Innovating overseas

July 18, 2018

David Bowie is… is about to execute its final pirouette. A zeitgeisty, shape-shifting, record-breaking exhibition phenomenon that began on 23 March 2013 in London will complete its global odyssey on 15 July 2018 in Brooklyn, New York – the place that David Bowie called home, and where he died in 2016. Having entranced an audience of two million across eleven countries and five continents across 1,913 days, what legacy does it leave for the V&A’s international programme and brand? This extraordinary blending of scenography and scholarship with innovative lighting technology and sound experience by Sennheiser to create a wholly immersive experience – a performance as much as an exhibition – has since inspired You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels, 1966–70, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains and many more. It has left an indelible imprint on the cultural landscape, as a piece of exhibition making and brand marketing, and has inspired a global audience. But that landscape has evolved in the intervening years, and so have we.

David Bowie is… has reached eleven countries and five continents. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

At around the time that David Bowie is… closed its doors at South Kensington, David Cameron piloted one of the largest ever UK delegations on a trade mission to China. A few days before he left, he visited the V&A’s Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700–1900, conducting his major interview with Chinese media in the gallery itself, before offering the V&A a seat on the plane as he left the building. Along with the National Theatre, the British Film Institute and the British Council, the V&A helped bring a dash of cultural impact to a hard political backdrop, signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the China Merchants Group in Beijing to be the Founding Partner of Design Society. When David Bowie is… was heading to its final stop in New York just four years later, the V&A Gallery at Design Society in Shenzhen was opening its Values of Design exhibition to an excited and curious new audience.

So, we have not been standing idle, but neither have our museum partners and competitors. The Serpentine and the Barbican are now open in Beijing; the Centre Pompidou in Malaga and Shanghai; and, in a particularly ambitious and uncompromising statement of intent, Jean Nouvel’s dreamy new Louvre Abu Dhabi was opened by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and Emmanuel Macron just a few weeks before Design Society. While we haven’t opened our own building in Shenzhen, we shipped a similar number of objects from the V&A’s collection to Shenzhen as travelled from Paris to Abu Dhabi – and added 45 more from the Pearl River Delta studios and factories. This is a scale of engagement of which we should be proud. Not that we would wish to rule out a more permanent and committed architectural presence in a strategically and historically important part of the world, but there is a flexibility, responsiveness, relevance, pace and tactical opportunism in the V&A’s approach that seems appropriate to the way the museum engages internationally.

Exterior of Design Society, Sea World Culture and Arts Center © Design Society

Alongside our grands projets, the activities of V&A internationally presented a rich and diverse picture. During the last financial year, V&A touring exhibitions were visited by nearly 700,000 people worldwide (a total of over four million in the last five years); 1,000 objects from the V&A collection were lent to 110 international venues; over 200 museum professionals from 70 countries have benefitted from courses at the V&A Academy – from Curating Fashion to the Enterprising Museum – including 19 delegates from Nanjing Museums alone; over 60,000 copies of V&A books were sold to international audiences last year, in seven languages; and 1,200 new licensing agreements are now in place for products in 72 countries. These statistics are impressive, even before we count the number of academic and other conferences attended, articles written, papers delivered, delegations received and advice given.

At first glance, the V&A’s broad presence on the international stage might not appear to have the discipline that is typical of its other operations. But the V&A is at its best when it is innovating and experimenting, and where it leaves itself space to do so by not locking itself into the responsibilities of bricks and mortar and long-term contracts.

Not many cultural institutions, for example, would (or perhaps even could) credibly consider a partnership with Swire Properties to tour an exhibition about shoes to the newly opened HKRI Taikoo Hui fashion and lifestyle complex in Shanghai – a joint venture between HKR International and Swire Properties – and then to Sino-Ocean Taikoo Li in Chengdu, TaiKoo Hui in Guangzhou and Taikoo Li Sanlitun in Beijing, before finally finishing its tour at Pacific Place in Hong Kong. The standing of our fashion collections, the vibrant nature of our exhibition-making, the quasi-commercial founding mission of our institution, our support for the creative industries globally and – maybe most important of all – our eye for the different and entrepreneurial in our choice of partners, all make this possible. Being prepared to take our collections and ideas to new and surprising places, connecting with audiences that we may not otherwise engage, is part of what makes our international work distinctive.

If what marks this aspect of our work out is commercial in nature, leveraging the power and quality of a cultural brand carefully nurtured over 166 years of collecting, research and innovation, then it is more than matched by the innovative nature of our cultural collaborations. The V&A’s unique status as a museum engaged in a series of special projects with the Venice Biennale has seen us curating applied arts pavilions in 2016 – with A World of Fragile Parts supported by Volkswagen Group – and in 2018 – with A Ruin in Reverse. The meeting of two long-standing cultural institutions has afforded us the platform to explore the threat posed to cultural heritage in conflict zones across the world, to look at modern methods of copying to preserve, record and to reconstruct, and to revisit the charter on copies to reflect the 21st-century landscape through ReACH ­– all evidence of a museum combining historicism with modernity to constantly reinvent its contemporary purpose.

Second, V&A Dundee will open in September, with the V&A one of five founding partners in establishing a new design museum to chronicle the impact of Scottish designers on the world. Along with Dundee City Council, the universities of Dundee and Abertay and Scottish Enterprise, the V&A brand, collections and curatorial know-how is made concrete by Kengo Kuma’s breathtaking new centrepiece of Dundee’s regeneration ambitions. Operated by Design Dundee Limited, an innovative new vehicle to partner that with Design Society, exhibitions from the V&A will sit alongside the new Scottish Design Galleries, with the painstakingly and beautifully restored Mackintosh Oak Room at its heart.

The V&A’s international work is as idiosyncratic as it is strategic, as innovative as it is traditional, and at the same time tactical and opportunistic. What marks us out is the diversity of our global network, and our ability to be innovative and to take risks in identifying new types of partnership which allow us to promote our ideas, our collections and our brand to existing and new audiences. Now is not the time to pause for breath: David Bowie is… will not be the high-water mark of the V&A’s ability to create exhibition experiences that have not been seen in museums before, and with the partnerships we have cultivated – from Shenzhen to Venice to Dundee to Washington – the real journey has just begun.

Exterior of Design Society, Sea World Culture and Arts Center © Design Society

You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels, 1966–70, in partnership with Levi’s®, sound experience by Sennheiser, with additional support from GRoW @ Annenberg, Fenwick and Sasson; Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, in partnership with Swarovski, supported by American Express, with thanks to M•A•C Cosmetics, technology partner Samsung; The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains, presented by Pink Floyd, the V&A and Iconic Entertainment Studios, sound experience by Sennheiser


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