Erwin Olaf exhibition in SCoP, Shanghai

China’s opportunities for artists: “There is a hunger for European art”

In recent years, China has become one of the world’s economic, scientific and technological superpowers. For artists it also offers exciting opportunities.
7 March 2019
By Bambi Bogert


China is a priority country in the Netherlands’ International Cultural Policy 2017-2020. And with good reason. Because whereas funding for the creative sector in the Netherlands has been subject to major cutbacks in recent years, China’s economy is booming – and with this comes an insatiable appetite for arts and culture from the western world. Add to this the size and exponential growth factor of this vast territory, and it’s easy to understand why China offers seemingly limitless opportunities for those willing to venture east. Reason why DutchCulture organised a visitors programme for Chinese employees from various diplomatic posts, for an update on the Dutch cultural sector and to explore the opportunities for cultural exchange.

Hunger for European art

“In the Netherlands, an obscure performer is lucky to reach an audience of several hundred. But in China, this translates to several hundred thousand,” says Bart Hofstede, Counsellor, Head Department of Culture, Communication and Education, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Beijing. “Right now there is a hunger for European art like never before. This is just one of many things that makes cultural exchanges with China so incredibly exciting.”

With this in mind, the Dutch Embassy decided to invite a delegation of Chinese employees from various diplomatic posts to visit the Netherlands. “The idea being that they develop a better understanding of our cultural landscape, the various cultural organizations and our funding processes,” Hofstede explains. “China is such a big country, that we have diplomatic posts in eleven different cities, each covering their own territory. The Dutch diplomats visit home at least once a year. But of course we also work with local experts, who are essential in helping our resident Dutch artists navigate the Chinese rules and regulations, customs and traditions. They are our eyes and ears on the ground. Of course they know China through and through, but how much better would it be if they also had firsthand knowledge of the arts scene in the Netherlands? That’s why we decided to organize this trip.”

Bookstores are looking for opportunities to host international events. I’m sure they would welcome a chance to work with Dutch authors
Useful experience

With funding from the Dutch government, six Chinese delegates were able to spend a week in the Netherlands, where they met and visited with various ministries, public cultural foundations, municipalities and iconic representations. A visitors programme was developed and led by Ian Yang, DutchCulture’s China Advisor, together with the Dutch Embassy in Beijing. Aside from teambuilding, brainstorming, and discussing work strategies and practicalities, the main focus was on promoting Dutch culture in China and stimulating international cooperation.

“An incredibly useful experience,” according to Wenjun Li, who works at the Dutch Embassy in Beijing. “It gives us a very clear picture of how things are organized in the Netherlands, which helps me do my job. The most important thing is learning about the structures and procedures surrounding the cultural foundations. It’s very different than in China, where culture plays an important part in everyday life. We like to sing and dance, play music and make movies. But we don’t really feel the need for specialized organizations or events – we just do it ourselves. I can’t really say one is better than the other. We’re just different.”

Children’s books

Amy Chen of the Dutch Consulate in Chongqing agrees. “I’ve worked for the consulate for a long time now, but I’m new to the cultural field,” she says. “We need to promote Dutch culture, so it’s important for us to understand it. I have much more clear ideas about the different cultural funds now, what they can and cannot do. This is very important information for me to bring back to Chongqing and introduce to our local counterparts, so we can decide on the best ways for artists to collaborate with each other. For example, we met with people from the Dutch Foundation for Literature, and a lady who was promoting children’s books. This is a potential market in China, we have a huge demand. Before we came to the Netherlands, we had no contacts in this field. So even if we had wanted to promote it, we wouldn’t have had a clue where to start.”

Michael He of the Dutch Consulate in Guangzhou also feels there are ample opportunities for Dutch literature in China. “The literary scene is developing incredibly fast, bookstores are spreading like wildfire all over the country,” he says. “They don’t just operate as stores, but also as cafes, public meeting points where people gather and hold interesting conversations. Many of these places are looking for opportunities to host international events. I’m sure they would welcome a chance to work with Dutch authors. Especially when it comes to children’s novels. Chinese parents don’t want their kids playing computer games all the time anymore. They want them going to museums and to bookstores, and reading actual books. International books, as well as Chinese. Last week we organized a storytelling event with the Guangzhou Children’s Library, where the Dutch consul read a story by Max Velthuijs. The children learned a few words in Dutch. And the story was read aloud in Dutch, then translated into Chinese, so that they could listen to the original language and learn something about Dutch culture. Events like these are hugely successful. There really is a huge interest in Dutch language and literature.”

