China’s Private Art Galleries

China's Private Art Galleries

This is a fascinating article that I found in “Asian Art Newspaper”

CHINA DAILY RECENTLY reported that 100 new museums open in China every year. Some are private, some are linked to upmarket shopping malls, and others are public institutions established by a government that seems suddenly to be aware of the cultural deprivation it has imposed on its citizens over recent decades. Since 1949, a lot of Chinese culture simply just disappeared.

Now suddenly Chinese contemporary art has become a hot commodity with records being broken at auction almost every week and official institutions running hard to catch up with collectors who are opening their own private museums and galleries.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Shanghai a city of 25 million people and one clearly making a play to become the cultural centre of China; in the previous 12 months alone Shanghai has seen the opening of China’s largest private contemporary art museum – The Long Museum – and two monolithic public art spaces, the Power Station of Contemporary Art and the New China Art Museum in the refurbished China Pavilion on the 2010 China Expo site.

The Power Station of Contemporary Art, on the banks of the Huangpu River, was converted over a frenetic nine months from the Nanshi Power Plant into mainland China’s first state-run contemporary art museum at a cost of US$64 million. It may not be the equivalent of London’s Tate Modern, yet, but its conceptual heart is beating confidently within its 41,200-square-meter space which itself is dwarfed by the 62,000 square meters of the colossal New China Art Museum.

Museums both private and public seem to be sprouting everywhere. But it is an activity that requires big bucks; the infrastructure is staggering, the ongoing costs breathtaking and the cost of the art beyond the reach of all but the über-rich.

Chinese property developer Dai Zhikang is currently putting the finishing touches to a huge US$480 million development in Shanghai’s rapidly expanding Pudong District. The Himalayas Centre designed by acclaimed Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, includes conference facilities, luxury hotel, restaurants and shopping spaces; located on the top floor of the development is Zhikang’s soon-to-be-opened vast curvilinear Shanghai Zendai Himalayas Art Museum in which he will show his own art collection.
Across Shanghai and located in the equivalent of London’s Bond Street, is billionaire Adrien Cheng’s newly opened K11 shopping mall. Known as the ‘Art Mall’, K11 specialises in high-end Western brands. Burberry and Valentino are already in place but the mall is so new that many of the shops are vacant. It still smells of fresh paint and plastic and the highly polished floors are as yet unscuffed. The basement is a dedicated low- ceilinged art gallery that will show work by the country’s leading artists. Last month’s inaugural Shanghai Surprise exhibition was a group show with work from several local art stars including, Yang Fudong, Qui Anxiong and Birdhead.

Close by in the famous Bund area of the city is billionaire Thomas Ou’s Rockbund Art museum housed in an exquisitely restored 1933 Art Deco building that was at one time home to the Royal Asiatic Society. Ou’s large contemporary art space which opened in 2010 has no permanent collection but hosts impressive contemporary shows by leading Chinese artists.

Wang Wei, wife of billionaire entrepreneur Lui Yiqian, has recently opened (December 2012) the largest contemporary art museum in China in Shanghai’s Pudong district. The 10,000-square-meter Long Museum was built to showcase her collection of contemporary and revolutionary Chinese art with the upper floor devoted to ancient Chinese art and antiques which are her husband’s preferences. Wei plans a second museum later this year, part of the West Bank Cultural Corridor in Xuhui District, and will show even more of her collection of contemporary Chinese art.

Not to be out done Budi Tek, an Indonesian-Chinese agribusiness billionaire and Shanghai resident, will also open his Yuz Museum Shanghai on the same Xuhui site to accommodate his personal collection of international and Chinese contemporary art.
Lorenz Helbling, who owns the commercial ShangArt Gallery, has lived in Shanghai since 1995 and has witnessed the growth of private museums in the city. ‘In 1995, no one came to Shanghai to look at art. Now Shanghai is a contemporary city, a city of today and people here are interested in contemporary art even though they are still trying to understand what it art is all about,’ he said dryly.

There are a million millionaires in China but it is only the billionaires – of which there are 122 according to Forbes Magazine – who can afford the private galleries and the art to put in them. Their wealth has grown in parallel with an economy that has embraced, ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics.’ These nouveaux riches are, a ‘fast-growing thicket of bamboo capitalism,’ as The Economist magazine labelled them, with a cashed-up status that has in effect, allowed them to corner the contemporary art market during a period when government cultural institutions seemed uninterested.

Some critics have labelled private museums as vanity projects and a flaunting of wealth. But Wei and Tek, both of whom spoke to Asian Art Newspaper last month in Shanghai, see such accusations as short-sighted. Their galleries are precisely planned philanthropic endeavours which come with clearly defined social responsibilities which include educational and lecture programmes.

Wang Wei’s Long Museum which opened last December in Pudong, cost of 271 million Yuan (US$43 million) to build and is bank-rolled by her billionaire industrialist husband, Liu Yiqian. The 10,000 square-meter space will cost 7 million Yuan annually to run Liu told CCTV recently. But the sobriquet of the Long Museum being China’s largest private museum will be short-lived. Later this year, Wang Wei will open her second even larger 16,000-square-meter, contemporary art space on an abandoned airfield that is being turned into the West Bank Cultural Corridor (WBCC) in Xuhiu District on the banks of the Huangpu River. The WBCC is being pioneered by local Party Secretary, Sun Jiwei and will comprise tourist attractions, restaurants, commercial space and parkland. DreamWorks Animation has already signed a multi-million dollar deal to build a movie studio and entertainment zone on the site.

