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Shanghai bids to be 'Paris of the East' once more

By Laura Allsop for CNN
  • The Shanghai Museum of Glass is latest cultural space to open in the city
  • City enjoying rapid cultural development
  • Now an important destination on artworld map
  • Reclaiming history as a cosmopolitan and creative city

(CNN) -- Gleaming as much from being brand new as from its shiny exhibits, the Shanghai Museum of Glass is the latest high-concept museum to open in the city.

With sleek black-lacquered glass interiors and enameled glass doors, the museum could not look more modern, even while showcasing the history of the glass-making craft.

The renovated former glass factory contains exhibits ranging from historical glass objects to contemporary glass artworks and modern scientific instruments. A library and glass-blowing workshop complement the glittering galleries.

Though a private enterprise, the museum is the latest in a long line of cultural developments helping modernize Shanghai's image as a flagship city for the New China.

A spokesperson for Coordination Asia, the company in charge of the museum's concept design and art direction, explained that an impressive 100 museums were built between 2000 and 2005 in Shanghai as part of an ambitious cultural development plan.

8 strangest Shanghai museums

Yu Yin, from Coordination Asia, wrote in an email that even more museums are being planning for the future. "As a certain amount of national museums are being constructed or finalized, there will be more provincial or city museums, professional museums, exhibition halls, memory halls under renovation or planning," she said.

The highways and the high rises just started to boom and now (Shanghai is) a modern city
--Lorenz Helbling, Shanghai gallery owner

This rapid cultural development has made Shanghai an important destination on the international art circuit: The Shanghai Art Fair, Shanghai Biennale, Museum of Contemporary Art and countless new private galleries, though young, are turning it into a contemporary arts hub to rival China's capital, Beijing.

Swiss-born Lorenz Helbling opened ShanghART gallery in 1995, one of the first private galleries in the city: "I came to Shanghai because I knew some artists who lived here. They were good artists but there was not much of an infrastructure. I think there was one museum and very few galleries, so it was difficult to see any art."

As the '90s progressed "art became much more visible, and the whole city changed a lot," he said. "The highways and the high rises just started to boom and now it's a modern city."

He believes the city's dedication to the arts stems from a desire to counter its image as purely a business center.

Marijn Nieuwenhuis, from the University of Warwick's Department of Politics and International Studies, and contributing author to the book "Shanghai New Towns," explained that the city's boom began in the early 1990s with the construction of the Pudong commercial district.

It was this development, he said, that helped establish Shanghai as a global brand. "But Shanghai has always been known as the 'Paris of the East' and, even before that, the city was important in terms of trade," he said.

Shanghai has always been known as the 'Paris of the East' and even before that the city was important in terms of trade
--Marijn Nieuwenhuis, University of Warwick
  • China
  • Shanghai
  • Museums
  • Visual Arts

Serviced by a busy port, Shanghai was famous in the 19th and early 20th century for its sophisticated and cosmopolitan flavor. It's a reputation, says Nieuwenhuis, the city is now trying to re-instate.

Helbling agrees: "Shanghai is a nice Chinese city but it's also a city that is a part of the world, very much outside-looking," he said.

The one-time pioneer to the city's artistic scene is now joined by a clutch of Western galleries that have set up shop there in the last decade.

For all its modern outlook, though, cultural development in China continues to be regulated by the government. Nieuwenhuis cites incarcerated artist Ai Wei Wei as just one example of the way the State controls artistic expression.

Q&A: Is China afraid of Ai Wei Wei?

"Shanghai tries to establish itself as a center of modernity but at the same isn't able to give full liberty to its artists," he said, adding: "It's a very contradictory development, and I'm not sure if it's sustainable in the long run."

Helbling, however, says that he doesn't find the climate oppressive and feels at liberty to mount the exhibitions that he wants to, by artists whose talents he believes in.

"Shanghai is not the political center of China, so it's a bit more individual, a bit more relaxed," he said. "Culture can develop here, quietly but steadily."