Artists teach us how to look at the world differently: Interview with Ms. Meg Maggio

TEXT:CAFA ART INFO    TIME: 2020.3.13

Ms. Meg Maggio (the second from the right) talked with visitors at Pékin Fine Arts.jpgMs. Meg Maggio (the second from the right) talked with visitors at Pékin Fine Arts

From an economic lawyer to an artistic director, from “Courtyard Gallery” to “Pékin Fine Arts”, Meg Maggio, an American who loves Chinese art, is a legendary presence across all galleries in China. She is a pioneer and also a promoter; she is an observer and a narrator. Meg Maggio, who is frank and vigorous, is among the first group of art investors who introduced and promoted contemporary Chinese art to the world, and she is also an art director who personally curated various exhibitions by international artists at Pékin Fine Arts galleries in Beijing and Hong Kong. In 2020, the sudden outbreak and spread of the new coronavirus pneumonia epidemic in China has disrupted the arrangements of almost all artistic activities from the Chinese New year. As the leader of Pékin Fine Arts, Ms. Meg Maggio recently announced that Pékin Fine Arts tried to open its galleries in Beijing and Hong Kong “as usual”. On this occasion, CAFA ART INFO conducted an exclusive interview with Meg Maggio, hopefully her extraordinary experience and insight can bring more inspiration to the majority of art practitioners.

Interviewee: Ms. Meg Maggio   |   Interviewer: Sue Wang  

Interview Date: March 6, 2020

CAFA ART INFO: As one of the earliest group of foreigners who are active in the field of contemporary Chinese art, you have co-founded the Courtyard Gallery in Beijing in 1997 and currently you have managed the Pékin Fine Arts in Beijing and Hong Kong. As an observer, what do you think of the development of contemporary Chinese art over the past two decades?

Ms. Meg Maggio: The Chinese contemporary art scene cannot be viewed as one monolithic nor homogenous phenomenon. I can only comment on what I have observed since the late 1980’s in and around Beijing, and to a less extent, in Hong Kong.  The regional and local culture, dialect, and art traditions possess unique local identity; and, I don’t pretend to be a “China expert” nor an “art expert”. Rather, I know what I like, I know who I can trust and respect, and I follow my own inclinations, intellectual curiosity, aesthetic preferences, and life experience. Since moving to Beijing in 1986, I have now spent over ½ my life in China.  I’ve learned over the years to be more observant, more respectful and more open-minded!

Rapid growth in the Chinese contemporary art scene is both good and bad, as we all know. Unrealistic expectations were built during what I refer to as the “boom-boom” years, when big money was made too easily in the Chinese art market.  Later, the art market was flooded by lesser quality art products and the entire Chinese art world suffered not only from globalization’s impact but also from the flooding of the Chinese art market with below quality, overly commercial art works.

Now, when the art market is down, we can see who is truly committed to “Art for Art’s Sake”, not the over production of art products for commercial gain!

Ms. Meg Maggio talked with artists at Pékin Fine Arts.jpgMs. Meg Maggio talked with artists at Pékin Fine Arts

CAFA ART INFO: Pékin Fine Arts has always insisted on exhibiting and managing experimental artworks, including paintings, photography, installations, and new media art, etc., what do you think the experimental spirit means for gallery operations?

Ms. Meg Maggio: Every gallery follows its own subjective vision, and works with artists who share a similar vision. For me, the most important is the person, the artist him or herself. Of course, I only work with artists who I want to commit to spending time with!  All artists we work with teach me many things, open my eyes, my heart, and my brain to new ways of thinking.  Artists teach us how to look at the world differently. By definition, the best artists are indeed “experimental”. I work with the person, not the objects.  We follow the artist, across a wide variety of mediums, and new work.  If you trust the artist, you will trust his/her choices and follow!

CAFA ART INFO: From Beijing to Hong Kong, has the positioning and strategy of Pékin Fine Arts changed? How do you evaluate the ecological environment of art in Beijing and Hong Kong? In your opinion, what are the advantages and disadvantages of them?

