Platform
Great leap forward

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 27

Platform
Great leap forward

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 27

Platform
Great leap forward

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 27

Platform
Great leap forward

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 27

Platform
Great leap forward

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 27

Wang Wei has created one of the largest private collections of art in China. She tells Lucinda Bredin why she needs not just one museum but two

There are five days to go before the Long Museum opens in West Bund, Shanghai. At 33,000 square meters, this will be China's largest private art museum and ... I'm worried. Nothing is on the walls. Wires are hanging down like streamers on New Year's Eve and there's a person-sized hole in one of the gallery's floors that needs urgent attention. Also, there's a man trying to screw in more than 2,000 light bulbs into Wang Yuyang's Artificial Moon, a piece that hangs from the ceiling looking like a death star. Judging by the pile of pallets surrounding him, there are a few more to go. I had been hoping to see what was in this fabled private collection, one of the largest in China, but it's hard to get a hold on it from a stack of paintings covered in plastic.

Later, at a nearby restaurant, I broach the problem tentatively with Madame Wang Wei, the founder, owner and chief administrator of the museum and its collection. Is the museum going to be finished in time for the opening night? Although we have an interpreter – Wang doesn't speak English – I don't need help with translation. Clad from head to toe in black, she throws her head back, laughing incredulously, and pours forth a stream of words. The interpreter looks nervous: "She says, 'Yes'."

I wasn't able to stay for the unveiling but everything was, by all accounts, completed – and a huge success. This is the second museum founded by Wang Wei and her husband, Liu Yiqian, a man from a humble background who made handbags ("with his mother's help", says Wang) before plunging very successfully into the stock market. (Forbes lists his fortune at $900m.) The first Long Museum opened in 2012 in Pudong, an area that was a pastoral landscape 20 years ago, but which is now the equivalent of Canary Wharf. The museum itself, a handsome but impenetrable-looking structure, is set in an undistinguished turning, off a roaring highway. When I went I was one of two visitors – which is a shame because the collection is impressive. Divided into three sections – contemporary Chinese art, revolutionary art (i.e. pictures of Mao and smiling peasants) and a collection of exquisite early 20th century calligraphy by a cousin of Pu Yi, the last emperor – it covers all political bases, which is interesting. It is also worth a detour. Surely with a bit of a push, attendances will pick up. So why open another museum?

Wang Wei smiles. "The government is very supportive of cultural development and China's 12th 5-Year Plan also promotes it. The creation of the West Bund Cultural Corridor (which aims to transform the Xuhui riverside area of Shanghai into a cultural hub) is a great opportunity and the government wants us to join in. This is because the quality of our museum is recognized and because we have a collection that is large enough for two museums. We do think it's very difficult to have two sites in one city but we plan to make them distinctly different. The Pudong museum, for instance, will be used as a patriotic education base. As business people it is also our responsibility to contribute to social development."

I see. It's worth mentioning that I have no idea if Wang Wei really speaks like this. We have an interpreter who issues pithy one-sentence answers after Wang has given a highly animated speech; our taped conversation has then been handed to a translator in the UK. What is clear is that she is very passionate about the project. This isn't a case of a dilettante trying to fill up a diary: after our interview she will doubtlessly be back on site directing operations to fill in that hole.

Born in Shanghai, Wang, now in her late forties, says she didn't have a particularly artistic background, although it was cultured. She liked drawing as a child and her parents – her father was a technician, her mother worked in the finance department of a company – were "both educated" – her father played the erhu, a Chinese violin. She has four children, the eldest is 28, and three of them are studying in the US. It was while bringing them up that she began collecting art. "In the 90s I was involved in the art auction business – I worked as the manager for City Gold Temple Auction. There were only a handful of players, back then. That job allowed me to build up my knowledge of art, develop my networks and help me form my method and style of collecting art." She and her husband certainly haven't held back. As she puts it, their combined collection "covers all ages from ancient to modern", with Liu favoring ancient artifacts while she likes art that covers the last 100 years to present day.

