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Show-stopping private museums in China

(Sifang Art Museum)

(Sifang Art Museum)

A new wave of galleries is sweeping across China to hold vast collections of art. What’s behind this trend? Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore reports.

“Do you remember your great grandfather’s name? I don’t. Ninety-nine percent say they can’t remember their great grandfather’s name. I want my generation to remember me,” says Budi Tek. Tek is a Chinese-Indonesian agricultural magnate and art collector who this January will open his own private contemporary art museum, named the Yuz, in an abandoned aircraft hangar in Shanghai. Like many of a new rash of wealthy benefactors in China he is inspired by both a desire to give back to society and to see his name enshrined in history.

Across the country hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on show-stopping private museums designed to house vast collections of art and artifacts. They include the 10,000 sq m Long Museum in Shanghai, founded in 2012 by Wang Wei and her billionaire investor husband Liu Yiqian (they have plans to launch a second in Shanghai) and the soon to be opened Yellow River Arts Center in Ningxia province which is being funded by the industrialist Liu Wenjin. Driving the building frenzy are ambition, ego, and a desire from the newly rich to generate not just cash for their own pockets but a cultural legacy to leave behind.

The Sifang Art Museum is located on the outskirts of the historic Chinese city of Nanjing, an hour’s train ride from Shanghai. The translucent white box, designed by the New York architect Steven Holl, rests on giant columns 30ft above ground. At night, when it glows in the dark, the building seems to float in the air. But on this crisp autumnal day it is the view from the museum that commands attention. This includes glimpses of avant-garde holiday villas that have been designed to push the limits of architecture.

Over the last decade the Chinese real estate developer Lu Jun has spent more than $160m on erecting this major new complex. The museum, which opened this month, is part of a larger project that includes a conference centre, a hotel, and a number of boutique luxury rental villas that have been designed by some of the world’s leading international architects, including the Pritzker Prize-winner Wang Shu. (As well as some non-architects: one was drawn up by the artist Ai Weiwei).

“Here artwork is something that welcomes you to walk through it, to walk on top of it, to experience it,” says Lu Jun’s son Lu Xun, an idealistic 30-year-old who works with his father on the project. “That includes all the architecture. In an architecture exhibition you see models and manuscripts – but this is actually being built. You can go inside and experience the space, the sensory properties of the materials, of light, of different perceptions. It welcomes people to come and be inspired.”

East meets West

Across the world the self-worth of businessmen has long been tied to the creation of art museums. The move in China from merely collecting art for personal use to exhibiting it for public consumption has echoes of previous centuries in America and Europe when tycoons founded museums that are now iconic such as the Tate, Rockefeller and Guggenheim. In China it is being spurred on by an explosive art market: last year auction revenues reached $8.9bn (compared to $8.1bn in the United States). Growing interest in philanthropy, a relatively new concept, has also played a role. “The first motivation for [patrons] is to collect works for investment purposes, maybe to diversify their investment portfolios. Eventually they will fall in love with their collections, they will consider these as artworks for the generations to come. Eventually some will have social responsibilities,” reasons Tek.

There is another, larger, work at force. China has military and economic might, but, Tek says, it lacks “soft power to conquer and make friends all over the world.”  He views museums as an integral part of the country’s cultural potency. “You do get people who would like to see China return to a cultural greatness,” adds Karen Smith, director of OCAT Xian, the first major contemporary art museum in the Western city of Xian, which opened this month.  

Smith cites China’s bid to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001 as a turning point for private museums: one by-product of membership was the development of more cultural institutions. "There has been an impetus ever since to get the government to open up and to allow these private institutions to exist. It is hard to imagine that people would do them before – if you are going to invest so much money in a building, in a collection, you have to know it is going to be there in five or twenty years time,” she says.

Generation game

As such the first spate of private museums opened in the early 2000s. But many failed when their founders’ commitment floundered or when they faced the reality of the large day-to-day operational costs of running a museum. Now China is seeing a second wave of more sophisticated institutions being built by those who have learnt lessons from the first generation. Instead of throwing cash at an initial big opening they are focusing on long-term sustainability, from adequate staffing to realistic budgets. Lu Xun says he hopes that the complex will be able to support itself within the next three to five years, with the hotel and villas paying for the museum. Still, he is aware of pitfalls. “I am under a lot of pressure for the next phase, which is how to operate it,” says Lu. “It is even more difficult than constructing the hardware.”

Critics point to myriad more challenges. Private museums are often accused of being mere vanity projects without the intellectual clout and coherent vision needed to create truly world-class institutions. Many, including Sifang, are opened as part of larger commercial property developments: sceptics say they are designed to both boost the land value and to inject a superficial gloss of culture. Forgeries are another problem in China: in July, the Jibaozhai Museum in Jizhou was shut when most of its collection of 40,000 antiques were declared  fakes by authorities.

Yet when done well private museums can flourish. The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) was founded in Beijing in 2007 by collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens de Schooten. It is today one of the most prestigious in the capital. Director Philip Tinari believes that UCCA, and other successful private museums, fill a role like that of the public institutions celebrated in the West. Chinese state museums have to promote certain ideological ideas that conform to the views of the Chinese Communist Party. But private museums can respond directly to their audience. “In China the state museum system is notoriously hierarchical and a bit staid,” explains Tinari. “There is less room as an institution to set a vision and pursue it. But in private institutions there are ways to get around entrenched bureaucratic systems. We are able to do things in a very focused, and hopefully polished and refined, kind of way.”  

Above all private museums in China add a welcome diversity of voices and visions to the country’s cultural makeup. For Lu Xun the Sifang Art Museum will provide the public with a much needed “alternative for shopping malls”. He only hopes that people will come for the art rather than out of curiosity about the museum’s wealthy founders.

“I want people to be more concerned about architecture and art,” says Lu passionately, gesturing towards the buildings around him. “A lot of people come here and want to know who is behind this, what this private museum is about, what the purpose behind it is. But it is really a simple idea of sharing what you love.”

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