Ms. Meg Maggio: Beijing and Hong Kong are very different. The two Pékin Fine Arts gallery offices complement each other. The two offices service two very different art markets and art communities. In Hong Kong, I am on the Board of Directors of the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association, as the International Liaison.  I am constantly reminding Hong Kong galleries (many are newly formed, and are at least a decade behind Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing, Hangzhou’s more mature contemporary art scenes), to reach out and engage with the rest of China and Asia, beyond the narrow confines of Hong Kong’s territory. Hong Kong is interesting because on the surface it appears very sophisticated as an art trading hub. But this is not true of its art community, which is new and just starting out and not so familiar with nurturing its artists. Hong Kong is a business center, and we are trying to make it into an arts center! It’s going to take some time!  Hong Kong’s history is far stronger in collecting antiques. For this reason, contemporary artworks that speak to the traditional arts are more popular here. Up until the 1990’s there was very little in contemporary art in Hong Kong, only ink paintings and antiques, little to no oil paintings!

CAFA ART INFO: Pékin Fine Arts has extensive cooperative relationships with contemporary Chinese female artists. As a gallery director, you are one of the most influential women in the contemporary art circles in Beijing. What do you think of the developments and influence of contemporary Chinese female artists?

Ms. Meg Maggio: As a woman, I think it is only natural that I sympathize with women artists, curators, arts writers, etc.  I am especially impressed by truly independent women, with strong personalities and large ambitions, and lots of personal integrity!   As women art workers , we should share the same values: Not to be too self-absorbed, nor too selfish, nor too vain, nor too materialistic, and to be dedicated to a life of learning.  We try to move in this direction on a daily basis. Female art workers need our support and our respect. I am proud to be in a profession where there are so many female gallerists, artists, arts writers and curators and also very important: There are many female art collectors!

Wang Jianuo Solo Exhibit is currently on display at Pékin Fine Arts in Beijing.jpg

Wang Jianuo Solo Exhibit is currently on display at Pékin Fine Arts in Beijing

CAFA ART INFO: Since the Spring Festival of 2020, all indoor and outdoor art activities and exhibitions have been cancelled or suspended due to the impact of the new coronavirus pneumonia throughout China even parts of Asia, where were you when this epidemic occurred? How does it affect you and Pékin Fine Arts? What is your status and that of art practitioners around you and what do you think of the possible ups and downs of the Chinese art market in the remaining months of 2020?

Ms. Meg Maggio: I was in Beijing, before the virus started. Every year, I prefer to be in Beijing for Chinese New Year. This year is my YEAR OF THE RAT. So I was already very apprehensive! We went first to see Taipei Dangdai fair around 17 Jan. We returned Beijing a few days later and there were rumors. I think the Wuhan virus became official around the 22 Jan? After the sad news of Wuhan, we stayed and spent New Year’s Eve watching the New Year TV show, eating hot pot and of course jiaozi, with artist Tong Zhengang and his daughter who works at Poly Auction.  We were the only friends brave or foolish enough to go outside and to his house! Every year, on the first days of New Year, I move to Hong Kong and work from our Hong Kong gallery office, where weather is warmer!  This year, we arrived Hong Kong 1st Feb, and did self-quarantine at a cheap hotel for 14 days. Now, we are trying to do “business as usual” in both Hong Kong and Beijing. But it is very difficult.  People are not in the right mood to look at art, nor to buy art. Originally, I was supposed to fly to Seattle from Hong Kong for the opening celebrations of the new expanded wing of the Asian Art Museum at the Seattle Art Museum. I had to cancel my trip because no one wanted to see me coming from China/Hong Kong! I hope to go to Seattle later this spring. And I hope to return to Beijing as soon as possible. In the meantime, I am working remotely every day from my Hong Kong office with my Beijing team.

CAFA ART INFO: What issue in art are you most concerned with? What are your plans after the epidemic ends?

Ms. Meg Maggio: Of course, I am not happy about the US – China relations. I think it is bad for both countries and certainly bad for US-China small business owners like myself! I hope these relations improve rapidly and both sides recognize their mutual interdependence and return to friendlier times.  Both sides lowering and raising tariffs on goods in and out of China is not the answer.  Small business owners will be hurt. I am also concerned about inflation and the rising costs of doing business in China. I want China to succeed in elevating the economic well - being of all its citizens and residents. But not if everyone has to work over-time and multiple jobs to pay the high cost of living in urban areas! We are a global company and we also do business outside the USA, in Europe, Asia, and South America.  The world is big and there are many opportunities to meet art lovers everywhere!  We cannot be wholly dependent on the trade and investment negotiations between China and USA!

