In a nationwide attempt to enhance China’s cultural status, the Chinese government has been rolling out a series of measures to make all government-owned libraries and museums free of charge by the end of 2012.

Since 2008, the government has allocated 5.2 billion yuan towards the project, with free admission already in place at more than 1,700 of China’s museums. As a metropolitan hotspot at the crossroads of both Chinese and international influences, Shanghai was an early adopter of the effort, and many of its publically-owned art museums are already granting free admission.

The city has a flourishing modern art scene, including an established art district at the famous 50 Moganshan Road. Though government-owned art museums and galleries are few compared to the privately owned venues, they have unparalleled exhibitions that are well preserved and relevant. From ancient Chinese artefacts at the Shanghai Museum to avant-garde abstracts at the Duolun Museum of Modern Art, Shanghai’s now-free public museums offer visitors a comprehensive look into the country’s art scene.  

Shanghai Art Museum
With 12 exhibition halls spread across five floors, the Shanghai Art Museum offers an extensive selection of modern and traditional art forms. Situated at the edge of Shanghai’s People’s Square, the museum used to be the former clubhouse building of the Shanghai Racing Club. Today, its iconic clock tower is a Shanghai landmark.

The art museum was built in the 1930s and contains historical sculptures and paintings that reflect the city’s 1930s bohemian glamour. At the top of the museum is Kathleen’s 5, a rooftop restaurant and bar with great Western brunch specials and a panoramic view of Nanjing Road. The museum is also the home to the Shanghai Biennale, a high profile art event that is said to be the most established art exhibition in China. The Biennale is held every two years in September and features a mix of Chinese and international art.  

Shanghai Duolun Museum of Modern Art
In the 20th Century, a handful of famous Chinese writers resided on Duolun Road, creating a vibrant neighbourhood known for its exchange of thoughts and ideas. Today, Shanghai’s Duolun Museum of Modern Art is the first government-owned museum dedicated completely to modern art. Spiral staircases connect the seven-story structure and the permanent collection ranges from paintings and sculptures to film and media. The contemporary museum frequently changes exhibits and sometimes hosts live performances. Past exhibitions include women-shaped bread sculptures and bronze knights inspired by ancient Greece.

Liu Haisu Art Museum
Adorned with a striking deep-blue glass exterior, this contemporary art centre was named after Liu Haisu, a modern Chinese painter known for combining European techniques with traditional Chinese strokes. The museum primarily features the collections of Liu himself and with only five exhibition halls, it is an ideal spot for those who want to escape the long lines and crowds at bigger venues. Liu was a rebel painter of the 1920s who revolutionized the Chinese art movement by using nude models. After being banned from Shanghai art schools for his nude art, Liu eventually found support through the art department at the prestigious Peking University. He was heavily influenced by European counterparts Picasso and Matisse, and it is said that Liu brought impressionism and post-impressionism into China. The museum is heavily dominated with his oil and calligraphy paintings that combine the rich colours of Western art with the aesthetics of China.

Shanghai Museum
The Shanghai Museum is the most notable art establishment in Shanghai and has one of the best collections of ancient Chinese artefacts in the world. With more than 120,000 pieces of cultural relics, the museum is divided into 11 galleries and three exhibition halls. It features an impressive bronze collection from the Shang and Zhou dynasties and has more than 500 pieces of unique ancient ceramics. The museum, located in the heart of People’s Square, is shaped like an ancient Chinese cooking pot called a “ding”. Its rounded roof and square base symbolizes the ancient Chinese astrology concept of how the universe was structured – with a round heaven and square earth.