Three years ago at Art HK, the predecessor fair to Art Basel in Hong Kong, gallerist Ben Brown recalls a well-spoken Chinese boy walking into the booth. “He asked to see our Boettis,” said Brown, referring to the conceptual Italian artist Alighiero Boetti, famous for his colourful tapestried maps.
Minutes later the boy, who was 15 years-old, had bought an embroidery by the late Italian artist, costing in the region of $100,000. His mother transferred the payment over the internet.
This wasn’t a rich kid’s whimsical shopping spree, insists Brown. “He had done his research and he knew that it was a good time to buy a Boetti.” Sure enough, the average price of a Boetti has since increased by around 18.4%, according to Artprice, an art market information provider.
Stories of mainland Chinese millionaires amassing vast art collections are nothing new. China now has over 11,000 ultra-wealthy individuals (those with assets of $30 million and above, according to Wealth-X) while as many as 500 “market-dominating art collectors” are based there, according to art research firm Larry’s List. And collecting is gathering pace. Nearly half of Chinese collections were founded between 2001 and 2010, according to Larry’s List’s Art Collector Report 2014.
Today there are (at least) 17 museums operated by private art collectors in China. That’s small fry compared with the US (where 53% of collectors are involved in a public museum or institution). But Christoph Noe, co-founder of Larry’s List, believes it has not been in the Chinese nature to display art collections and wealth to the public. As the second generation of Chinese wealthy grows more in tune with Western culture through overseas education, this is changing. A more recent trend is for China’s millennial inheritors to use their wealth to cultivate culture and become patrons of the arts, founding public museums, galleries and incubation platforms to nurture young talent.
Take for example, David Chau, the 31 year-old co-founder of the ART021 fair in Shanghai, who is a prominent champion of the local art scene. Growing up in Shanghai, Chau was fascinated with collecting from a young age. He bought and sold coins and stamps, comics and sports memorabilia, so successfully, that by the age of 12 he had set up his own eBay business. While studying history of art at the University of British Columbia, he used his earnings to start collecting art. “I collected when there was nobody collecting, when it was cheap.” With his gains he started to invest in finance and real estate and today the baby-faced entrepreneur has accumulated around 500 works to which he adds around 20-50 pieces a year. He now considers himself an art patron.
“With the younger artists, I don’t feel like I am collecting their work. I feel like I am supporting them and creating the work with them. I love this process even more than the art itself,” said Chau.
In 2008 Chau established the non-profit CC Foundation, which facilitates loans of his collections to international institutions, and supports artists careers with financial support and public promotion. Subversive Chinese artist Xu Chen has been a recipient of Chau’s benevolence right from the beginning, and last week held a solo exhibition in Hong Kong.
Thirty-two year-old Cambridge graduate Lu Xun is another art pioneer. With his property developer father Lu Jun, he set up the Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing in 2013. The 20,000 square-foot museum houses the contemporary art collection that Lu amassed while the project was being built (on a 115-acre plot of land purchased a decade ago).
Sifang is part of a small ‘village’ of 24 buildings including a boutique hotel and designer homes – the whole project is called the China International Practical Exhibition of Architecture (CIPEA). It involved 20 top architects including Mathiaz Klotz, and cost the Lu family $164 million to build.
Lu described how when they first wandered around the lush virgin land 10 years ago, he and his father had to use a GPS to navigate. “Ten years later and we are still learning about the enormous possibilities this space can bring us and the people of Nanjing,” said Lu.
He added that the Sifang museum was a response to China’s rapid urbanisation and the prevalent “profit-maximising mentality”. As he puts it: “The landscape of Chinese cities is (increasingly characterised) by repetitive architecture at minimal cost. We felt obliged to break the mould and invigorate the cultural scene of Nanjing.”
The museum itself houses works by foreign and Chinese contemporary artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Marlene Dumas, Yang Fudong and Zhou Chunya.
Meanwhile, Adrian Cheng a 35 year-old art collector who one day will inherit Hong Kong’s $63 billion conglomerate, New World Development, is enabling a steady stream of artistic talent to flourish in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
After graduating from Harvard, Cheng spent two years in Beijing during which time he realised that China’s contemporary art scene was superficial. “It was primarily a series of large art galleries built by wealthy entrepreneurs to showcase the expensive art they had bought at auction,” he says, adding there was a dearth of support for emerging young artists. So five years ago Cheng opened a not-for-profit artist’s village with studio spaces in Wuhan to incubate emerging artists. Many later attended artist-in-residence exchange programmes he organised with Paris’ prestigious Palais de Tokyo. “We want to focus on the cultural software, rather than the hardware, (building galleries) which everyone is doing in China. We want to build a cultural art ecosystem, a nest for young artists,” he said, adding that he also runs programmes to groom curators and educate the Chinese audience. So far 50 artists have graduated from the artist village, many of whom have successfully debuted at Cheng’s art galleries in Hong Kong.
So what drives these youngsters to spend money and time on furthering a cultural rebirth, instead of buying luxury goods or growing a business?
Is a genuine love of art or do they see the exercise as just a means for their families to diversify their wealth?
“These kids are confident, educated overseas, have an international background and are genuinely passionate about art,” reckons William Zhao, a Chinese collector and curator. He added that in his opinion, “managing wealth and making an investment is a secondary concern”.
Others take a slightly different view. “For the young ones having an art collection is not just about an investment. It is about building up an image, it is a status symbol,” said Claudia Albertini a director of Platform China, a Beijing-based gallery which describes itself as an “art salon to build up cultural exchange between Chinese and contemporary artists”.
“We had this in the Middle Ages,” she points out, referring to the famous Medici family (a banking dynasty credited with commissioning some of Italy’s finest Renaissance art).
Creating a private museum is a “feather in the cap” for those who are wealthy enough to be able to afford it, adds Albertini.
But whatever it is that drives these young collectors and patrons, they are not to be sniffed at. Albertini told WiC: “They are the world’s big collectors of the future. They are constantly on the plane, they are curious, and fast, and they are very, very smart.”
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