was done. Art is made and belongs to everybody, it should invite, it should include not exclude. It should be less elitistic, less patronizing, less intimidating. The content that should be curated or conceived for exhibitions and museums should extend beyond the simple definition of contemporary art and go all the way to design, to fashion. For instance one of the most popular exhibitions ever was Savage Beauty, Alexander McQueen at the V&A. There are many more examples.
What kind of people come to MAM Shanghai?
The museum is a museum for everybody. Shanghai is a very international city, we have a diverse audience. There are many locals, many Chinese, a young audience, curious, hungry for new arts, culturally very updated, very fashionable, very trendy. It is a smart, growing, sophisticated audience, and we see people coming time and again. Visitors in China are as eager to see new art forms and design and everything that’s relevant as in the West. In this case it’s not a difference. It’s even more so.
Modern Art Museum (MAM) Shanghai at Night (September 2019) Courtesy Shai Baitel
Shai Baitel guides journalists during a Press Preview of the “Bob Dylan: Retrospectrum” exhibition, for which he served as Artistic Director, at MAM Shanghai (September 2019) Courtesy Shai Baitel
Shai Baitel and Whoopi Goldberg at the opening of “Marilyn Monroe: Character, Not Image,” an exhibition she curated at his invitation (2016). Courtesy Shai Baitel
“To preserve the DNA we have to let it evolve”
Shai Baitel, will you change and change again in order to follow the trends?
The “holy three” principles of my work will not change. It is the triangle between audience, space and narrative. These are the three elements that I look at before conceiving every project. The most important element is the audience, because it’s made for the audience. Art is made for people to experience – not just to look at – and feel, and smell and sense and taste and so on. It’s in the context of a space because indoor or outdoor it’s always the case. The narrative, or the way you present the narrative, can change, and that goes hand-in-hand with our ever changing times.
Even if you spent your recent holidays visiting Renaissance churches and museums in Italy?
I always say that the way we know art begins in Italy. Italians are remarkable in the way that it is in the DNA. The best things will always come from Italy, and I visit Italy very often, not only because of the inspiration, but because of the roots and the fundamentals. I was in Florence because I wanted to go back to the Medicis and see all this incredible richness on walls and ceilings and so on, and I was continuously thinking to myself, “Wow, we can do this experience through videos.”
Can you really get into an experience like this that is video based? Surely it will never be the same.
Never, don’t get me wrong, but it can still be done, and you can still disseminate the images, and the story that was done back in the days in such a genius way. I also saw a Jeff Koons exhibition. Everybody is familiar with Jeff Koons’ remarkable conceptual art – the Gazing Balls, the balloons and so on – but in an Italian context, when you see it in a Palazzo, it’s different. It’s ten times more powerful. It will never be like you see it at the Whitney. Forget it!
It is so much more powerful when you see it in an Italian context because there is no future without past. No future, absolutely no future, without past. So we always have to go back to where it started.
A bit like the famous statement in the novel The Leopard by Tomasi Lampedusa: “Everything must change for everything to remain the same”?
To preserve the DNA we have to let it evolve.
Shai Baitel, thank you very much for this conversation.