Wang Wei’s museum will not be the only one on the site either. Tek is building his own privately financed Yuz Museum Shanghai there too. ‘Right next door to DreamWorks,’ Tek said. Tek’s 8,000-square-meter building designed by acclaimed Japanese architect, Sou Fujimoto is the first phase of a development that will eventually take in adjacent land and add a further 20,000 square meters of exhibition space. Wang Wei and her husband Liu Yiqian have been collecting Chinese art for over 20 years. Liu, who is 171 on Forbe’s Magazine China Rich List with an estimated fortune of US$790 million has a passion for ancient and antique Chinese art while Wang Wei has preferred to concentrate on Chinese contemporary and modern and in establishing a museum quality narrative collection of Revolutionary Chinese art that covers 1945 to 2009. Fifteen minutes spent inside the Long Museum is long enough to realise that no expense has been spared; from its soaring 14-meter ceiling of the Central Hall to the unpolished marble flagstones of the stair well to the fastidious nature of the displays, all speak of a high degree of finesse rarely seen in private or public galleries.

News China reported that Lui Yiqian and Wang Wei spent US$139 million on art in 2009 the same year Yiqian set an auction record for a piece of Chinese furniture when he paid US$11 million for an 18th-century Imperial Qianlong period zitan throne, which is now displayed on the third floor of the Long Museum alongside ancient scrolls and fine porcelain all of which are bathed in pools of soft light triggered by the movement of visitors through the gallery. Annual running costs of seven million Yuan have led commentators to question the sustainability of private museum. But Wang Wei dismisses concerns about sustainability and points out that the name, Long Museum, was chosen because its Chinese pictogram means long-lasting. ‘The Long Museum will last for one hundred years,’ she said.

Budi Tek, whose Shanghai Yuz Museum will be the second museum to carry this name, the first opened in Jakarta in 2008, while happy to stump up the cost of both the building and establishing the collection, remains all too aware that the museum’s long- term viability lies in making it sustainable. He, like Wang Wei, will charge a small entrance fee somewhere between 50 and 100 Yuan he says and which visitors will be able to redeem against other onsite purchases. He plans to generate income from other elements of the development. For example, there will be design and furniture stores, restaurants, book shops and residences onsite which will be available to the public when not being used by artists. But he insists everything will be art-related and all profits will be returned to the museum.

Tek believes there is now too much money chasing too few works of contemporary Chinese art leading to a dearth of affordable museum quality pieces coming on to the market. ‘In China the most important pieces of contemporary Chinese art are already held by us collectors. There are no major museum collections yet,’ he said. Which of course begs the question, what will the mega-public exhibition spaces such as the PSA put on their walls?

More recently, Tek’s collecting has turned away from Chinese contemporary to international installation artists such as Fred Sandback, Antony Gormley and Adel Abdessemed, works that require a lot of space. He is an intuitive and slightly impulsive buyer and while he is happy to defer exhibition decisions to a curator he insists the decision about what he buys is his alone. ‘No one advises me. I see something and I buy it. No one advised me when I bought Maurizio Cattelan’s olive tree. No one advised me when I bought Adel’s plane.’

For her part, Wang Wei is adamant that her collecting policy is driven by a desire to reclaim her culture. It is a philosophy she has pursued resolutely throughout her 20 years of collecting. She insists that Chinese art should remain firmly in Chinese hands and it is this philosophy that has driven her definitive collection of Revolutionary Art. And she does not share Tek’s concerns about the dearth of good contemporary art coming onto the market. For the Long Museum’s opening exhibition 15 leading Chinese contemporary artists including Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun and Zeng Fanzhi created work to hang in the Central Hall. When asked if she owned the 15 works, a spokeswoman for Wang smiled and said, ‘Not yet!’.

Many commentators who question the sustainability of the private museums are also sceptical as to whether they can successfully operate in a climate where the commercial, cultural and political so closely overlap.

The shifting line between what can and cannot be shown in China was highlighted in May this year when Chinese censors excised several Andy Warhol images of Chairman Mao from a touring exhibition 15 Minutes Eternal, of 300 Warhol pictures before it reached Shanghai’s PSA. The images had already been seen in Hong Kong, but were deemed to be irreverent and unsuitable for mainland consumption. The Mao pictures will be reinstated when the exhibition moves on to Tokyo. While the Chinese government is happy to pursue its ‘soft culture’ push overseas, it remains highly sensitive to images that could offend at home.

There are few images in Wang Wei’s collection of Revolutionary Art, with its litany of happy smiling peasant faces and images that extol Chairman Mao’s achievements over half a century of communist party control that would offend the Party hierarchy. Even so Wang Wei takes a cautious ‘softly, softly’ approach and sees her collection in broad terms as, ‘complementary to national collections which for historical reasons cannot present certain art,’ she said enigmatically. Shanghai citizens however are flocking to the new cultural icons throughout the city. Helbling says that since the first Shanghai Biennale in 1996 there has been a steady and growing interest in contemporary art and that now, the big problem for Chinese public galleries is ‘trying to sort out what type of contemporary art they will have’.

BY MICHAEL YOUNG

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