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January 16, 2013updated 08 Jan 2016 5:32pm

The Rise of Private Museums in Asia

By Spear's

The West has a very particular conception of museums: public institutions for the public good created — at least in part — from public money. (Never mind that this ignores the private origins of many of our greatest museums.) There should be a clear line between art and money, commercialism not infringing on creativity, and personal reputation should never come into it.

However, the West’s sanctified, disingenuous conceptions are being overturned in Asia, where private collectors with a variety of motives and approaches are striving, successfully and not, to create museums fit for the 21st century. If this involves a subtle, dangerous dance with the state, well, that’s the 21st century too.

Private museums are nothing new: the Tate and the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan in New York all started off with kernels of private collections. But now the world’s wealth is rapidly being created in Asia, as reflected in the Hurun Rich List 2012, where the average wealth for China’s richest thousand people is $860 million, nearly double 2008’s figure, and its owners are discovering that collecting — and displaying — art has social, cultural and political benefits. Beyond China, too, ‘this great phenomenon, the private museum’, as Neil Wenman of Hauser & Wirth calls it, is flourishing. (By contrast, Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, says: ‘It is not a trend.’) Indeed, ART HK held its second Private Museum Forum in 2012, ‘a unique summit to discuss shared goals and concerns’ with your fellows.

The first thing to make clear — as has often been obscured in writings on the subject in the past — is that there is no one definition of a private museum. There are museums and galleries hosting private collections open to the public, like Budi Tek’s Yaz Museum in Jakarta or Dai Zhi Kang’s Himalayas Art Museum in Shanghai (which you approach through a mall) or Li Bing’s He Jing Yuan Art Museum in Beijing.

Further afield are David Walsh’s MONA in Tasmania and Judith Neilson’s White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney, both of which Spear’s Asia wrote about in issue 2. Some of these are owned by corporations, like Korea’s Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art or the Minsheng Art Museum, soon to open in Beijing and funded by the China Minsheng Banking Corporation — if certain troubles, discussed below, do not prevent it.

Pierre Chen, a Taiwanese businessman specialising in electronics components, created the Yageo Foundation in Taipei to display his corporate and family collections. The foundation’s executive director, Carol Huang, tells me that motives for opening private museums differ across Asia: ‘Most Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore collectors keep their artworks for personal enjoyment while their mainland Chinese counterparts are more inclined to build museums to showcase their collections.’

In the same spirit, Chinese collectors ‘having just awakened from a four-decade-long isolation from the outside world and the ravage of the Cultural Revolution’ buy art ‘as a means to multiple ends such as investment’. (Others are a little more refined, the implication goes.)

There is the Kunsthalle type, which is privately funded but has no collection of its own, being a house for others’ shows, like Thomas Ou’s Rockbund Museum in Shanghai. And there is the properly private museum, rarely if ever open to the public and in the main for the delight of the owner, whose house had become too full with art, and his friends; Yang Bin’s, found outside central Beijing, is called Paradise.

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There are plenty in the pipeline, too, and not just in China’s major cities. According to Philip Dodd, former director of the ICA and founder of Made in China, which promotes projects linking China and the UK, Wang Wei’s Dragon Museum, which should be open in Shanghai by the time you read this, is going to be ‘a bloody big thing’, not least because Wang and her husband Liu Yiqian have spent $317 million on art since 2010. Dodd also cites the Yellow River Arts Centre in north-west China, a complex with the Yinchuan Art Musuem (opening Spring 2014), sculpture grounds and an artists’ village, all the brainchild of Ms Liu Wenjin.

Meanwhile, Budi Tek is opening at some point another museum, this time in Shanghai, and Neil Wenman mentions the Nanjing Sifang Art Museum, due next year in eastern China. Perhaps emphasising how trendy (and problematic) the idea of a private museum has become, Wenman adds that while he does admire the museum, ‘they’re now building a collection that fits the building they’ve created. I might have done it the other way round, but…’

Assuming that you have your collection — and the fact that Sotheby’s Asian sales have gone from $62 million in 2001 to a billion dollars in 2011 implies someone is collecting, as do the record prices entailed for both Western and Chinese art — why might you choose to put it in a museum?

The lack of state cultural infrastructure — or public museums, as we might call them — is key. OHD Museum, named for its patron, tobacco industrialist Oei Hong Djin, has opened in Java with 1,500 pieces from his collection of Indonesian art and serves as a national gallery. As he told, he did this ‘because our government doesn’t care about building museums; if they have in the past, they are not well maintained and the art within is badly in need of conservation. So it is up to collectors like myself who must rescue works of value.’ On top of this, he uses the museum to promote artists and encourage his peers to patronise them.

The same lack of supply is true in India. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in October, gallerist Larry Gagosian pointed this out: ‘India remains focused on its local art, and its museums aren’t showing international art often enough.’ Private collectors have inadvertently stepped in; Arianne Levene, an art adviser and gallerist who is staging Lost in Paradise, a show of Asian art, in Paris in November, cites the Poddars of Delhi: ‘They became so well-known as collectors that every time someone came to Delhi they’d want to go into their house to see the art because there was nowhere else you could see Contemporary art.’

Patti Wong of Sotheby’s Asia offers a similar motive: ‘There are not many Chinese Contemporary museums that are in existence. Many of the buyers see the opportunity and the need for such a type of institution to be set up.’ These is also a competitive patriotic edge to all of this, glorifying the nation (and oneself) with such a philanthropic act. More than that, however, the government wants them to be set up: their cultural policies encourage them, so ‘they are in a way reflecting the government maybe, having private museums, some open to the public.’

