Jiang Zhaohe Refugees (detail), 1943, Ink and color on paper, 200 x 1202 cm

The National Art Museum of China’s recent exhibition, “Five Decades of Donations (1961- 2011),” is an impressive display for the audience to behold. Any first rate museum is ultimately defined by its collection, and donated works generally make up the better part of a collection. Contributions are thus a museum’s good fortune and its core foundation, particularly when donors are serious collectors who have devoted their hearts and souls to the accumulation of works of art.

Based on the scope and historical arc of this ceremonious exhibition, the National Art Museum of China clearly invested a great deal of time in the project. Using all of the museum’s galleries for the exhibition of donated works, we can observe the depth and breadth of the museum’s collection and the museum’s efforts to showcase its strengths. The exhibition spans five decades of donation, beginning in 1961. In the left wing of the first floor’s main gallery are works donated by Chen Shuren, offering a glimpse of the Lingnan School founder’s hardscrabble path of painterly innovation. The center of the round hall is home to the highlight of the exhibition: ancient works, donated by famous writer and publisher Deng Tuo.

One of the collection’s key treasures, Su Dongpo’s Xiao Xiang Bamboo and Rock, recently underwent a lengthy process to determine its authenticity, until experts ultimately verified that it bears the authentic mark of the artist. Mounted in the west wing gallery are works of traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, while the east wing gallery showcases donated oil paintings. Sculptures, illustrations, and picture books are on the third floor, while the fifth floor hosts handicrafts, shadow puppets, paper cutouts, and ethnic minority clothing. The view of the first floor resembles a portrait of Chinese modern art history. The paintings linger in the memories of the viewers, overflowing with the distinctive aura of each historical period. Major luminaries in the history of Chinese painting and sculpture are arranged as landmarks along the timeline of modern China’s history of art. Jiang Zhaohe’s Refugees is one of the many highlights, a masterpiece which not only represents the turbulent period of China’s Republican Era in dramatic relief, but has since served as a model of study for modern Chinese figure painting.

Beyond an exceptional selection of works, the exhibition sheds light on the very process of building a collection of art through donations. Contributions span a broad spectrum from the works of major painters to collections of handicrafts. Interestingly, most of the donated works were donated by the artists themselves, not by collectors (with a few exceptions, such as Deng Tuo’s painting collection and the contemporary calligraphy contributed by Tian Jiyun). Artists generally donate works out of a kind of historical ambition and as a vote of confidence in the museum, but this phenomenon also exposes a problem, a deficiency in China’s art collecting culture. While many collectors collect out of a sense of responsibility, others collect simply out of a sincere love for art. They have an eye for authenticity, an ability to judge a work both in terms of its quality and in terms of its scholarship, and are not simply chasing market trends. Good collectors have a preference for a certain type of art, collecting systematically to form a kind of specialized archive. This is to say that a good collection is more than just an accumulation of art, but the manifestation of a deeper purpose.

Today, in an era dominated by the market, exorbitant prices make it difficult to count on an art museum to bring in top-tier works on its own. Rather, big collectors—with substantial capital and sagely expertise—are the ones who donate important works to museums, thereby saving true gems from being cast into darkness. Artists’ donations do indeed include pieces of real quality and significance, but objectively speaking, they are less likely to be truly canonical works. Because classical works rarely come to market, and pass quickly into private hands when they do, the general public is largely deprived access to them. Furthermore, the contributions have undergone thorough screening; looking at the works that have not been selected reveals the high standard of selection.

The exhibition beseeches collectors of fine art to develop a cultural attitude, to donate their precious collections to museums to support the social function of the museum as an institution. But further, this appeal raises questions about how to go forward once a collection has already been donated. In order to do justice to a donated collection, a museum must engage with it seriously, conducting research and scholarship into its artistic and historical significance. Only this degree of investment can constitute a true offering of cultural and art historical knowledge.

For this exhibition, one lamentable reality— perhaps related to time constraints—is that the presentation does not conform to any kind of art historical framework or artistic subject. Rather, the space is divided along traditional lines: traditional Chinese painting, oil painting, sculpture, prints, folk art, and so on. Taking a more slapdash approach to displaying donated collections may suffice, but the interrelationships among collections and the pivotal changes in art history, culture, and society to which they correspond could be articulated more clearly. Though not all of the donations here are historical pieces; there are also a number of contemporary additions, embodying NAMOC’s openness with regard to admitted works. This has much to do with the rehabilitation and overall improvement of China’s museum system. It is a liberation of historical conceptions and an affirmation of the present art environment—an affirmation of the present that is, in turn, an affirmation of history.

Art museums often find themselves at a loss when it comes to spatial limitations; many collections—whether collected by a museum itself or donated—cannot possibly be comprehensively exhibited, as they are often difficult to display over an extended period of time. Thus the current exhibition is a rare opportunity, a feat that the majority of art museums in China would be incapable of realizing. What’s more, it gives us the opportunity to reflect upon what has been donated, upon the process of accepting donated works, and subsequently upon how best to display works. More importantly, the exhibition is a reflection of the fact that China’s culture of art collection is still in a fledgling stage. There is still a distance to go before the true classics find themselves in the realm of donations. This simply implies that the art museum, as well as social and cultural institutions in China, still have a lot of hard work ahead. Wang Chunchen