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2016.06.30 Thu, by Translated by: Daniel Szehin Ho
Baron Guy Ullens puts Beijing’s UCCA on Sale

On June 30, it was announced that Baron Guy Ullens is looking to sell Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) along with his art collection, which is formally separate from UCCA. No new buyers have been named in the press release, however, and the stunning news means that clouds are hanging over the future of the institution, widely regarded as the most important contemporary art institution in the country.

Founded by the Belgian collector-couple Baron Guy Ullens and Myriam Ullens, UCCA is a linchpin in the 798 Art Zone in northwestern Beijing. The Ullens began preparing in 2005, and in 2007 officially opened the privately funded contemporary art institution. In the last decade or so, UCCA has presented many landmark and critically acclaimed exhibitions, including “85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art” (2007), “House of Oracles: a Huang Yong Ping Retrospective” (2008), “Qiu Zhijie: Breaking through the Ice” (2009), “Zhang Huan: Hope Tunnel” (2010), “The Important Thing Is Not The Meat” a retrospective of Gu Dexin in 2012, “ON | OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice” (2013), “Hans van Dijk: 5000 Names” (2014), and more recently “William Kentridge: Model Operas” (2015) and “Rauschenberg in China” (2016). More importantly, UCCA brought new standards and professionalism in exhibition making, introducing both international and emerging artists, and all the while mounting considered exhibitions of artists in China—this in a country and at a time where official museums on the whole made very lackluster efforts in contemporary art and where the private museum boom was still to take off.

Born in San Francisco in 1935, Guy Ullens was first exposed to Chinese art while expanding his family business to China. Under the guidance of Wu Erlu and Johnson Chang, he began to collect modern Chinese painting and calligraphy along with contemporary art works. Retiring in 2000 from the family enterprise, Guy Ullens devoted his energies to the field of art, with his collection nearing 1000 pieces. Having founded the Ullens Foundation in Switzerland in 2003, the Ullens sponsored major exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art and expanded the scale of the collection. At a certain point, the Ullens decided to fund and build a museum. At a time when there were basically no patrons of art or art foundations in China, UCCA, over 6500 squared meters in size, was founded, with the operating funds primarily provided by the Ullens Foundation.

The single source of funding in those early days, the relatively high operating expenses of the institution, as well as the Ullens’ sales of artworks in auctions at times brought some controversy for the institution. In April 2011, for instance, UCCA announced an official cooperation with Minsheng, and in the same year, the Ullens auctioned off 195 contemporary art works in Sotheby’s spring auction in Hong Kong—which made many think that the Ullens were “abandoning China” and raised the question of UCCA changing hands. And yet the Minsheng deal was called off in the end, with no further news, while the Ullens reiterated the formal separate relationship between the Foundation and UCCA. With a steady situation at the institution, the rumors died down.

One year after the founding of UCCA, the Ullens had in fact already begun cutting the capital injection into the institution. By 2011, May Xue took on the position of CEO, along with Philip Tinari as director and You Yang as assistant director. By reorganizing the store, forming a board of directors, and increasing private donations from patrons, UCCA has gradually gained new sources of funding. In 2013, May Xue revealed that the Ullens Foundation had been cutting funding by 30% a year, from 86 million RMB in 2008 to 21 million RMB by 2013. In 2015, UCCA’s official operating budget revealed that out of 41 million RMB, only 20% was provided by the Ullens Foundation, with the rest coming from corporate sponsorship (20%), individual sponsorship (10%), the Ullens Store (20%), and the annual charity auction gala (20%). Though the departure of the Ullens will not put undue financial pressure on the institution and on whomever the new owners are in terms of funding, the statement released did not reveal the new buyers and future administrative adjustments. (When reached, neither Phil Tinari nor May Xue offered to comment beyond what was released in the official statement).

News spread like wildfire on WeChat (a Chinese social media platform) from Wednesday night onwards, when a Douban post by “Highway 66″ (66号公路; previously Yipei Sheng Pu’er, a caustic, very well-informed, and yet anonymous commentator of the Chinese art world) emerged. Most artists, curators, and writers recognized the incredible contributions UCCA and the Ullens have made to the Chinese art world, and mourned the Ullens’ pending sale along with the clouds of uncertainty now hanging over the institution. Quite a few expressed concern about the motives of the new buyer, especially if the institution’s name were to remove the same (Zhang Peili: “Facts have shown Ullens wasn’t a living Lei Feng. So how could there another who would be willing to be a living Lei Feng under Ullens’ name?). A few were also dismissive of any potential sale (“Who would buy a shell (of an institution) without a collection?”). The collector Zhou Chong probably summed up the mood best: “The Brexit event of the art world.” Or #uxit, perhaps.

The Ullens’ contributions to contemporary Chinese art are not in doubt. Yet the impending instability at UCCA—arguably their greatest contribution—highlights the glaring restrictions for non-profits and foundations to incorporate or structure themselves legally in China (hence UCCA had to structure itself as a company). In the long run, loosening up the regulatory regime would ensure autonomy and stability for non-profit organizations—art or otherwise.

Official press release:

Ullens looks to hand over the ownership of UCCA and his art collection to new owners.

Guy Ullens has been one of the leading supporters of the Chinese art scene for over 30 years as a major collector of Chinese and international art, and the founder of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing, which has received over four million visitors since its founding in 2007.

Now into his 80s, Guy is looking to hand over the legacy of UCCA to a new benefactor and owner, to continue to support and develop this important institution over the years to come, and is looking at options of how and when this would happen. UCCA will continue to run as normal under its current leadership, and it will continue to offer some of the most interesting and exciting exhibition programs to its hundreds of thousands of annual visitors. The current exhibition “Rauschenberg in China” runs through August 21, to be followed by “Zeng Fanzhi” opening on September 19.

Guy Ullens is also looking to hand over the stewardship of the artworks in his collection to new collectors through private sales and at auction later this year. The Ullens Collection is a separate entity to UCCA, and shares no formal connection.

Ullens commented “I have been a patron of the arts in China for over 30 years and have found this a hugely interesting and fascinating experience. I’m now in my 80s and need to look at how to hand over the stewardship of the UCCA and my art collection to younger patrons of the arts. I will continue to support UCCA and its outstanding management team for the foreseeable future until I can find a way to hand over my legacy to a younger patron who can continue to develop this important arts institution, one of the leading exhibition spaces in China.”

Ms. May Xue, CEO of UCCA commented: “We respect Mr. Ullens’ decision to look at how to begin the process of handing over the ownership of UCCA to new owners. On behalf of the management team of UCCA, we thank Mr. Ullens for his continuous contributions and support over the past nine years. UCCA will stand strong and uphold our core values of highlighting artists from China and beyond and encouraging the public to engage with contemporary art and culture. We will continue to operate the Centre as usual and, as always, work to elaborate an inclusive cosmopolitan vision of China in the world.”

UCCA Beijing

UCCA Beijing

Myriam and Guy Ullens

Myriam and Guy Ullens

“Wang Xingwei”, exhibition view, 2013 《王兴伟》展览现场,2013

UCCA Director Philip Tinari.尤伦斯当代艺术中心馆长田霏宇

UCCA Director Philip Tinari.尤伦斯当代艺术中心馆长田霏宇

Gu Dexin:

Gu Dexin: “The Important Thing is Not the Meat” (2012) exhibition/installation view