There is a growing need to explore further, and discover interesting underground art and content
Dutch design

Another hot contender that has proven popular with the Chinese, is Dutch Design. For many of the delegates, visiting Eindhoven, the design capital of the Netherlands, was one of the highlights of the trip. Michael He: “Of course everybody knows Philips. But Eindhoven as a city is also very impressive. It’s the brain port for creativity and design in the Netherlands. Our visit provided us with a lot of creative ideas and learnings. Dutch Design has already made a name for itself in Southern China, in part thanks to the Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture. We also have several international photo festivals, as well as the Guangzhou Triennial, which focuses on future technology and biotech. I think there are a lot of possibilities in the field of contemporary visual arts, because the contemporary art field in Guangzhou is growing. So Dutch Design is definitely something that Southern China and the Guangzhou region has an interest in developing further relations with.”

Elva Ma, who works at the Dutch Consulate in Shanghai, feels that this interest is spreading nationwide: “If you talk to Chinese people, everybody knows Rembrandt and Van Gogh. But in terms of contemporary art, Dutch Design is really big. People have the idea that the Dutch are very creative and very innovative. So artists with this kind of approach will probably be received really well in China.”

Regional differences

Still, there are important differences between the various regions of the country. Elva Ma: “I think Chinese people in general are very curious. But in places like Beijing, they are deeply rooted in proud Chinese traditions. Whereas in Shanghai, with its background as a harbor city, the people are more accepting of new and foreign ideas. Shanghai used to be known as the ‘Paris of the Orient’. It’s much more openminded and cosmopolitan. And the arts scene is incredibly dynamic. Traditionally Chinese people are huge fans of classical music and ballet. But recent years have seen a rise in all kinds of performing arts, including outdoor music festivals with DJs, EDM, jazz, modern dance… Right now, we’re still somewhat in a transitional period. But as people are becoming more accustomed to big names, there is also a growing need to explore further, and discover interesting underground art and content. It’s very much in development.”

Be openminded. Don’t get hung up on preconceived notions about our country
Political sensitivities

Although politics certainly wasn’t on the agenda during this visit, it’s a topic that can be difficult to avoid whenever China is involved. And something the delegates seem well aware of. “Politically, China is more closed,” Amy Chen says. “I noticed there is more freedom in the Netherlands. It’s part of our job to help guide people through the Chinese cultural landscape with its political sensitivities, that we know so well. Which can be pretty difficult. For instance, I had to deal with a photographer who wanted to exhibit photographs of poor areas, and the Chinese government said ’no’. This isn’t so much to do with wanting to cover up poverty, it’s more about the fact that China is developing, and our government wants to avoid perpetuating negative stereotypical images. In the end, the way it’s presented is crucial. All it takes is one person to misinterpret things, and the project will be shut down. For us, this can be difficult to explain. Still, that’s what we’re here for. And it helps when we have an understanding of your culture and arts, so we can tell you which projects are most suitable for China. This way, we can help advise the best way to explain projects to the local authorities. And make it happen.”

Greater understanding

Elva Ma has a message for artists visiting China: “Be openminded. Don’t get hung up on preconceived notions about our country, because oftentimes what you hear and see in the media… some of it’s true, but a lot of it is just stereotyping, and it’s not an accurate representation of what’s really happening. For instance, people are led to believe that pollution in China is terrible, but it’s really not like that everywhere – thankfully! And for artists, I would say it’s better to focus on everyday situations than on tourist attractions. Because true inspiration for art comes from daily life.”

Michael He believes that ultimately, a greater understanding of one another is the best fuel for creativity. “Historically, there has always been an exchange of ideas. The Chinese taught the Dutch how to make their famous Delft Blue ceramics. And now, there are a lot of Dutch designers and artists who incorporate sinology in their work, and use Chinese philosophy and culture in their products and creativity. It’s important to look at each other and try to see how the other thinks, how their culture works, and develop a sense of synergy.”