The New MOU: Hoping for the Best

By Cathy Barbash

Despite the continuing international outcry over the fate of the fat man and others, the Chinese government is plowing ahead with its efforts to promote and export what they it defines as Chinese culture. I’ve been invited to speak at the upcoming “International Conference on Promotion of Chinese Cultural Products,” a tag-team effort organized by the Ministry of Culture and its operating subsidiary, the China Arts and Entertainment Group. The week-long caravan will begin May 13 at the 7th China International Cultural Industries Fair in Shenzhen, then heads north via Luoyang to Beijing. They have asked me to speak about marketing Chinese performing arts through international trade fairs (what we would call booking conferences). It is a speech I’ve given many times before, and I’d initially felt skeptical about its likely impact.

With today’s news of Lincoln Center’s signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the Tianjin Innovative Finance Investment Company (TIFI) to provide a broad range of consulting services in connection with building a performing arts complex in Tianjin, I am somewhat more hopeful. The deal came about through classic China-side guanxi choreography (Lincoln Center’s chairman Katherine Farley, is a senior managing director of Tishman Speyer, which has an office in Tianjin), but has real promise. Though an MOU, as Ken Smith accurately describes in his article, may have a number of possible outcomes or non-outcomes, it appears that the Chinese beneficiaries of this engagement are more and more able to act on what they have learned.

Lincoln Center joins a list of other American cultural producer and venue-owner operators who have been active in China. The Kennedy Center has been teaching and hosting Chinese cultural officials since its 2005 Festival of China, and Michael Kaiser has spoken in China on several occasions. However, recent attempts on the part of Chinese cultural officials to create MOUs with the Kennedy Center appear to be sidetracked. (Though there will be a new smaller Festival of China presented there this coming fall.) More specialized American producing and consulting organizations have had greater success. Nederlander Worldwide has been consulting to Chinese developers and city governments for some years about developing Broadway-style theaters and content. AMS Planning and Research did a feasibility study for the Hong Kong-based Shui On Group for a new arts center in their Xintiandi development in Shanghai.

In recent years though, Lincoln Center has been building more China momentum, as they have become active in the training of Chinese culture workers on their home campuses. Last fall, the Ministry of Culture hosted Lincoln Center President Reynold Levy for a week of “getting to know you” activities and a major speech to Chinese cultural officials. (I heard it, it was terrific.) Thus this announcement feels like a logical next step. It is also a lesson in Chinese realpolitik. How many people remember the Lincoln Center Festival’s high profile battle with Chinese authorities over the Peony Pavilion production in 1998? All appears forgiven. What remains to be seen is how the MOU plays out, how the work evolves, and how really able or willing the Tianjin Innovative Finance Investment Company and local officials are to consider and implement Lincoln Center’s advice. I’m hoping for the best.

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