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May 9, 2014 6:49 pm
The Chinese museum owners Wang Wei and her husband Liu Yiqian have been much in the news lately. In March they inaugurated a second museum in Shanghai, barely two years after opening their first Long – “dragon” – Museum in the city. And then in April, Liu set a new record for a piece of Chinese porcelain, paying HK$281.2m ($36.3m) for a tiny Ming porcelain “chicken cup” from the Meiyintang collection – the “holy grail” of Chinese ceramics, according to Sotheby’s. Liu has promised that it will go on public view in one of the two museums.
In March, I met Wang Wei in London at Art14, where she was attending a private museum owners’ summit. She had also found time to buy some art, scooping up two works by the British-Hungarian artist Sam Havadtoy as well as one by Xu Qu.
Simply dressed in black – though her outfit is topped with a white mink coat, with narrow black stripes – Wang meets me in the VIP lounge and carefully passes over a shoulder-busting bag of catalogues of the collections in the Long Museum.
There are three thrusts to the couple’s holdings: traditional Chinese art (notably calligraphy), contemporary and modern Chinese art, and vast amounts of Chinese revolutionary art. When I visited the Long Museum last year, it also featured a temporary show of Asian contemporary art, with a number of works by Yayoi Kusama – obviously a favourite – but also by the Indonesian Affandi and even a painting by the Japanese Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga.
The first Long Museum, designed by Chinese architect Zhong Song, is a sober, off-white, largely windowless block, with a large internal cube from which staircases lead to the various floors. The displays are quite traditional; on the second floor, paintings of happy, apple-cheeked workers from the Mao era are lined up in a series of rooms. On the upper floor, lights only come on when the visitor approaches the fragile calligraphies that are kept behind glass in darkened rooms. Like many of these newly built private museums in China, it is sparsely attended: when I visited, there were just a few other people there.
The second museum, Long West Bund, was designed by Shanghai-based architect Liu Yichun with vast curved concrete walls. The artists Antony Gormley and Yang Fudong were among guests at its impressive opening.
Wang is director of both establishments. “Our idea initially was to have only one museum,” she says, speaking through an interpreter, “but the government came to us, encouraged us to open another and gave us a discount on the land, on condition that we make a cultural project. I probably would have been happy with one,” she smiles. “These museums are a lot of work!”
China is racing to catch up with other countries in building such institutions – indeed, is in the grip of a “museum boom”. At the moment the country has just one museum per 395,000 people, and one per 200,000 in Shanghai. By comparison, Paris has one for every 16,000 people. To achieve international standards, China needs to construct 40,000 museums – probably not a realisable goal. But the authorities may believe that by helping private collectors such as Wang to establish their own establishments, they can drive up the figures.
Wang and her husband are living examples of the Chinese dream: both came from modest families. Although, Wang says, her father was a skilled craftsman, her childhood was dominated by revolutionary art. “I grew up looking at a red art badge of Mao,” she said.
Her husband Liu – worth $900m last year, according to Forbes – made his fortune initially through making and selling handbags, and then through investments. As the couple’s wealth grew, so did their art spending, initially on calligraphies and traditional works – such as a Qing zitan-wood throne bought for $11m in 2009 – while Wang was accumulating revolutionary art. “I wanted to document a historical moment, because no one else had,” she says. “There is no other museum of this art.”
In about 2005 the couple started moving on to contemporary Chinese art, acquiring works by, for instance, the then affordable Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and Zeng Fanzhi.
“I first started to think of making a museum in 2003 but it only became possible in 2009, when our financial situation changed radically,” says Wang. Asked if she has a budget – the press has reported that she has spent more than $100m on acquisitions – she will not be drawn, except to say: “There is no plan, no budget. My husband makes money and I buy art.” The first Long Museum has cost some £30m, and the new space will reportedly set the couple back as much again.
Wang is still discovering the art world. Her trip to London, to Art14, where she participated in the private museum summit organised by cultural entrepreneur Philip Dodd, was only her second to the UK; she was planning visits to Art Basel Hong Kong and Frieze New York once the second museum had been launched. However, she did visit Qatar this year, where she saw and purchased “Turbulence”, a work comprising swings by Mona Hatoum. She has also bought Olafur Eliasson, and feels that her trips have “given me the opportunity to move towards western art – I couldn’t do it before.” While the initial show at the new museum only features Chinese art, from traditional to contemporary, Wang says she wants to hold exhibitions of international art at a later date.
Her husband has recently been involved in a much publicised dispute over the authenticity of a Song dynasty calligraphy work, which he bought for $8.2m last year in New York. Some scholars claimed it was 19th century, although Liu is convinced it is right, and it is on display in the new museum. There is also now doubt about another work on paper, “Eagle Standing on a Pine Tree” by the 20th-century ink master Qi Baishi, which Liu sold for $65.4m at a China Guardian auction in Beijing in 2011. The buyer has so far not paid for it.
I ask Wang what she thinks of the arrival of Sotheby’s and Christie’s in the mainland market – both held sales there last year. Will it clean up a market that has been riddled with fakes? “I think this is a positive step,” she says. “It should raise the level. But it can work in another way as well – by making Chinese art better known outside the country, as well as making western art better known in China.”
I also ask her about the “red” Mao-period art, which dates from a time that saw the death of tens of millions of people, belying its portraits of happy productive workers. Wang is cautious in her reply. “For people over 45 years old, that period was hard,” she says: “But it was also very intense, and people were more honest than today. So in a way there is some nostalgia . . . ” And she repeats the idea, insisting, “Yes, it was very intense.”
Finally, I ask, how does she see the future of the museums? Does she have one model in mind? “I would like the Long museums to become a platform for international exchanges – my models would be MoMA or the Guggenheim,” she says, adding quickly: “Of course, I am very aware that we are far from that at the moment, but we will work hard and do our best.”
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