Contemporary Art

The Long View: A Conversation with Long Museum Director Wang Wei

By Chenchen Xu

I n recent years private Chinese museums have experienced a tremendous boom, perhaps none as much as the Long Museum in Shanghai. Founded by mega collector Liu Yiqian and his wife, Wang Wei, in 2012, and dedicated to presenting a diversity of visual arts – Western and Eastern, ancient and contemporary – the museum has set itself an ambitious goal: to afford its public a global art education while also strengthening local cultural roots. That is a very tall order, but its director, co-founder Wei Wang, has been more than up to the task.


For one thing, ever since its inception, the Long Museum has been sprouting branches like bamboo shoots after the spring rain. Following the first building in Shanghai’s Pudong New District in 2012, a second one opened in West Bund in 2014. Last year, an outpost began greeting visitors in Chongqing, in southwest China, and astoundingly, a Wuhan branch is scheduled for 2018. For another, at the West Bund building alone, a series of top-notch exhibitions has been keeping visitors coming, both for traditional Chinese art such as in The World of Zhu Jianshen: The Life and Era of a Chinese Emperor – Chenghua Chicken Cup Exhibition, in winter 2014–15, and for contemporary installations, such as Olafur Eliasson’s Nothingness Is Not Nothing At All, in spring 2016. 

Ms. Wang Wei, director of the Long Museum

In January, the Long Museum unveiled James Turrell: Immersive Light, a retrospective supported by Sotheby’s featuring masterpieces spanning half a century as well as brand-new, site-specific installations that Turrell designed to fit the museum’s physical dimensions. As the show draws to a close on 21 May, director Wang Wei reflects on its significance, as well as on the museum’s mission.


How did this exhibition come about?

Two years ago, I was at New York’s Pace Gallery to attend an exhibition devoted to James Turrell. The first time I laid eyes on his works I was astonished, mesmerized, by the mysterious play of light and shadow he creates. Almost immediately, the idea crossed my mind to bring his dream-like, high-tech installations to China, so Chinese art lovers can have the chance to experience such fascinating art. I brought this up with Pace and the artist himself, and once we started talking the project took flight.

What is your personal reaction to the exhibition?

Turrell’s works are amalgams of art and technology. They are magical and deeply meaningful. As soon as you walk in, an immersive installation fills the space with light and texture, producing an illusion of infinite space. The visual illusions extend beyond our imagination, outside the realm of our conventional senses. These installations are, for me, very touching. I’m especially fond of his Curved Glass. The nuanced use of complementary colors enriches the visual effect and creates endless movement, as if it were breathing in a rhythm of its own. It is akin to a meditative experience. Every time I see this work, I am moved, which is why it is part of my personal collection.


Why is the Long Museum exhibiting internationally recognized artists?

To date, we have organized three international exhibitions: “Olafur Eliasson: Nothingness Is Not Nothing At All,” “SHE: International Women Artists Exhibition” and now, “James Turrell: Immersive Light.” An upcoming exhibition will feature works by British artist Antony Gormley. I am committed to promoting cultural exchange between China and the West, introducing distinguished artists from abroad to inspire viewers and the public. I hope to break through beyond traditional art, so we can learn about the global artistic milieu today.

­What are your guiding principles in managing the Long Museum?

In the past few years, apart from presenting international exhibitions, the Long Museum has given much thought on how to promote traditional Chinese culture. For example, our recent exhibition Diligence and Intelligence: Song and Yuan Dynasties Calligraphy and Paintings from Private Collections attracted many more young visitors than prior traditional art exhibitions. While we strive to foster cultural exchange between China and the West, we also emphasize our own cultural legacy so that more people will understand Chinese culture. That is one of the missions of the Long Museum. I’m emphatic about the museum’s educational calling. Museum education is even more important than what we learn from textbooks. People get a lot more when they come face-to-face with art, which in turn elevates not only the spirit but also culture in general.


What are the differences between the various Long Museum branches?

Pudong, which is marking its fifth anniversary this year, focuses on ancient and modern art, mainly “red” – meaning revolutionary – classics. We will continue to exhibit traditional Chinese art there. By comparison, West Bund is more contemporary and international, so apart from Antony Gormley, we will also exhibit some of Rembrandt’s oil paintings. And since this is the Year of the Rooster, Chongqing will host an exhibition of fine porcelain “chicken cups.” In addition, plans are already under way to build the Long Museum Wuhan, a space even larger than its West Bund counterpart.

Can you speak about your hopes and ambitions?

I hope to push beyond the boundaries of traditional art to introduce fine artworks from abroad to the Chinese, so we can all share and appreciate the global art scene. We hope that our collection will complement the National Art Museum of China. Perhaps we don’t have what they have in their collection, but we want to fulfill our own unique mission. I hope the Long Museum will be recognized as a first-rate museum on the international scene and that we continue to thrive and excel.


James Turrell: Immersive Light, presented with the support of Sotheby’s, is on view through 21 May at the Long Museum, West Bund, Shanghai.


* The Long Museum “James Turrell: Immersive Light” exhibition has been extended to May 21, 2017. Sotheby’s is a supporting partner of this exhibition.

Translated by Joanna Lee

Hero image: James Turrell Shallow Space ©LACMA

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