The opening shot is enough to transport the viewer to Spain. The sound of a lilting Flamenco guitar forms the backdrop to an imagined conversation (in Spanish) between Pablo Picasso’s widow, Jacqueline Roque, and his longtime friend, Ramon Pichot, who are waiting for a special guest. Except, the scene isn’t Spain and the expected guest is not some esteemed European artist. This is Beijing and the visitor is the Chinese mega idol Cai Xukun.
The video, which places an elaborate Spanish tea set in the midst of a gallery, has been released by Vogue China in collaboration with UCCA Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) to celebrate and promote the capital’s hottest summer exhibition, Picasso – Birth of a Genius. It’s the latest example of Chinese museums staging top-level exhibitions of Western artists, with China’s largest-ever exhibition of the Spanish master receiving 150,000 visitors in the month of July alone. And what better way to bolster the exhibition’s already burgeoning popularity than by signing up a genuine phenom of China’s music scene to become UCCA’s goodwill ambassador.
Cai, whose every move in the world of song, dance, and rap is followed by millions, has a broad role with UCCA which includes recording the audio guide, promoting the exhibition, and acting in a philanthropic capacity. The move seems to be paying off. The sight of Cai strolling through UCCA’s galleries, dressed in an old-school cream linen jacket, was watched more than 100 million times within the first 24-hours. And while this level of hype is typical for Cai, a 21-year-old star with 26 million fans on Weibo, Vogue China’s video is steering more foot traffic toward the contemporary art museum located in 798, Beijing’s foremost art district.
The need for Chinese museums to employ a range of contemporary marketing ploys is imperative, as long-time museum director Philip Tinari notes, “we used to think more straightforwardly in terms of publicity and critical attention, but now so much of our outreach is centered on collaborations with new marketing channels, social media platforms, and opinion leaders.”
The video marks the second time in a matter of months that the UCCA has gained substantial online traction through the world of Chinese celebrity. In late June, Li Xian, a young actor made famous by his roles in romantic dramas, posted on his Weibo following a visit to the exhibition. The post which included nine photographs and the quote, “I became a painter and wound up as Picasso,” was liked 297,000 times.
But, as Tinari is keen to clarify, such celebrity involvements remain secondary to curatorial work that takes place within the museum that was founded in 2007. “We still believe in the primacy of the art experience inside our physical space,” says Tinari. “All of this digital promotion is still a means to bring people to see exhibitions they might not otherwise have interest in or access to, and hopefully to come away engaged and enriched.”
Additional reporting by Wenzhuo Wu
(Photo: Vogue China/WeChat Cai Xukun in UCCA)