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Censorship and the Pritzker Gift: Hu Jintao in Chicago

Rachel Hewitt

Ai Weiwei, "Map of China," Tieli wood from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty

Ai Weiwei, "Map of China," Tieli wood from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty

Chinese president, Hu Jintao’s recent state visit to Chicago certainly did not go unnoticed, as Chicago was the only U.S. city outside Washington D.C. visited during the his stay. The Chinese leader’s visit apparently also caught the attention of Margot and Tom Pritzker, who are among America’s wealthiest, and whose foundation, The Margot and Tom Pritzker Family Foundation recently bestowed a large monetary gift upon the School of the Art Institute.

At a January 20th dinner to welcome Hu Jintao, The School of the Art Institute, along with the cooperation of Mayor Richard Daley, announced the gift of $1 million from the Margot and Tom Pritzker Family Foundation in honor of the Chinese leader’s visit and as a gesture of friendship on behalf of the City of Chicago. The funds would be allocated toward scholarships for SAIC students who are interested in the advancement of art and design in China and have intent to work in China in an art/design capacity after graduation. The gift would also allow the school, which takes pride in a large international population, to further recruitment activities of Chinese art and design students.

As they saying goes, “never look a gift horse in the mouth,” but in this case, we are going to do just that.

Chinese President, Hu Jintao

Chinese President, Hu Jintao

Who exactly is this gift to, and who exactly is it from? Let’s first take a look at the benefactor. If, as Tom Pritzker and Mayor Daley stated, this is a gift of friendship on behalf of the City of Chicago, are the Pritzkers, who are among the United States’ richest families, really the appropriate ambassadors of the people? Firstly, in a city with massive financial issues, and with Illinois’ over 9% unemployment rate, the people of Chicago, many of whom fall below the poverty line, might not agree. In addition to being a Chairman of the Art Institute of Chicago, Tom Pritzker is Executive Chairman of the Board of Hyatt Hotels Corporation which has been involved in labor disputes, and has been accused of using the poor economy as a way to slash pay, cut benefits, and refuse to negotiate union contracts, despite reports of over $1.6 billion in cash and short term investments available, as of June, 2010. While labor disputes may not seem relevant to art school scholarship funding, it applies when a monetary donation from wealthy private citizens, particularly ones who come across as anti-labor, comes into play as a gift of friendship toward a communist nation, whose government is theoretically based on the revolution of the working class.

The Pritzkers

The Pritzkers

Also worthy of investigation is the true recipient of this gift. Though SAIC stated in a January 21st press release that they are “pleased to announce a $1 million gift to the school,” it is hard to tell if the money, also called a gesture of friendship toward China, is actually a gift to China itself, and to be used primarily to recruit Chinese students who will then return to China. Clearly the SAIC community and the Chicago art community will benefit from an internationally diverse student body, and the scholarship does take student financial need into account, but with the post-graduation stipulations, this money appears to be more than just about assisting students in getting a high quality education and promoting an increase in international diversity.

Additionally, we should look at the state of contemporary art in China, in which scholarship recipients are expected to “set up shop” upon graduation. Specifically in question is the destruction of the studio of Ai Weiwei who is one of China’s most famous and most controversial artists, and was educated in the United States before returning to China in 1993. In 2008, a government official in Shanghai, assuring Ai that the project was legal and legitimate, invited the artist to build a studio on an area of grape farmland, just outside the city. After expending 2 years of effort and approximately 1 million dollars, the same official served Ai with papers stating that the land use was illegal and that the studio was to be torn down. With no proof of changes in regulations of the land’s use, the artist believes that the demolition is retribution for his political activity, which has rubbed officials the wrong way, specifically municipal authorities in Shanghai. The studio was torn down on January 11, 2011, earlier than planned. Ai believes this was done in order to keep media attention at a minimum. Presumably, Hu Jintao is aware of this, but are SAIC or the Pritzkers? A spokesperson for SAIC stated that the school is indeed aware of this situation, and troubled by this and “by the ongoing persecution of artists in China.” The school states, “China has made considerable progress in terms of its acceptance of contemporary artistic practice, but we know there is still much work to be done. It’s more important now than ever before that artists interact on a global level, with knowledge of the issues that affect artistic practice internationally. To bring Chinese students to SAIC will heighten our understanding of their culture and the particular challenges they face, and for them to return to China with a broader, more globally focused education in art and design will enhance the progress that country is already making. For these reasons, it’s incredibly important that we open our doors to Chinese students and build a strong relationship with them based on a mutual interest in advancing contemporary artistic practice on a global scale.” The school’s intent to create an open dialogue through this opportunity is commendable, but there is still a great deal of uncertainty in how these students would fare upon return to China in regards to censorship.

In the aforementioned press release it is noted that the Pritzkers are “avid supporters of SAIC and have a keen interest in the preservation and advancement of arts and culture in China, interests that combined to inspire this generous gesture” which is fine, and in theory it is their money to spend, however there is little mention of the benefit to students themselves in either this statement or in the rest of the press release for that matter, shy of one statement by Pritzker that he and his wife are “very happy to be able to extend this opportunity to the next generation of artists and designers in China.” In an economy where jobs are few, and the cost of higher education is rising, the “strings attached” nature of this gift makes it seem more about fulfilling other interests than about giving educational opportunities to students, and using student artists as the middlemen to do so.

You can read more about Ai Weiwei and the studio’s demolition here and here.