In May 2010, OV Gallery in Shanghai was closed by the Shanghai authorities for 28 days. The closure of OV Gallery raises several questions about the regulations governing various art industry activities, as well as questions about the procedures followed (or not) by the government authorities when interpreting and implementing such regulations.
It is generally assumed by the management of OV Gallery as well as most observers that the main, if not the only, reason for the closure was the exhibition, entitled “Re-Visioning History,” at the gallery. Included in that exhibition were works by the well-established artist Zhang Dali. Zhang’s artworks, part of his larger project “A Second History,” document alterations by the government of official photographs for (presumably) political purposes. Prior to its inclusion in the Re-Visioning History show at OV, all or portions of the Second History project had been exhibited both within and outside of China, including solo shows at the Walsh Gallery, Chicago (2006), the Kiang Gallery, Atlanta (2006), SZ Art Center, Beijing (2009-2010), and the Guangdong Museum of Art (2010). Zhang’s Second History works were also included in a group show entitled “China’s Soul” at Galerie Magda Danysz in Paris (2010).
The opening of the exhibition at OV Gallery took place on Saturday, May 22. On the following Monday, policemen from the Luwan District Police (which is under the jurisdiction of the Shanghai municipal police) came to the gallery and informed members of the gallery staff that the lease on the gallery’s premises had expired, and that, because the premises were owned by the Public Security Bureau, OV would have to vacate the space.
The following day, on Tuesday, representatives from the Luwan District Police again came to the gallery, this time confiscating one copy of a catalogue from an exhibition entitled “Past/Forward” that had been held at OV Gallery in the spring of 2007, which exhibition had also been closed down by the authorities soon after it opened. (In the case of Past/Forward, it is generally believed that the impetus for the closure was the inclusion of a painting by Sheng Qi, depicting an image of Tiananmen Square and a tank, rather than Zhang Dali’s work, which also was shown in that exhibition.)
Later on the same Tuesday, representatives from the Xuhui District Culture Market Comprehensive Law Enforcement Agency (上海市徐汇区文化市场行政执法大队) (the “Enforcement Agency”), a division under the jurisdiction of the Shanghai Culture Market Comprehensive Law Enforcement Agency of the Shanghai Municipal Government, came to OV and confiscated copies of a catalogue from a show of Zhang Dali’s work that had been held at the Walsh Gallery in Chicago in 2006, along with five copies of the Past/Forward exhibition catalogue and one copy of a catalogue from an OV Gallery 2010 show entitled “Make-Over.” At this time, OV was provided with a receipt for the confiscated books. The Enforcement Agency representatives also photographed the catalogues in situ, presumably because the catalogues constituted a central element in the local authorities’ allegations against OV, as well as a basis for the actions taken. In addition, the C Enforcement Agency representatives removed and took away one artwork, a single digital print from a video work by the American artist Ben Houge, who was also featured in the Re-Visioning History show.
OV Gallery, which is owned by a PRC citizen and the manager of which is European, rents its premises from a local Shanghai art gallery. The Enforcement Agency informed an assistant at OV Gallery that the gallery would have to close and for the time being would not be permitted to re-open. Subsequent communication from the government authorities concerning the closure and possible re-opening of OV was conducted through the Shanghai landlord. As to what steps OV could or should take to expedite the re-opening of the gallery, the instructions conveyed from the Cultural Bureau through the landlord were that the gallery could re-open when “the situation was resolved.” In practical terms, OV Gallery was unable to do more than wait to see what further instructions would be issued by the Cultural Bureau, which OV personnel assumed would be orders specifying which works would have to be removed from exhibition. Also presumably, such instructions would be given through the landlord.
After having been closed for 28 days, OV Gallery was permitted to re-open on June 22. The procedure resulting in the re-opening was entailed the landlord paying a visit to the Enforcement Agency and picking up the Houge artwork. After the visit, the landlord informed the manager of OV Gallery that the gallery could re-open. According to the landlord, the authorities had instructed her to “keep a better eye on” OV Gallery.
OV Gallery has not, to date, received any formal (written, chopped) notification from the Luwan Police Department, the Shanghai Municipal Cultural Bureau or the Enforcement Agency of any violation by the Gallery of any specific law or regulation. Other than the receipt issued by the Enforcement Agency for the catalogues, no formal papers were delivered to or served on OV, and, from OV’s point of view, no formal procedures were imposed or instigated. In particular, the Gallery was not apprised of (a) the nature of the violation that resulted in the Gallery closure; (b) what steps or measures had to be taken to remedy the violation; or (c) any applicable time frames for remedy or end of any closure period.
Under PRC law and regulations, it appears that there are three potential legal bases for the local government’s actions. Whether the regulatory bases cited also provide a legal basis for the actual penalty or penalties (closure and confiscation of artworks and catalogues) imposed on OV Gallery is another question.
• Exhibiting artwork created by a foreign artist without approval to do so. Article 9 of the 2004 Measures for Administration of Artwork Business (美术品经营管理办法) (the “2004 Measures”) forbids the commercial exhibition of artwork by non-PRC citizens without a prior, formal approval from the relevant Cultural Bureau. The penalty (set forth in Article 16) for non-compliance is “remedy of the situation” and a fine between RMB5,000 and RMB30,000.
• Sales of books without a license (or without the requisite scope of business set forth in the business license of the gallery) to do so. Under Articles 24 and 34 of the Provisions for the Administration of the Publications Market (出版物市场管理规定), the sale and import of overseas publications can only be conducted by entities which have been approved to import publications. Violations are punishable by penalties including confiscation of the publications and a fine between RMB3,000 and RMB30,000.
• Exhibition of artwork which contains “illegal” content. Article 12 of the 2004 Measures forbids this, in a list of 10 prohibited types of content, but notwithstanding the breadth and vagueness of the regulatory language, it is hard to see how Zhang Dali’s work would fall into any of the 10 categories, and the same holds true for the other artwork in the Re-Visioning History show. Significantly, the local Shanghai authorities have made no gesture in the direction of alleging any violation of this highly sensitive Article 12 by OV Gallery or any artist, leading to the conclusion that no such violation formed the basis of the government’s actions against the gallery.
It should be noted that, under Article 20 of the 2004 Measures, the Cultural Bureau, Enforcement Agency or other local authority was required to issue a written order of penalty when it ordered OV Gallery not to re-open the gallery. The authorities gave only a verbal order, and thus themselves were not in compliance with the requirements of the 2004 Measures.
As mentioned above, OV Gallery re-opened on June 22, after having been closed for 28 days. All of the original works in the show were on display, including the confiscated piece by Ben Houge. OV Gallery threw a well-attended re-opening party, and subsequent attendance at the exhibition was good. Substantial media coverage of the closure (including an article in The Wall Street Journal and That’s Shanghai, as well as extensive blog discussion) may have enticed curious audiences to go to see a show containing "sensitive works," according to the show’s curator and OV Gallery’s owner. The director of OV Gallery plans on building better relationships with the local Cultural Bureau to help smooth things over for upcoming shows.
As to the confiscated catalogues, the gallery’s lack of import licenses and sales permits, even for the catalogues printed in China, mean that it is unlikely they will ever be returned. The local Cultural Bureau indicated that the confiscation of the catalogues was meant to be "taken as a lesson" by OV Gallery and to serve as a reminder to the gallery to follow proper procedures in the future.