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Art Beijing - Interview with Meg Maggio

Meg Maggio and Marek Claassen

This is an Artfacts.Net interview with Meg Maggio at the Art Beijing art fair. Ms. Meg Maggio is the Director of Pékin Fine Arts Gallery in Beijing and the only non-Asian in the Advisory Board of the Art Beijing 2007.

AfN: Hello Ms. Maggio.
Today is the last day of the Art Beijing 2007. How would you summarize this
year's event in comparison to last year's fair?

Meg Maggio: I think the venue for this year's fair has vastly improved. This new building - the National Agricultural Exhibition Center - is excellent. There is a lot of natural sunlight, a lot of air circulation, it's big... it's a very interesting, very creative, very comfortable space and about three times bigger than the typical art fair spaces in most places in the world. So the space has greatly improved. And I think, the hardware has greatly improved; of course, I still think they need to improve the software. There are many more buyers this year, many more collectors locally - not only from mainland China, but also from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hongkong, Singapore... I have seen friends from all those places.

AfN: When you compare the Art Beijing with the other three big Chinese fairs, namely the shcontemporary, the Shanghai Art Fair and the cige in Beijing. How would you describe the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of this particular fair?

Meg Maggio: Obviously, I have the best of interest in the Beijing Fair. I think it's the best fair. Maybe I'm not the most objective person to ask but I think the Beijing Fair is the one with the longest history and the greatest expertise and the closest relationship with the Ministry of Culture in China. Mr Dong Mengyang is the director, he came out of the Ministry of Culture. He did the first international art fairs in China. I remember, I went to the first one, it was in 92. He did art fairs in Hongkong, he did all the fairs in China, and he has a lot of flexibility, a lot of creativity to run this fair, and support from the Ministry of Culture. So he has a great deal of independence, and he certainly has the highest status in the Chinese contemporary art world as a fair director. I also think that he's an extremely creative man. I love the installation component of this fair, I love the seminar programme, I love the outside programmes. He is a man with a lot of vision. I think, ten years from now, he is still going to be running around doing art fairs in China after a lot of other people who are just grabbing a quick opportunity before the Olympics, will long be gone.

AfN: It is rather unsual to invite public institutions, like museums or collections to an art fair. I've seen this now the first time in Shanghai and now in Beijing. What is your opinion on that? Why is it important to exhibit at a fair as a private museum in China?

Meg Maggio: You know, actually everyone is doing it. Frieze is doing it, Basel is doing it... Shanghai Museum has gone, Zendai Museum has gone. They have a museum section. [...] So I think it's a new trend, and the idea is to help get more people in the door of museums, promote the museums and really to increase the museum's ticket sales. And the fairs are the most successful all over the world, there really is a community-wide event: you enlist the help of museums, you enlist the help of local collectors opening their homes and you thus really turn the fairs into community-wide events.

AfN: The artwork 'Ancient City of Jiaohe' made 1981 by Wu Guanzhong was sold at Poly auction this May for Yn37m. That is roughly 3.7 million Euro. Would you say that this price level is bubble based?

Meg Maggio: Not at all. I think, anyone who thinks it is bubble based, is blind to the economic strength of Asia. First of all, Wu Guanzhong is really the father of Chinese modernism. The man is 80 years old. If an 80 year old man who's had a lifetime career as one of the leading proponents of modernism in Chinese contemporary art circles - if he doesn't deserve 3.7 million dollars, who does? No one deserves this more. We are not talking about a 25 year old kid who's just out of art school who started painting yesterday. We are talking about a man who has been truly inspirational to a whole generation of Chinese contemporary artists.

AfN: So he is undervalued.

Meg Maggio: He is undervalued. And also, if you look at the top ten Chinese artists and the prices they commend for their works, and you look at the top ten artists in Germany, in the United States, in the UK, in many many other countries, the number is still undervalued. So why should Chinese top artists be undervalued? I find that almost a little bit offensive that people think that because Chinese artists commend high prices, it's a bubble. Maybe there is a bubble in Germany, maybe there is a bubble in New York, maybe there is a bubble in Paris - of course, prices are at record highs but they are at record highs worldwide. If we are in a bubble, we are in a worldwide bubble. We are not in a bubble that's unique to China.

AfN: With new museums opening and more shows of contemporary art being organised, many predict auctions will attract less attention as people look to curators and critics to validate artwork. Do you see a movement starting now, with more spaces for serious art, separate from the commercial sphere?

Meg Maggio: Yes, absolutely. I think that's what's needed, and that will make the environment here healthier and more mature. I mean the auction houses should never be the arbitrators of the value of artworks. They should be inspired and learning from museum exhibitions and museum curators. We have two problems in Asia: The auction houses have become very aggressive, and they have a right to be aggressive but I think it's very sad when works go out of the artists' studios directly to the auction block. I also think it's very sad when works leave the artists' studios and go out of the country as if they'd be some sort of export commodity. Works should first be seen in the country where they were produced by people with the same cultural context and the same cultural background. I think works get misunderstood when they go from the artists' studios and are removed to another cultural context, I mean it's a little bit of new colonialism there. I also think in China - this whole curatorial practice - it's only the last few years that the art academies have offered curriculums and graduate studies in curatorial practice. Curatorial practice has not been a well defined professional discipline in China, and therefore you have a lot of people who are - in my mind - basically unemployed free agent middle man who are self-appointed curators, and they are actually buying and selling. In the context of the United States or Europe, we would consider them to be private dealers, and somehow here they think it's more prestigious to have a name card that says they are a consultant or a curator, and I'm not talking only about Chinese people; there are plenty of Westeners from Europe and the United States that are also self-appointed curators. It's as though it's a new profession that one can just adopt for themselves instead of unemploy their curator. [laughs] I'm sorry to say.

AfN: In the interview you said that there was a void in the triangle of auction, gallery and museum.

Meg Maggio: Yes, I think there is. And that's the problem of a new market as it matures. Now, people recognise this gap in the triangle, and the art academies, the universities and the museums themselves are working very hard on improving their educational programmes, and they understand that they really need to train a generation of curators. One of the issues here is that the art schools traditionally have taught ancient Chinese art history very well. There is a gap, a gaping hole in their ability to teach 20th century art history, not only world art history but their own art history. The 20th century is still very sensitive for China: you have civil war, you have the Japanese war, you have 'communism' in various configurations, you have the problems with Taiwan... So there is a lot of sensitive issues related to the 20th century. And I have had many friends who are young art professors, say to me that the problem is that they don't have good text books. Even if they want to teach 20th century art history of China or Asia or the rest of the world, they lack text books. So a lot of that is self-taught from books translated from abroad or it's because of museum exhibitions that have come to China from abroad, and now more and more Chinese indigenous museum exhibitions that are really high quality.

AfN: Dear Ms. Maggio, thank you for the interview

Meg Maggio: You're welcome!

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