Entertainment & Arts

Could China save UK art galleries?

Film crew at Toward Modernity exhibition in Liaoning Provincial Museum
Image caption George Clausen's 1888 work Spring Morning, owned by Bury Art Museum, attracted interest in Liaoning

An exhibition of art treasures from Bury, Bolton and other northern English towns has become a success in China. Could booming foreign nations offer cash-strapped British galleries a route out of financial crisis?

When Bury paper tycoon Thomas Wrigley amassed a collection of 200 artworks during the Industrial Revolution, England was known as the "workshop of the world".

Bury Art Museum opened in 1901 to house Wrigley's fine collection.

But the industrial boom is now long gone. Like others across the country, the council-run gallery has faced the prospect of funding cuts.

China is now the "workshop of the world".

Industrial barons

So the jewel in Wrigley's collection, JMW Turner's sublime Calais Sands, has been dispatched, along with around 80 other artworks from Bury and 18 other north-west galleries, on a money-spinning six-city tour of China.

The venture was put together by Bury Art Museum manager Tony Trehy, who saw that art collected by industrial barons across the North West of England could be a big draw overseas.

He corralled other galleries to put their "greatest hits" together and head east.

"Put it this way," Mr Trehy says. "It's sufficiently lucrative that people have stopped talking about cutting us."

The exhibition is titled Toward Modernity: Three Centuries of British Art. As well as the Turner, it includes works by Constable, Lowry, Henry Moore and Lucian Freud, culled from collections in Chester, Carlisle, Salford and Stalybridge.

Chinese galleries pay to host the exhibition, which Mr Trehy is now hoping to take to other countries, and which could provide the template for further themed exhibitions.

"Assuming we can do it on a regular basis, it becomes a significant new source of funding for museums," he says.

Uproar over Lowry

While local council cuts are forcing some galleries and museums to reduce staff and opening hours, Mr Trehy believes income from foreign tours could eventually entirely replace public funding for some such institutions.

"If you've got the right works, if you've inherited the right artists from the Victorians or whoever, it is a licence to print money basically," he says.

"We're in negotiation with various museums in Japan and Taiwan, we're just about to start looking at making proposals to the Americans. I've had meetings in the Gulf about working with Emirates museums, but they're only exploratory meetings.

Image caption JMW Turner's Calais Sands was the centre of attention at the Beijing World Art Museum

"The British Council are now talking about Brazil for the future because of the World Cup and Olympics."

Bury Council caused uproar in the art world in 2006 when it sold an LS Lowry painting to plug a budget deficit. The idea of taking a picture on tour is that "rather than sell it, we can essentially rent it", Mr Trehy says.

Foreign touring exhibitions are nothing new, but he says this is the first time it has been done by a consortium of regional British museums rather than a national institution with an established global brand, such as the Tate, British Museum or V&A.

"I think economic circumstances have made us more efficient and entrepreneurial," says Emma Varnam, head of culture for Tameside Council, which has contributed four works to Toward Modernity.

She runs the Astley Cheetham Art Gallery in Stalybridge, which was built in 1901 to house the collection of cotton mill heir John Frederick Cheetham. The gallery is a member of the new Greater Manchester Museums Group.

'Fantastic collections'

The Chinese venture has boosted both the finances and profile of the gallery as well as allowing staff to learn new skills, such as conservation, she says.

"From my point of view, it's fabulous to see these assets being used for the benefit of the community and being used hopefully time and time again so that people across the world will see these fantastic collections, with an economic benefit to that community rather than us having to contemplate selling those pieces."

Toward Modernity is also a rare example of a foreign exhibition venturing beyond the main centres of Beijing and Shanghai.

Image caption The Beijing World Art Museum specialises in collecting, exhibiting and researching foreign arts

"In Beijing, for example, general public and press showed very high interest in this show," says Fei Xu, of the Beijing World Art Museum.

"For other provincial museums, this exhibition is the first foreign exhibition introducing British art, especially the oil paintings from famous artists of the UK."

Chinese galleries have been slowly opening up to foreign exhibitions over the past decade. The Tate took a major Turner show to the National Art Museum of China in Beijing in 2009, while the British Council organised an extensive festival of UK culture to coincide with the 2012 London Olympic Games.

"More and more people in China are interested in British art and culture now," says Fei Xu. "Since the UK hosted the Olympic Games successfully in London last year, Chinese people are interested in its long history, its merging of different ethnic groups and the development process of Britain in the past decades."

Other countries, too, have seized the chance to tap into this Chinese cultural curiosity.

The Beijing World Art Museum, part of the city's imposing Millennium Monument, has also hosted exhibitions from Italy, Spain, the US and Mexico.

"China is building museums every week," says David Elliott, director of arts at the British Council in China. "Major things. They're huge. Massive infrastructure projects.

"China's leadership, which changed last month, has put a great emphasis on culture. The problem is they build all these great museums and theatres and concert halls but they kind of forget that they need to put things in them.

"So the Chinese are very interested in working with British museums."

This will all be music to the ears of UK Culture Secretary Maria Miller, who recently exhorted British museums and galleries to think of culture as a "compelling product" that the world wants to "buy into".

In a speech, she praised the Hay Festival for launching an Indian offshoot and Bolton Museums for taking its Egyptology collection to Taiwan and China, where it has been seen by more than a million people.

Ms Miller also mentioned the V&A in London, which regularly sends shows overseas. Anna Jackson, the V&A's head of Asian collections, says there has been a gradual increase in co-operation with Chinese counterparts over recent years.

"What's changing, I think, is the fact that now China is becoming part of that international world of exhibition and object exchange, which is relatively new," she says.

'Soft diplomacy'

The V&A's latest export, an exhibition from the museum's Indian collection, has just opened at the Palace Museum in Beijing.

"We're not just a museum in South Kensington," Ms Jackson says. "We're involved in quite a lot of these emerging countries - India, China, Russia. We have a good relationship with the Kremlin.

"We're thinking about doing things about Brazil. These are growing markets, in the same way perhaps that we first started to work with Japan 25 or 30 years ago, when Japan first started to hold international exhibitions."

Culture can help cultivate diplomatic and economic relations, too. When David Cameron visited China in 2010, the directors of the V&A and the British Museum went with the prime minister.

"People call it soft diplomacy, don't they?" says Ms Jackson.

For the Chinese public, this invasion of international exhibitions also provides proof of their growing global standing, Ms Jackson believes.

"These exhibitions get very high numbers. I think for people who live in Beijing, to have changing shows that come from different parts of the world, it really shows that they're engaging much more internationally.

"It's about their prestige as well as ours."

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