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During Spring Festival 2011, the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) offered an irresistible promotion. The venerable museum charged no admission during the holiday for patrons to view an exhibition of five decades of acquisitions, which attracted more than 10,000 visitors daily. Covering 21 halls, the exhibition included more than 800 individual works contributed by 89 donors, spanning a wide range of genres including traditional Chinese paintings, oil paintings, prints, sculpture, sketches, cartoons, and folk art. The collection was comprehensive and mesmerizing, with pieces ranging from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) to today. As the first capsulated representation of NAMOC’s collection, the unprecedented exhibition displayed classics donated to the museum since 1961, when it first opened.
For public museums, donation from artists and their families remain one of the most crucial methods of acquisition. Since its founding, NAMOC has always attached great importance on strengthening its collection. In 1961, the museum formed a special acquisition team dedicated to collection and research. Their first group of acquisitions was primarily comprised of contemporary printmaking along with 18 traditional paintings from three renowned contemporary Chinese artists, namely Shi Lu, Lin Fengmian, and Fu Baosh, each contributing six pieces. Donations from the past half century number greater than 10,000, but those displayed in this exhibition accounted for less than 10 percent of the total collection.
One singular characteristic of the exhibition was its highlight on donors. The opening ceremony lacked a podium, while Chinese Culture Minister Cai Wu sat with donors and their families. Instead of a fancy ribbon-cutting ceremony, the minister and Zou Peizhu, widow of venerable painter Li Keran, lifted the curtain for the exhibition while expressing special gratitude to the donors.
Works were arranged according to the year they were donated to the museum. A brief introduction and portrait of its donor accompanied each piece, helping visitors better understand the person. While some works were donated by the artists themselves, others were willed to the museum upon the donor’s death, some came from generous collectors, and a few were acquired by researchers such as Deng Tuo and Wang Shucun.
Behind every piece is a touching story. In 1964, Deng Tuo, then editor-in-chief of People’s Daily, donated 145 ancient paintings from his personal collection to NAMOC, including Bamboo and Rocks, one of only two known existing pieces by Su Dongpo. The other surviving painting, Withered Tree and Queer Rock, is now housed in Japan. Su was a man of letters during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), and his paintings are priceless. But when a price must be estimated, appraisers valued Bamboo and Rocks at over a billion yuan. As the greatest treasure of the museum, the painting was never before exhibited to the public since it was acquired. So, this exhibition was particularly exciting for Deng’s family. Deng Xiaohong, his youngest daughter, admitted that all of her siblings snapped plenty of pictures of their father’s donations.”It was like being with my father again,” she remarked.