China’s private art museums: Icons or empty vanity projects?

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Architecturally stunning private art museums are booming in China

As China's billionaires mature, and their art investments grow, they are seeking unique ways to leverage their collections

But is it a desire to share culture -- or vanity -- that's driving the projects?

CNN  — 

Whether stunning collectives of 20 plus buildings, like the Nanjing Sifang Art Park, or singular architectural marvels, such as the Long Museum West Bund, Shanghai, the construction of private art museums is booming in China.

Driven by the expanding number of Chinese billionaire art investors hoping to leave a cultural legacy, government and municipal policy, and the financial and security disincentives that hinder donation of private art to public facilities, scores of spectacular new museums are being built each year at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Billionaire Chinese buisnessman Lu Jun asked twenty of the world's leading architects and artists to design buildings for his Sifang Art Park. These six concrete blocks were designed by Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei.

But with architecturally beautiful buildings in remote provincial outskirts containing few – if any – significant artworks, questions are being raised about the breadth of content and curatorial guidance that many of these museums have access to, as well as the motivations behind their construction.

“In many cases architecture comes first and art comes second,” says Jeffrey Johnson, architect and director of Columbia University’s China Megacities Lab.

READ: Inside China’s largest contemporary art collection

Cultural catch-up

The number of museums being built in China by both the government and private individuals has exploded in in recent years, from 2,601 in 2009 to 4,164 in 2014, a 60% increase in just five years, according to the China Museums Association.

The growth in private museums has been even more rapid, increasing more than threefold over the same period to 864 in 2014.

China is, however, catching up from a very low base – just 25 museums existed when the Communist Party assumed power in 1949, many of which fell to ruin during the 10-year cultural revolution that began in 1966.

For comparison, the U.S. is home to more than 35,000 museums and related organizations, according to the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services.

And just as America’s so-called “robber barons” such as Frick, Carnegie and Rockerfeller – names now synonymous with art and culture – helped cement some of America’s great museums, China’s newly wealthy businessmen and women are leading their own cultural charge.

READ: China’s aggressive museum growth brings architectural wonders

“In a culture that has been suppressed for so long, when things start opening up,