The virus is a real worry, especially because it feeds peoples’ prejudices and racism.  The virus is a human problem and knows no national nor racial boundaries.  This is a good opportunity for us all to focus on humanitarianism and community efforts. Put aside nationalism, ego, and self-interest.  We are all citizens of this planet, with its disease, climate change and waste destroying nature. We are all affected. This is not Wuhan’s problem, it is the world’s problem.

CAFA ART INFO:  What role do you think art can play when we are confronted with diseases and disasters? Or what revelation do you think art can make? 

Ms. Meg Maggio: Art speaks to humanity and the best artists are the least nationalistic, the least narcissistic, the most unselfishly natural.  The best artists make artworks that will move the viewer not only artistically, but also emotionally and intellectually. I always tell visitors, when I am asked my opinion, “I really don’t care if you like this artwork or not. I care that you remember it. The artwork should leave you with a lasting and deep impression. The world is full of pretty pictures, ha ha ha. We all suffer from too much time surfing the web, online, on We Chat. Too much visual stimulation. But what do we remember? What leaves a lasting and profound memory? That is the best artwork.”

CAFA ART INFO: You once commented that, “the art market in Mainland China currently lacks the participation of museum system.” Do you think this situation has changed? In the past decade, foreign-funded galleries in China have not changed significantly and some local galleries have to face operational difficulties. Do you think the problems that private art museums and galleries are confronted with have improved? Are there ways out and are prospects clear enough?

Ms. Meg Maggio: The art market in Mainland China is changing rapidly, particularly as a result of the exponential growth in new museums. I am always happy to hear of the opening of a new museum in Beijing and all over China. These are exciting times, museum openings are important developments for the Chinese art scene; and are creating a whole new world of art projects and art exhibition opportunities for artists. I am impressed, not only by the opening of large bricks and mortar buildings, but also by the opening of new alternative art spaces around China. I was just in Ningxia visiting the Yinchuan Modern Art Museum, where artist Zhang Xiaotao, (who we have worked with for many years), had a solo exhibition curated by Lu Peng. I was deeply impressed by the beauty of the museum and its professionalism.  The simultaneous growth of museums and art spaces in both the private sector and also in state institutions is an extraordinary development in China, (I am particularly fond of Qinghua University Art Museum and CAFA Museum as models for excellent state-run university art museums in Beijing and I hope Peking University will also build an art museum one day soon). This museum growth has a particular resonance in China’s art scene, encouraging artists, art lovers, and artworkers alike. This simultaneous, two-track growth in state and private museum construction is exciting. And is one more indicator that China is truly committed to improving the quality of people’s day-to-day lives. 

Poster of Zhang Xiaotao Microscopic Event by Pékin Fine Arts.jpg

Poster of Zhang Xiaotao: Microscopic Event by Pékin Fine Arts

CAFA ART INFO: Every year, on the occasion of CAFA Graduation Exhibition, you would visit the exhibitions at CAFA and get involved in the community. Which category of work are you most concerned with? Would you like to talk about any impressive experiences in CAFA? What are you most looking forward to?

Ms. Meg Maggio: I always enjoy the graduation exhibitions,  as they are different from year-to-year.  And these graduation exhibitions of each of CAFA’s departments and schools are always full of surprises. I like the way the graduation exhibitions have expanded across the CAFA campus with even large temporary structures being built to house ever – expanding graduation shows.

I am also happy to see Zhang Zikang join the CAFA Museum as the new leader. I hope he will bring his book publishing enthusiasm to the museum and I hope he will open a large museum bookstore very soon. I have already told him this!  I was very impressed by the program of 100 years anniversary of the celebration of the establishment of CAFA. I especially liked the exhibition of all the Chinese art students who went to France to study.  That was a great exhibition, and I look forward to seeing the exhibition catalogue when it is published.  There is a great talent pool at CAFA, Pan Gongkai, Xu Bing, and Wang Huaxiang did great jobs, and Fan Di An clearly believes in the importance of the museum world.  It is always important to make the right balance between locally curated exhibitions and exhibitions temporarily imported from abroad. Personally, I am more interested in the locally curated exhibitions, such as Beijing Biennale, and China historic exhibitions!  Sometimes, smaller scale exhibitions can also be great. Bigger is not always better! Sometimes “less can be more”. 

Text edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

Photo Courtesy of Ms. Meg Maggio and Pékin Fine Arts.