EX: 1/30/2012
  >> Search features
>> Confirm subscribe
2011.03.11 Fri, by
Zaijian! Guy Ullens says goodbye to UCCA

So Guy Ullens is leaving the UCCA, selling his collection, lamenting failures and withdrawing from China. Does it really matter? Is UCCA such an important institution? Should a foreign-owned museum be attempting to define the debate about contemporary art in China? Or is Ullens just running away from failure?

The Ullens Centre of Contemporary Art, opened in November 2007, has undoubtedly hosted some notable exhibitions (Dior, Huang Yongping) but also some more questionable ones (Zhang Huan—a bombastic installation undercut by an at-best naïve dedication)—how surprising which were notable and which not. Despite a rocky start, losing most of its original management team, including the director then, Colin Chinnery, it has grown into an “institution,” a necessary stop on any visit to Beijing’s 798 art district, albeit one with a more conservative program than might have been. Criticisms of its replacement director, Jérôme Sans, have generally lamented UCCA’s populism, but I’m not sure that’s fair. The intention was always that UCCA would eventually pay for itself and, given its size and relative opulence (for China), populism was therefore always going to be necessary, at least to begin with.

That is not why UCCA is struggling now. The real issues here are the combination, firstly, of paranoid control over public or quasi-public institutions like Ullens, with the general poverty of museology in China.

Public and private museums need the freedom to develop their programs and individual character. Under China’s circumstances, that necessarily involves a certain respect for the prevailing conditions (which goes for everyone) but to satisfy those conditions, one shouldn’t need “partners” and the dead hand of bureaucracy. Read what you like into this quote from Ullens in The Art Newspaper:

“The Chinese have been nice, we’ve had very nice relationships, we’ve never had censorship. The problem is they have structures and you need to have Chinese partners to navigate the structures.” [link]

The matter of foundations and bureaucracy was thoroughly dissected by the Chinese critic Zhu Qi. He ended by noting that:

“Some might say that with the departure of Westerners like Ullens and company, Chinese people will finally have control of the discourse. This discourse relies on the creativity and breakthrough in terms of artistic language, and also on the regulatory structure of art funds and well-organized commercial operations in the field of art. But there is no room for optimism as far as the vitality of art in the next ten years is concerned. The basic creative model of the art scene and the aesthetic/artistic education of investors have not fundamentally changed, and so the system of the art world will have difficulty breaking through to a higher level of equilibrium (of structure), while market speculation will continue in its fickle and silly ways. As long as the above system does not change, discussion of the discourse of Chinese indigenous art and of the art market is just empty talk.” [link]

To me, it is highly doubtful that foreigners (and I am one) have any control over the art discourse. We merely have opinions, like anyone else, and these opinions vary in quality. I often compare Beijing and Shanghai now to Paris in 1900. So for the sake of comparison, it is noteworthy that Modernism began in Paris but was generally supported by foreigners rather than locals. There were Americans (Gertrude Stein), Germans (Daniel Henry Kahnweiler) and Russians (Sergei Shchukin, whose collection eventually became the backbone of the Hermitage in St Petersburg—for which Lenin personally signed the confiscation order). The crucial element was the fervid discourse of ideas between groups of talented artists from many different backgrounds (including French, Spanish, Russian, Romanian). The difference with China is that the discourse is conducted almost exclusively by Chinese artists, not artists from, say, America, Germany or Japan.

As for museology, it is vital to note that the most important aspect of a museum is not its building or even its collection but its culture, and that comes down the people who run it and the funding that allows them to do so. UCCA’s staff appears competent enough but it’s still a long way from the Asia Art Archive or even leading small private museums in other parts of the world, such as the Menil Collection (Houston), the Mori Museum (Tokyo), the ME Collectors Room and Boros Collection (Berlin), The Saatchi Gallery (London) or the new Museum of Old and New Art (Hobart). In terms of staff, a good measure is where they go next. So far it is impossible (and possibly too early) to discern a cogent UCCA alumni (excepting people like Colin Chinnery who left because he felt the original mandate of the museum was being undermined—hardly a glowing recommendation). But the curators of a leading museum need to constitute a “faculty” of curators whose academic independence helps to establish the standard of debate rather than to define or, worse, limit it, or for that matter to be mere administrators of public entertainment.

Zhu Qi rightly raises the issue of China’s art infrastructure, which includes professional commercial galleries, professional museums and organizations, proper funding of those museums and organizations, and appropriate government recognition of them. That non-profit organizations may not enjoy tax-free advantages in order to do their work in the interest of the public is to the detriment of the Chinese public and culture. The Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim in New York are independent, non-profit organizations funded mainly by many of the wealthiest people in America and around the world, as well as through US Government grants, and these museums are enjoyed by millions of visitors every year. This is what we need to aim for in China (one hopes that the new museums proposed for Hong Kong, such as the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Central Police Station project and West Kowloon’s Foster & Partners-designedHong Kong Museum of Art, will be a good start, but Hong Kong is still hardly Mainland China).

Guy Ullens says he is handing over control of UCCA to “long term partners,” and we hope that does not mean the museum’s eventual collapse. The collection will be sold, lot by lot, with the first 106 works up for grabs at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong on April 3, including early works by Zhang Xiaogang, Mao Xuhui and Zhang Peili, first exhibited in the influential “China/Avant-Garde” in 1989. One highlight will be Zhang’s 1988 triptych “Forever Lasting Love,” which is an important marker in Zhang’s race to Expression-less-ism. The estimate is 25-30 million Hong Kong dollars (3.2-3.8 million US dollars) but it will probably go for considerably more.

Ullens says he intends to concentrate more on contemporary art from India and funding charitable education projects in Nepal. Fortunately for him, the fame associated with his collection and the UCCA, as well as the pedigree of the art works themselves, should ensure very strong sales (early estimates range from 12.7 to 16.7 million US dollars). Whether the buyers of these works will think fit to make donations to the newly “independent” UCCA remains to be seen. Wouldn’t it be nice. Then again, Ullens was clearly no Shchukin, but rather a much paler-shade of Saatchi. Yet Charles Saatchi has recently donated much of his collection to the British Public. So Baron Ullens, until the auction date, you still have a chance. I suspect China still hasn’t found its Guggenheim.

Read our unreview of the Ullens press release here.