"There's an old saying," she says, "We shall usher in the current times by drawing from our ancient heritage (jiegukaijin): to create new ideas based on old traditions." When Wang began, she says she didn't take the whole buying business too seriously. "I just bought art pieces for fun, but in hindsight it was the start of the project. We collected oil paintings with revolutionary themes; then we started buying modern art in 2006 followed by 21st century art. Our collection also includes art from other Asian countries, and I am traveling to find out more about western contemporary art. I've just bought a work by Mona Hatoum." This will, of course, be music to the ears of art dealers from New York and London who are investing large amounts in trading posts in the hope that western art will catch on with the Chinese.

Given it is such a large collection, there have been unwanted controversies surrounding some of the acquisitions. Last year, Liu bought a calligraphic work, Farewell Letter to Gongfu by the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi (1037-1101) at auction in New York for $8.2m.

Despite being subject to intense scrutiny, it is on display at the new Long Museum and is a star attraction. (The Art Newspaper reported that at the press conference on the opening day, Huang Jian, the executive director, said the controversy about whether it was a fake or not had been a godsend: it was such a great advertisement for the museum. Indeed the display includes articles about the debate. Liu, however, is reported as saying that the whole matter "nauseates" him.) This upset, however, hasn't stopped Wang and Liu from continuing to buy big. In recent Hong Kong sales, Liu set a new record by buying a tiny Ming porcelain 'chicken cup' for $36m.

What was the trigger for opening a museum to show the collection – apart from having a glorified storage space? Wang leans forward to describe her Damascene moment. "What inspired me to start the first museum was an exhibition. I loaned 76 pieces from my collection of revolutionary art to Shanghai Art Museum and had an exhibition there which became a bit of a sensation. It was curated by Chen Lvsheng, Vice President of the National Museum of China, who was very impressed with the quality of the work. When I saw all the art on display, I was moved to tears. So that experience, and the critical acclaim I received, really inspired me to start my own museum." Was it unusual to collect 'revolutionary art' that showed happy workers glorifying Mao and sparkling hydro-electrical projects while most of the country was starving? Wang agrees it was unusual – "I don't think anyone collected this as a particular theme" – but she won't be drawn on how she feels about the political content.

She did move quickly, however, to bring her collection out of storage. Liu and Wang found the Pudong site in 2010, and opened in December 2012. "We were the forerunners in the private museum scene in China," she says unabashed. "Many entrepreneurs / businessmen have been inspired to open private museums by us. They invest 1.5 to 2 billion RMB to collect art and wish to open a museum in a few years.

I told them that that wouldn't work. You have to take your time and build the collection, simply because very few pieces of high quality art with academic value emerge in such a short space of time."

The plan is, she says, to keep improving. "We need to make it more professional, to reach international standards." Does that mean that she wants to show European and American art too? "Yes and very soon. I want this museum in the West Bund to exhibit international artists for the Chinese public. I want to collaborate with museums overseas to exchange exhibitions with us. I'm particularly interested in collaboration – to help Chinese artists become known abroad while making foreign artists known here. I don't think art should be constrained by national boundaries."

So if the collection keeps growing, will there be a third museum? Wang pulls a face. "No. It's too much hard work. I want to run the two museums really well – my husband and I treat them like our business. And I'm the executive for both museums so I really want them to be good. We have the hardware – the facilities – now we need the right people to build the 'software'." Suddenly she pauses and leans forward again. "I have to tell you that opening a museum really isn't easy. It takes tremendous mental and emotional commitment on top of financial investment. I feel pretty exhausted now. So what I would say to anyone considering it, is this: the first thing you would need is perseverance and resilience. Secondly, consider what educational value your collection has. Thirdly, say you invest 1.5 billion to build your collection and have two exhibitions – what do you do for your third show?" At this point, she pauses. "My advice to the people who ask me how to go about building a museum is to consider opening a private club."

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

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