The Gallery That Was Never There: On LACMA’s Chinese Gallery and Collection

Los Angeles, sitting on the Pacific Rim, has the largest population of Chinese descendants in the U.S.1Immigration Policy Institute, link.​ The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), a museum that encompasses collections from around the world, surveying local, regional, and global arts, cultures, and histories, boasts to be “the encyclopedic museum of the future,” according to its director Michael Govan.2Press for the exhibition Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA, 2013, link.​ “Chinese art was one of the first areas collected by the museum,” the website proclaims. “Our collection spans more than four thousand years and features extraordinary works ranging from ancient jade carvings to contemporary video and photography.”3It was on the LACMA’s old webpage, link.​ It seems fitting then that LACMA recently teamed up with Yuz Museum Shanghai, established by the Chinese-Indonesian collector Budi Tek, to form a joint foundation to ensure the future of Tek’s 1,500 works of Chinese contemporary art and a vehicle for programs that can reach wider audiences in both China and Los Angeles. Twenty works from this collection by 15 artists in response to international trade, political conflict, and global artistic exchange will be on view at LACMA from July 4, 2021 through February 13, 2022.

In light of this development, and against the context of LACMA’s ongoing renovations, its proposed future exhibition plans, as well as the current urgent needs of Asian and Asian diasporic artists and cultural workers for visibility and representation, I want to unpack the complex history of the museum with particular focus on its collection of Chinese art.

Founded in 1910, LACMA was originally the art department of the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park, near downtown, and its Chinese art collection got started on a shaky footing. The story began with a self-invented “Chinese” general Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe (1864–1935). Born in Bergen, Norway, Munthe allegedly spent 35 years in China and earned his rank in the Chinese military during the Boxer Rebellion, a violent anti-foreigner and anti-Christian movement that swept the nation between 1898 and 1900. Munthe feverishly amassed Chinese artifacts during his time in China, which coincided with the waning years of the Qing Dynasty after nearly three centuries of rule.

In 1926, he offered to sell his collection of Chinese art to LACMA. Then-director William Bryan, an ornithologist, lobbied the county to advance $200,000 for Munthe’s 118 ceramics with the option to acquire the rest for an additional $400,000. The exhibition of Munthe’s collection at the museum ignited public interest in Chinese art and encouraged American collectors to donate their Chinese antiques. However, the Munthe collection came under a series of disputes by scholars for its questionable authenticity and value. Finally, in 1940, the museum admitted that the collection had been determined to be largely counterfeit and thus sent it back to Norway; Munthe eventually donated this body of work to the West Norway Museum of Decorative Art. Nevertheless, as a result of the public’s enthusiasm, a few significant antiques did manage to enter the museum’s holdings. By the year 2000, more than 500 objects and paintings—verified as authentic—were “on view in eleven galleries designed to frame the character of the collection and illuminate principles of Chinese art history.”4Keith Wilson, “The New Galleries for Chinese Art at LACMA.” Orientations. June 2000. 42.

Despite the volume of the collection, the museum’s Chinese art failed to lure major investments and institutional gifts and instead remained inconsistent and stagnant, while the Korean and Japanese communities played a more active role in supporting their respective national art. The museum began to shift its attention to Japanese and Korean art, as donations for a new building dedicated to Japanese art, and later a Korean art gallery, poured in, whereas the 11 Chinese galleries were permanently closed. However, in 2011, the museum relaunched a permanent Chinese gallery comprised of two small rooms hidden within the Korean wing. Most visitors remained oblivious to its brief existence.

The less than ideal exhibition space was merely a symptom of a more complicated predicament. For a museum heavily dependent on private donations, the ultimate obstacle to enhancing the collection of Chinese art and providing an adequate exhibition space was money—in spite of the curator’s practice having shifted away from tending to objects, conducting scholarly research, and educating the public to hustling for money and serving elite audiences.  “The curator has emerged as the primary agent of a large network of privatized interests,” notes Mari Carmen Ramirez of the Museum of Fine Arts.5Mari Carmen Ramirez, “Brokering Identities: Art, Curators, and the Politics of Cultural Representation.” Thinking About Exhibitions. Routledge, London and New York. 1996. 31.​ Compromises wrought under financial pressure and the demands of individual patrons can undermine the museum’s social relevance and its responsibility to the public for constructing “a sense of community, of belonging, of joining their distinct claim on a historical identity.”6James Cuno. Museums Matter, in praise of the encyclopedic museum. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago & London. 2011. kindle edition.

The museum’s previous classification system was also problematic. All the criteria seemed overlapping or even contradictory. While the Decorative Arts and Design Department looked after the collection of European and American ceramics, furniture, and metalwork, and the Department of German Expressionism managed German and Austrian art from the early decades of the 20th century, Chinese art curators had to attend to a hodgepodge of paintings, relics, furniture, archaeological shards, oddities, and knickknacks. Among them was a jade backscratcher possibly from the 18th or 19th century. Is this art or mere ethnographic curio? In contrast to the flamboyance of the 18th and the 19th century European collection, a jade backscratcher from the same period appears all too primitive, totally out of place and unimaginative.

