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CAM Takes a Chance with China Design Now

By Steve Rosen · October 22nd, 2008 · The Big Picture


China Design Now, which just opened at Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) and will be there until Jan. 11, 2009, stands poised to be a high-profile exhibition for the museum. It debuted at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum before the Olympics, and Cincinnati is the first museum to subsequently display it. (Portland gets it next year.)

Capitalizing on the interest in Chinese modernism created by this summer’s successful Beijing Olympics, it is certainly of the moment. It even features prominent images of the Olympics’ biggest success story (after swimmer Michael Phelps), Birds Nest Stadium by the Swiss architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron.

But beyond the big architectural projects made for China by major Western firms (Rem Koolhaus’ CCTV headquarters also is featured), the draw should be the show’s introduction to a Cincinnati audience of the hip design objects and consumer products coming out of China. The show features the urban centers of Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen and their art and design breakthroughs — clothing, music videos and CD covers, posters, cell phones, even skateboards and running shoes.

It has the potential to be a sort of Chinese Beautiful Losers, recalling the successful show of youth-culture art at Contemporary Arts Center a few years back. Design Now also has an unusual gallery design by Yung Ho Chang, head of MIT’s architecture department.

Aaron Betsky, the museum’s director for the past two years, has a background in architecture — he previously was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute. So he went after this show.

“I think the audience we’re trying to reach is perhaps somewhat younger and more engaged, and also consists of more professional people,” Betsky says. “It’s not just people who come here to see the great Masters, but also people engaged on a day-to-day basis with looking around at popular culture and wondering where it is coming from.”

With that in mind, and also because this has been a costly exhibit to import from London even with a grant from sponsor Procter & Gamble, the normally free museum has made this a ticketed show. It costs $8 to view. Yet the museum doesn’t see this as a national or even regional show. Betsky says the attendance goal is 12,000 — about the same as the last ticketed exhibition, spring’s Rembrandt: Three Faces of a Master.

Most of its efforts will be directed toward Cincinnati — traditional print and Internet advertising plus a few novel twists. For instance, there will be a short teaser ad on the Fountain Square Jumbotron. The museum also is distributing 10,000 fortune cookies with messages promoting the show to Chinese restaurants.

It will be interesting to see if the museum — whose recent “big shows” have been on the more traditional side — can find a sizeable local audience with the exhibition’s contemporary and internationalist focus. It will also be interesting if China Design Now winds up broadening the museum’s audience, both locally and by drawing people from outside Cincinnati.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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