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The Art of Diplomacy Pt 2: Buddy-Up with the ‘New’ Kids on the Block.

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In Part 1 ‘Franchising Cultural Heritage’ we explored the concept of using art as a means of facilitating diplomatic relationships between countries. If you haven’t yet read it, you can check that article out here. In this second part of the series, we explore the growth of the art market and the challenges that come with promoting foreign art while adhering to freedom of expression expectations.

Breaking New Markets

The use of museums as marketing tools appear to be central to the whole art of diplomacy project. Associating France and its state-collections with the Chinese art market not only presents France as a cultural capital to the super-rich Chinese art collectors, but it also serves to promote France to the ever-growing middle classes of China who might be considering planning a holiday. In 2017 over 12 million Chinese visitors made their way to Europe – a figure expected to double by the end of 2020. France was a major draw for a significant proportion of them, with 24% of that number visiting the country. However, if you’re the French government, why settle for just a quarter? By putting the Pompidou in Shanghai, the French government are giving their potential tourists a taster of what to expect if they come to visit. A growth in the share of that market will almost certainly be where the most significant return on their annual naming-rights investment will be seen.

Will it work?

There is however a problem when it comes to associating with the Chinese art scene as a result of the government’s attitudes towards freedom of expression. You only have to look at the most well-known contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to see that their relationship with art is, at best, problematic. He spent 81 years in prison for his work critiquing the Chinese government. Ai Weiwei recently labelled France’s decision to collaborate with the Chinese government to open the Pompidou as ‘a joke’, considering the country’s history of democratic repression. Xi Jinping, the man who Macron needs to buddy up with more than any, has increasingly tightened rules surrounding freedom of expression – a fundamental aspect that many would associate with the Western modernist tradition of art which the Pompidou is celebrating.

It is, therefore, particularly odd that Macron suggested it was only due to Xi Jinping giving his personal blessing to the project that it was able to move forward. However, in spite of the content of the work it displays, the nature of the Pompidou as a state-owned institution probably softens the impact of the western messages and ideals encapsulated in the artworks that are on show. Ultimately, however, it remains to be seen how China can enable the coexistence of a successful art market – which fundamentally relies on challenging the status quo – and it’s now long held opposition to many western ideals. The current unrest in Hong Kong will only deepen the ruling Communist Party’s fears with regards to such matters and the integration of western art into Chinese popular culture may prove to be a particularly difficult road to navigate.

By John Sewell

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