Curators of non-Western art struggle over whether to exhibit contemporary art in so-called regional galleries — Chinese, South Asian, African — or to showcase them in galleries devoted to Contemporary art. After all, today’s art scene is global and, indeed, has been for a long time, ever since imperial powers taught European art history and techniques throughout their colonies.
It boils down to this: if you place works in a regional gallery you run the risk of ghettoizing it. If, instead, you place all recent works in a Contemporary gallery, you run the risk of implying all sorts of untruth — that artists in, say, China have uniformly severed all connection with their past or that the art made in India worth exhibiting belongs to a distant past. Both are patently untrue — but how does a museum work within its existing structures to do justice to modern and contemporary work?
Many museums have started to include a few modern and contemporary pieces in their ‘regional’ galleries as a way of signaling that not all the art resides in the past. But the Met has now taken this a step further with Ink Art. In hosting this contemporary art show in its Chinese galleries, it makes very clear that the choice of venue denotes a choice of perspective. Hang a painting in the ‘Contemporary gallery,’ and you are inviting visitors to see it in relation to the global art scene. Hang that same piece in a ‘regional gallery’, and you are drawing attention to the work’s relationship with a particular country’s art history. As many a show has at the Met and elsewhere has already proven, there is much to be gained from the former — and, as I hope I show in my WSJ review , there is just as much to be gained from the latter.
The question now is: should museums apply the same approach to their American and European galleries?