By combining material objects from 2000 B.C. all the way up to the early 20th century as a one-stop shop to represent Chinese art and, to an extent, Chinese identity, the museum was essentially treating Chinese art, ornaments, and curiosities from disparate periods as a grab bag  belonging to a remote past, with even less relevance to the present. Craig Clunas, former head of Oxford’s art history department, argues:

To be more precise, the notion of Chinese art was an oxymoron, since the Western hierarchy of media put painting at the top, with representations of the human form at the highest point therein. Objects transferred from the domain of “ethnography” to that of “art” typically find diachronic links privileged at the expense of connections with others that have failed to make the transition.7Craig Clunas, “Oriental Antiquities/Far Eastern Art.” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, 2.2, Fall 1994. 323.

LACMA has a Department of Prints and Drawings; why not join Chinese prints from the 14th and 15th centuries with those from Europe, placing them in juxtaposition with Renaissance prints or those of Albrecht Dürer? Despite the geographic differences, this interplay could tease out arguments that challenge the misperception that China’s “irrationality of its intellectual productions becomes set as the essential counterweight to the enduring canons of quality represented by the art of Greece and Rome.”8Ibid.

Viewing Chinese art in a generic space at an American encyclopedic museum—a claim of universal hegemony and a transcendent fixed point for observing all other “cultures”—already proves to be a challenge, because the cultural, historical, and intellectual contexts of art and artifacts bear little familiarity with those produced in the West. Today, as the rhetoric of Western cultural hegemony and imperialism is increasingly scrutinized, it is worth considering how LACMA can better position itself as the true museum of the future to serve its local and international audiences and construct cultural images that acknowledge the history and provenance of its materials and objects the museum has accumulated from the non-Western world.

As a Chinese diasporic art historian trained in the West, I strongly believe that art history should include not only the history of art-making, but also the history of art transmission. The museum should not pretend that it is natural for ceramic supernatural creatures that guarded Chinese tombs 2,000 years ago to be caged in glass at Western institutions. The story of how those ancient Chinese artifacts ended up here in Los Angeles to begin with could reveal a very different narrative from the fanciful one given by self-serving institutional spokespeople. To quote Mari Carmen Ramirez:

As the debates of recent years have shown, “identity” is not an “essence” that can be translated into a particular set of conceptual or visual traits. It is, rather a negotiated construct that results from the multiple positions of the subject vis-à-vis the social, cultural and political conditions which contain it. How, then, can exhibitions or collections attempt to represent the social, ethnic, or political complexities of groups without reducing their subjects to essentialist stereotypes?9Mari Carmen Ramirez. “Brokering Identities: Art, Curators, and the Politics of Cultural Representation.”  Thinking About Exhibitions. Routledge: London and New York. 1996. 16.

Though LACMA wants to strengthen its collection of Chinese pre-modern art, like all museums in the West, it must comply with strict international regulations to stem both illicit trade and demands from source countries for repatriations. The museum has now turned its attention to Chinese modern and contemporary art. In the past decade, LACMA has acquired a handful of works by contemporary Chinese artists like Feng Mengbo and Zhu Jinshi. This collection remained far from comprehensive or notable, however, until the recent joint venture with Budi Tek. The effort of renewing the Chinese art division was also evident in LACMA’s hosting of an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art in 2019, which was spearheaded by Wu Hung, the art history professor from the University of Chicago. However, instead of tapping LACMA’s contemporary art department, headed by female curators of Latinx and Asian descent, to co-curate, the museum relied on its Chinese art department’s Stephen Little, a white scholar of Chinese antiquity, and Susanna Ferrell, a young white assistant whose only credential seemed to be the reputation of her mother, Britta Erickson, the artistic director of Beijing’s INK Studio.

In advance of the completion of the $750 million renovation to reimagine “LACMA as the encyclopedic museum of the future while resolving the museum’s complicated campus format,”10Casey Lesser. “LACMA: The Encyclopedic Museum of the Future?” Art In America, May 2, 2013. Link.​ LACMA revealed that the new gallery spaces will hold the institution’s collection—including the Chinese art collection—on one level, arranged in a nonhierarchical and experiential configuration to avoid “giving more prominence to any specific culture, tradition, or era, offering visitors a multitude of perspectives on art and art history in a more accessible, inclusive way.”11LACMA website, link.​ The plan is to install the collection as a continuing series of temporary exhibitions that are cross-cultural and interdisciplinary. If we must accept the existence of encyclopedic museums, we should expect them to be responsible for advocating democratic scholarship and giving all human heritages and aesthetic discourses equal presentation. Therefore, I applaud the interdepartmental decision to juxtapose Chinese modern and contemporary art with Western antiquities, and to showcase Western and non-Western materials together for cross-spatial and cross-temporal examination. In regards to Tek’s collection that will soon be under LACMA’s custodianship, I hope it can usher in a new model of collaboration between the East and the West that presents more inclusive narratives of art history and energizes the representation of Asian and Asian diasporic artists in the U.S. without reducing their work to essentialist stereotypes.

Danielle Shang is a Los Angeles based art historian and exhibition organizer. Her research focuses on the impact of globalization, urban renewal, social change, and class restructuring on art-making and the narrative of art history.

“Chinese” general Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe from Bergen, Norway. Image from Wikimedia Commons, link.

Installation view at the opening of the Chinese art gallery in 2011. (Image: the author)

Back Scratcher in the Form of a Hand with Two Gold Rings, middle or late Qing dynasty, about 1700-1911, Abraded jade, 7 1/2 × 1 1/8 × 1 in. (19.05 × 2.86 × 2.54 cm), Gift of Patricia G. Cohan (M.2001.179.21); screengrab from the museum's online collection.

Installation photograph, Feng Mengbo's Long March: Restart (2008) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © Feng Mengbo, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Published: 2021.06.17