Todd Smith has a plan, and if it works, a landmark exhibition will
debut at the Tampa Museum of Art in June 2014.
Smith, who is director of the museum, has commissioned "My
Generation: Young Chinese Artists," a special exhibition that
would assemble a large group of emerging Chinese artists in a
U.S. museum for the first time.
"There was an opportunity to do a show of this size and scale for
the first time in the U.S.," he says. "It seemed like the perfect time
to begin an important conversation."
Smith has already invested time and several thousand dollars in
preliminaries, including a trip to China with arts writer, teacher
and contemporary Chinese arts expert Barbara Pollack to visit
studios and galleries and meet artists who might be part of the
show. Pollack has been retained to curate the show and write
the catalog. (Catalogs always add luster; they signal the
uniqueness and seriousness of an exhibition.)
Smith, 47, became the museum's director in 2008 and has
overseen its programming since a new building on downtown
Tampa's riverfront opened in 2010. It has a prestigious antiquities
collection, but its special exhibition mission is to exhibit the art of
our time and the art that has influenced it. Since he arrived,
Smith has crafted a smart mix of beloved modern forbears such
as Matisse and Degas with contemporary artists. He has a
particular gift for finding important emerging, younger ones.
Inspiration for special exhibitions can come from anywhere.
Most often museums build them around art they already own.
The source for "My Generation" was especially unusual.
Smith had curated a show by video artist Janet Biggs in 2011.
Pollack, a good friend of Biggs, came from New York for the
opening. Over dinner with Smith and others from the museum,
she talked about a followup to her previous book, The Wild Wild
East, that she was researching, about the new generation of
"Someone said it would make a great art exhibit," Smith said.
"So we began talking."
Despite the exploratory trips to China, the exhibition is not a sure
thing. To help finance it, Smith has to find at least one other
museum, preferably two, maybe three, who want to rent it and
has sent proposals to dozens of museums around the country.
The museum's hard expenses for bringing the show to Tampa
are about $200,000, he says, but it's "a sliding scale" at this point
because decisions about what art will be in it and how much
shipping will cost (it can be a lot) will be based on how much
funding he raises from sponsors and how many museums want
to participate. That figure also doesn't factor in operational
costs absorbed by the museum such as staff time. He'll
probably know by late summer if the plan can go forward.
Special, or temporary, exhibitions are the lifeblood of most art
museums. They garner publicity and coax return visits from an
audience, especially a local audience, that is often more
interested in seeing something new than going to see the art
that's always on view in the permanent collection galleries.
They're important to a museum's reputation, capable of
conferring added prestige, and they're part of the educational
mission all art museums must have to be accredited by the
American Alliance of Museums. The viewing public rarely has
any idea how much time, effort and money can go into
Most of our regional art museums offer at least five special
exhibitions every year. They're a combination of those
organized by the museum itself and those rented from another
institution, such as a museum or an exhibitions company, that
has assembled one and sent it on tour. Sometimes several
museums band together to share expenses and contribute art.
A common homegrown exhibition is made up of art in a
museum's permanent collection but not on regular view, such
as prints or photographs that are light sensitive and spend most
of their time in dark storage. These are popular with museum
professionals because they're inexpensive and have quick
A more complicated and ambitious type involves loans from
other museums, commercial galleries and/or private collectors.
They can be very expensive and take years to organize, which
is why they usually have to be lent to other museums for a fee.
The Tampa Museum would charge $75,000 in rental fees and up
to another $75,000 for shipping and insurance.
"Shipping is the biggest unknown," Smith says, because some
artworks are more expensive to crate and send than others.
"We're guaranteeing that shipping won't cost more than that,
and it could cost less."
"That's not an expensive exhibition," says Marshall Rousseau,
director emeritus of the Dalí Museum and former interim director
of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, who has
overseen exhibitions that cost hundreds of thousand dollars.
"Most museums just try to break even on them. They're
colleagues and friends."
Chinese artists with a new sensibility
Smith would like many media to be represented in the show,
including installations, but it depends on the funding.
"We'll have about 20 artists all born in 1976 or later," Smith said.
"They were all born under China's one-child policy and after the
Cultural Revolution, which was so restrictive, even terribly
punitive to earlier generations of artists. They were born after
Mao's death. Many of them have shown or traveled
internationally. They're a differently engaged group."
Both Smith and Pollack make the point that all the artists
received training from prestigious arts academies in China,
which have a rigorous and traditional approach with little room
for conceptual innovation. They are in the process of deciding
what of the old they keep while developing their individual
approaches and styles. They have access to technology and
McDonald's. They have aesthetic ideals along with commercial
aspirations. All of those things were unheard of 30 years ago.
While some of the artists being considered have shown their
work in U.S. galleries or museums individually, this would be the
first one to provide a larger philosophical framework.
"These younger artists grew up in an entirely different country,"
says Pollack. "They could travel. The older contemporary artists
came of age in a very isolated community. They think this
younger group is spoiled. After the Cultural Revolution, they still
made work about social issues. The younger group is much
more experimental, more diverse. A lot of the older artists have
symbols that are explicitly Chinese. This group is not explicitly
about Chinese identity. They're mostly apolitical, interested in
the landscape of China and how it has changed in their
lifetime. They're looking at their own youth culture, some with
exuberance and some as alienating and sad. They find, unlike
their elders, that being Chinese is not that unique."
China is becoming a major player in the international art world
both as an incubator for exciting contemporary artists and as a
source for wealthy collectors. Pollack says that most of the
artists under consideration are well known to collectors in their
own country and some have sold their work in China for as
much as $100,000.
"It's a gamble," Smith says, "but I feel really good about finding a
venue or two besides us for it."