But Philip Dodd has the most interesting angle on this phenomenon in China, seeing a twist in the government’s keenness: the government ‘is licensing the private museum to do the educational job that state museums in other countries do’ — Chinese state museums only display ‘content-free art’ and so private museums have to take up the slack in showing art whose message is not strict propaganda. The state cannot be seen to promote such messages, but it quietly condones with financial, political and legal support those who do as a condition of educating its people.

These private museums do not open in opposition to the government — that would be impossible — but in fact reflect ‘much more symbiosis’ between the public and private sectors. Similarly, Dodd interprets a friend’s story that a hundred thousand people went recently to the 798 Art Zone in Beijing, where decommissioned military factories host art exhibitions, as another type of informal education.

For those museums which are not open to the public — some call them clubs, as ‘museum’ may be too grand and suggestive — political will has little to do with it. Personal prestige or indeed simple friendliness and passion for the work drive the owners, who may have elaborate buildings constructed which only they and their acquaintances can visit.

These are in the majority, according to Neil Wenman, who is one of the most prominent advisers to private Chinese collectors, and they have an ease about them which more formal museums do not: ‘They’re also a lot quicker to act — it’s all for them and only them, so they do what they want, as it were, buy what they like.’ The host and his guests can enjoy a fine dinner in the main house and then trot across to the club.

The private collecting culture is terribly gregarious, according to Wenman: on a recent 48-hour visit to Shanghai, he was entertained at a dinner on the first night by a local collector with eight other collectors as guests; the next night, one of the other collectors invited him, four of the first night’s collectors and four other collectors to dinner.

‘That’s really great, these little friendship groups — that’s what it’s all about, they’re all learning, they’re very open, they’re teaching each other, they’re suggesting to each other to look at this, look at that.’ And when Wenman has been on the Hauser & Wirth stand at ART HK (now Art Basel Hong Kong), which is always one of the busiest thanks to his strong reputation in Asia, existing collectors bring over their friends and the network intensifies.

But there is now a threat not just to this rapid development of private museums but to the collecting culture of China as a whole. The Chinese government, which imposes a 33 per cent tax on artworks imported to the mainland (not to Hong Kong, importantly), has wised up to certain collectors bringing artworks on to the mainland but not accurately declaring their worth, saving millions. According to ARTnews, the director of an art-transport company was arrested for this last summer, and ‘several leading collectors were also detained, including a top executive of Minsheng Bank’, soon to open its museum in Beijing and greedily buying artworks.

This caused a ‘chilling effect’, says ARTnews, which led to ‘a sharp drop in participation’ in the Hong Kong and Beijing auctions. No one knows anything about the fraud, of course, but one result has been increased scrutiny by a new Customs unit, which trawls artnet and auction-house sales for proper prices. What this all means, of course, is that more works will not now be imported into China and thus end up in private museums, unless Chinese collectors, already spending profusely on works in a market as buoyant as ever, add a third to every price.

The government is offering something resembling a solution, although perhaps it is more of a tantalising mockery. Like Singapore and Switzerland, Beijing is soon to have a freeport, so collectors will be able to bring their work on to the mainland and display it to their heart’s content in whatever icy metal cube they can rent within the freeport — but if they try to move it out of the freeport, they’ll have to pay the duty.

This is hardly a sop and seems likely to retard the development of private museums to some degree, especially given that many collectors have multiple storage spaces worldwide. Sotheby’s, anticipating this, has signed a ten-year deal with the freeport’s owners Beijing GeHua, says Patti Wong, although she is hopeful the duty will be decreased or removed. Given that this deal also created Sotheby’s (Beijing) Auction Co, granting it a mainland auction licence, Sotheby’s has wisely prepared for every outcome.

China is, of course, experiencing an economic slowdown, as reflected in the Hurun Rich List: of the thousand richest Chinese, 469 were poorer in 2012 than in 2011, and 37 had seen their fortunes at least halve. Will this affect private museum owners? Quite possibly, says Neil Wenman: even though the Chinese are still wealthy, ‘it’s not just about the budgets, it’s about a certain psychology. If they feel as if things are slowing down, even if they have enough budget for it, they may choose to slow down their purchasing.’ He still ranks, however, the import kerfuffle as a more pressing issue.

Hong Kong and Singapore do not suffer from those duty travails, yet because of their size they do not have many private museums either. Hong Kong does not have sufficient collectors to sustain its proliferation of galleries — including the biggest Western names like White Cube and Gagosian — but it is an ideal weekend destination for wealthy mainland Chinese to come and buy art (except now bringing it back is that much more difficult).

Collectors in Singapore manifest their civic pride and philanthropy in dematerialised private museums. Kwee Liong Tek, for example, buys monumental sculpture and displays it in public spaces as a beneficence: ‘My personal joy,’ he says, ‘is to share my love of the forms and find ways to invite the public to experience a visual and tactile conversation with the work.’ Responding to this alternative mode of display in a space-tight city, Sotheby’s is having its first selling exhibition of outdoor sculpture in Asia, Zadok Ben-David’s beautiful organic forms, in the Singapore Botanic Gardens until 31 January 2013.

But physical museums — buildings with roofs and walls and possibly even cafés and bookshops — are still most prominent in China. Like many things in China, says Neil Wenman, with private museums action often comes before thought: ‘The birth of the private museum is still a new phenomenon — China works at such a fast rate that things often happen before everyone quite figures out why they’ve happened.’

Once we’ve decoded what is going on, Philip Dodd thinks China, ‘the crucible for experimentation’, will teach the West: ‘What feels very modern in the West has been going on in China for many years. [They can] provide a template how to do things in the Western parts of the world.’ This was true 500 years ago — and it’s true again today.

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