A Museum of One's Own

These are heady times for China’s art world. Like so many things in the country, the art market is evolving at a hectic pace, fast becoming an arena best approached with high ambition. A rising generation of wealthy Chinese collectors is looking at art as both a hot commodity and a genuine cultural and historical treasure.

To some extent, the surge in Chinese collecting is a direct reaction to the cultural repression of the Mao years, when art was officially disparaged as frivolous and employed chiefly in service of political propaganda. In step with the country’s steady economic and social development since then, artistic exploration and reappropriation has been, for some, a liberating process.

To sate a voracious appetite for their country’s treasures, newly rich entrepreneurs have been snapping up works of centuries-old craftsmanship and contemporary expression. And as they have amassed exhibition-worthy collections, they have developed a desire to share these with the wider public in the form of private museums.

Philanthropy has become one of the driving forces of the Chinese art market. In the hope of reshaping global perceptions of Chinese art, the “super-collectors” are beginning at home, where they hope to leverage their passion for collecting to benefit arts education.

Driving the private museum trend are Wang Wei and her husband, Liu Yiqian. The couple has been collecting together for almost 20 years and is considered to own the most extensive art trove in China, including Song dynasty scrolls, Qing dynasty vases and modern paintings like Zhang Xiaogang’s famed “Bloodline” series. Billionaires by virtue of Liu’s savvy financial ventures, Liu and Wang began collecting in the 1990s and went on to spend an estimated $317 million on Chinese modern, revolutionary and contemporary art. Their approach — focusing on Chinese art — has become increasingly common among prosperous Chinese.

“We must keep Chinese art in our hands,” says Wang. “I have a few Western pieces, too, but Chinese should collect Chinese works.” As part of their patriotic mission, Liu and Wang opened their own exhibition space in Shanghai’s Pudong district in December. Called the Long Museum, the nearly 10,000-square-meter (107,640 square) structure displays prize works from their collection. Fifteen modern-art stars, including Fang Lijun, Ding Yi and Zeng Fanzhi, contributed original creations specifically designed for the opening show. The project is the first phase of the couple’s aim to foster knowledge of Chinese art. Plans are already afoot for a second museum — this one government-supported — featuring pieces from the 1911 Revolution onward.

More is in the pipeline. The collector Guan Yi is planning a private museum on the outskirts of Beijing, a warehouse of nearly 1,000 square meters where he aims to establish, over the next few years, a “complete history of Chinese contemporary art.” Similarly, in Shanghai, the Indonesian-Chinese collector Budi Tek, known in China as Yu Deyao, is set to open the De Museum in June. Featuring Asian and Western contemporary art, it will be located in a former aircraft hangar across the river from the World Expo site in Pudong.

For these collectors, education is paramount. In Beijing, Li Bing started collecting 20 years ago upon realizing, he says, “how important it is to protect contemporary art and to show it.” Li is the founder of the Beijing He Jing Yuan Art Museum and the Art Collectors Club, which gathers collectors from across the country to meet foreign collectors, artists, journalists and curators to encourage further thinking about contemporary art in China.

Also in China’s capital are the auto mogul Yang Bin and his wife, Yan Qing, owner of the Aye Gallery. While Yang is not planning to build his own museum, he has taken the unusual step of sponsoring art exhibitions while contributing as a stakeholder to the creation of new cultural spaces and galleries in the city. Like many Chinese collectors, he bought his first works at the turn of the millennium as decorative pieces for his home, focusing on Chinese realist painters, whose works have proved extremely valuable in the domestic art market. In the span of a decade, he has collected nearly 1,000 artworks by Chinese contemporary heavyweights.

If only a few of these private institutions are able to replicate the success of the Tate or the Guggenheim, China’s artistic landscape should be all the richer.

First appeared in Inessence magazine, Spring/Summer 2013.