This is the era of the museum,” says Philip Dodd, founder of cross-cultural communications company Made In China, who launched The Private Museum Forum at last year’s Art HK. Bringing together private museum owners from across the region and beyond, the forum reflects a strong trend across the Asia Pacific region, and China in particular.
Of the Chinese pioneers, Dodd says: “They’re learning on the job, just as we once did in the west. China is like America in the early 20th century, where all the great museums were started by wealthy philanthropists. The most interesting things in the world are done by people who don’t know what they’re doing.”
For the collector, the advantages of setting up a private space are clear: art will not languish in storage, as it might do if donated to a larger institution; and it is good for the artists, who want their work seen, good for the value of the work and good for a public for whom there is no infrastructure of public museums.
The buoyant economies that have produced these voracious collectors are pumping the international art market with new capital. A director of New York’s David Zwirner gallery cites collector Budi Tek as “a wonderful advocate for jump-starting collectors into the western sphere”. Tek shows his collection at his Indonesian museum, the Yuz Foundation, and is set to open an 8,000 sq ft museum in Shanghai next year.
Neil Wenman, director of Hauser & Wirth, says his gallery is working closely with at least five Asian collectors, including Zhu Tong, director of the Nanjing Sifang Art Museum, a $2bn project owned by the Sifang Culture Group, launching in October in Jiangsu province.
The forum invites owners and directors of private museums across the globe to participate in a discussion with the aim of developing a network to rival those of their public counterparts. “No public museum does a big show without sharing the cost with another institution. The forum could act as a clearing house for exhibitions; a great show in Delhi could move to China and vice versa. They all have things to learn from each other – the Rubells [owners of the Rubell Collection in Miami and a new museum in Washington DC] thought they were being innovative by getting commercial activity to subsidise cultural development but the Chinese said ‘Oh, we’ve been doing that for years’.”
Commercial and cultural interests are not seen as mutually exclusive in Asia. Dai Zhikang, who opened the Zendai Art Museum in Shanghai in 2005, donating the space and funds for conceptual art within a Pudong shopping mall, says he believes “in a combination of art and life. A community needs not just a shopping centre but an art gallery and theatre too, and we need to make a profit to make the museum sustainable.” At Zenai, artists interacted with families who had not necessarily come for the art, a synthesis that became a celebrated outreach and educational programme.
Dai has since moved his museum to a new, grander development of shopping mall, theatre and hotel, and re-named it the Himalayas Art Museum. A picture of Chairman Mao hangs in the entrance and Dai is fiercely nationalistic, but he has been buying western art for more than two years and says his aim is to show young people what is happening in the world around them. “I belong to this society, I should contribute,” he says. “I am not just a businessman, I am a community developer.”
Larys Forgier, director of Thomas Ou’s Rockbund Museum, part of a property development on Shanghai’s riverfront, says: “We don’t hide the link but the branding of the area will not come inside the museum; there is interaction, not confusion.” The Rockbund is not based on a collection but collaborates with the world’s top museums and focuses on relationships between artists and curators. Forgier says things are changing in China. “Early collectors bought art for investment, the auction-led art market was an obsession, but now you’re seeing something new. It is not about risk and speculation, they want a sustainable market, they collect with care and they support the artists. It’s about the long term – they are trying to create a sense of their own contemporary world.”
The collectors all talk of education as paramount. Li Bing, owner of the Beijing He Jing Yuan Art Museum, says he began collecting 20 years ago because “culture was profoundly affected during the Cultural Revolution and I realised how important it is to protect contemporary art and to show it”. Like many of his contemporaries, he has been collecting internationally for the past two years.
Li founded the Collectors’ Club in Beijing with the aim of “speeding up the learning process in China, where contemporary art developed late and people still don’t understand the international scene”. The club invites collectors from across the country to come and meet foreign collectors, artists, journalists and curators. Li was joint chair of the Private Museums Forum last year and will speak again this year, alongside Wang Wei, owner of the Long Museum, which is due to open in Shanghai in October, Dr Oei Hong Djin, owner of OHD Museum in Indonesia, Kian Chow Kwok, senior adviser to the National Art Gallery, Singapore, and Lars Nittve, former director of Tate Modern and executive director of M+, Hong Kong’s museum of contemporary art (which is still under construction).
“The forum is great but once a year is not enough,” says Li. “We need to put museum directors in touch with collectors on a constant basis: they need training, staff, education.” With no museum or gallery culture and no education in arts administration, lack of local expertise is a real issue. As Dodd says: “China is extraordinary at hardware but not great at software.”
This is one of the many points made by critics of the proliferation of private museums. Not only expertise but sustainability is a big issue. Museums are extremely complex and expensive to run; are the owners committed and able to fund them in the long term? Who will curate the shows and train the staff? What will happen to these vast collections if the museums fail?
Dodd is bullish in the face of such reservations. It is the museums themselves that will solve these problems, he says. “They will become crucibles of curation and education, marketing and audience development. They’ll lead the way for the public sector. They will be where skills are learnt.”
“Of course some won’t last,” he adds, “but the best will survive and become public/private institutions.” They appear to be having a positive effect on the government, which is opening two public museums in Shanghai. “A provincial minister for culture in Zhe Jiang boasted of putting up five museums in 10 years,” says Phil Tinari, director of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing. “It’s a mark of his tenure and it gives him face.”
Face, so central to this society, is what many suspect lurks behind these monuments to private individuals. But does that matter? Western collector-philanthropists such as Eli Broad and François Pinault are, surely, not without vanity. The question is, how much is a budding museum owner willing to pay for the feelgood factor of giving?
Richard Chang, owner of the Domus Collection of contemporary art based in New York and Beijing, and board member of the Royal Academy, The Whitney Museum, MoMA PS1 and Tate, says liquidity is key and “you have to be willing to allocate a great deal of it to your museum. You won’t get it back. Opening a museum is a good deed, an act of generosity, and comes with huge responsibility to the artists you are showing. You need the right mindset to make it meaningful: the danger is you become cheap on the good deed side if you’re worrying about the real estate.”