MMU Special Collections staff visit China to develop a touring exhibition

Stephanie Boydell, Curator / Gallery Store Supervisor at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections and Dr Tongyu Zhou, Research Associate, Manchester Institute for Research in Art and Design at MMU, visited China on a WIRP Travel Grant in early April 2016.   This is Stephanie’s report on her visit.


The purpose of the visit was to progress an exhibition of works from MMU Special Collections to China. The exhibition, provisionally titled Landmarks in British book illustration and design: 1890 – 1950: A selection from the Special Collections at Manchester Metropolitan University, had been worked up into a proposal and previously sent to our preferred partners, the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, and the Illustration and Book Design committee of China Artists Association.

L-R Asstistant Professor Wu Jiang, Stephanie Boydell and Dr Tongyu Zhou at CAFA

L-R Asstistant Professor Wu Jiang, Stephanie Boydell and Dr Tongyu Zhou at CAFA

The response from our Chinese partners was very positive and we (Stephanie Boydell, curator at MMU Special Collections, and Dr Tongyu Zhou, Research Associate, Manchester Institute for Research in Art and Design at MMU), were invited to China to meet them face to face, to establish links and allow us to investigate the proposed venues, in order that the project could move forwards.  The hope was that there would be an initial exhibition at CAFA, and then that it would tour to the regions, into galleries linked to the regional art schools that CAFA has established links with.

The most important activities were to meet our primary partner, Head of the Illustration Dept. of CAFA, Associate Professor Wu Jiang, but also to meet other partners, such as Mr Yan Shanchun, Vice President of Shenzen Fine Art Institute who is to speak to other touring venues on our behalf.

Exhibition at CAFA Art Museum

Exhibition at CAFA Art Museum

The visit included trips to various museums and galleries in Beijing, in particular the CAFA gallery, to look at how different galleries operated. Of particular interest was the invitation to the National Art Museum of China to attend a Private View and meet Professor Gao Rongsheng, former Head of Illustration and Book Design at CAFA, and now Head of Illustration of the Chinese Artists Association, without whose approval the exhibition at CAFA would be difficult.

What went well was that the proposal was well received and was approved by the senior professors and curators we met.  We also established a good relationship with CAFA and found a lot of commonalities that we hope to explore in the future.

What was difficult was not speaking the language and relying on a third party to translate.  Not only conversations, but also in negotiating the different ways in which exhibitions are proposed in China, in particular navigating the formalities of approaching people in the correct order and getting their tacit approval before being able to progress further.  It is frustrating to have returned with no formal agreements in place yet.

Generally, the visit gave me a good introduction to the gallery systems in place in China, how they differ to those in the UK and, I hope, some understanding of how we might negotiate any issues that may arise when we come to work on the logistical side of the project.  The visit has given me confidence in the project and the partners, and I hope inspired their confidence in us.  I would be very happy to travel back to Beijing to continue the process, and it has assured me that any new ambitious project should be welcomed and approached positively rather than seeing only potential problems.  It has also given the Special Collections management confidence in its staff to pursue projects like this.

On a personal level, the visit has extended my knowledge and understanding of lending and touring exhibitions internationally, which is a wonderful opportunity for my own professional development.  For the Special Collections, it has already raised our profile internationally, but perhaps more importantly, it has also raised awareness within our parent university helping to sustain our reputation and value to the institution.

Traditional print studio at CAFA

Traditional print studio at CAFA

Of the many people we met the most important were those from CAFA, in particular Associate Professor Wu Jiang.  The tour of CAFA and the gallery brought me into contact with a number of staff and students and reinforced the understanding that CAFA and MMU have much in common, including collecting and exhibition policies.  The exhibitions on at that time showed parallels with how we at MMU collect to support teaching and research, but also to reflect the history of the institution and evidenced a similar approach to the use and display of archive collections.

It was also very important to meet with Mr Yan, Vice President of Shenzen Fine Art Institute who has offered to promote the exhibition to various venues outside Beijing. Mr Yan had taken our proposal to the National Museum of China who had previously expressed an interest in the show. He also said that he would approach the China Academy of Art (the other leading art university in China, in Hangzhou) and the Design Museum (OCAT) in Shenzhen, and the Art Museum of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, to take the exhibition after that.

Liaising with Chinese institutions has been eye-opening.  The importance of the face to face meeting, and of showing respect to the right people can be a challenge.  It is very easy to assume that all negotiations will operate as they do in the UK or when we liaise with colleagues in Europe or the USA.  Don’t expect decisions until a contract is signed, and don’t expect to speak to the people who can actually agree things without going through intermediaries.

This can make the process difficult and drawn out, in particular having to travel to China to move things on.  On the other hand, when things go ahead, the speed at which things work, and at which you are expected to respond, can be overwhelming.  Patience and being prepared for anything will stand you in good stead.  The Chinese work very long hours and socialising can be part of the working day.  It will be expected that you will do the same, so be willing to be social and be prepared to try anything.

Goldfish in the traditional print studio at CAFA

Goldfish in the traditional print studio at CAFA

Although we have a nominal agreement with CAFA’s Department of Printmaking, and we continue to liaise with Associate Professor Wu Jiang, we are still waiting for full formal agreement from the Director of the Gallery.  We understand that we need to return to CAFA to meet the Director to make this happen.  We are also waiting for news from Mr Yan about the regional touring partners.  If these contacts are positive, we will also have to travel to meet those new partners.

To realise the project will need agreement and full coverage of costs by our Chinese partners, and this will need to be approved by the University’s legal team.  We expect that the Chinese partners will cover costs of the loan and exhibition once the formal agreement is made, but any travel and costs incurred before that must be met by us, which we do not have the budget for, so further funding must be found.

This visit has enabled me to learn a great deal about the museum and gallery sector in China and allowed the establishment of a good relationship and shared interest with a sister institution that I hope will be the basis of many future partnership projects.

“The grant has impacted our organisation is many ways: it has allowed us to take the first formal steps towards realising this proposal, and towards the facilitation of awareness raising, of both MMU and its Special Collections, nationally and internationally. The touring exhibition will reinforce the University’s reputation of World- class professionals and strengthen the Special Collections as a vital part of the University’s and UK Higher Education offer. It will also support the professional development of Special Collections staff.” – Paul Everitt, Associate Head of Libraries, Manchester Metropolitan University