In their various philanthropical undertakings, Guy and Myriam Ullens have always tried to share their enthusiasm for their projects. Whether for such diverse initiatives as a school in Nepal, or cancer relief treatment centres in Europe, they have shown unparalleled determination by putting their heart and soul into the realisation of their vision. It was also the case when they were creating the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in 2007 (UCCA), not only the first venue for contemporary art in China, but also the first one started by Westerners. UCCA has truly been at the forefront in China, considering that 26 other private venues set-up by local philanthropists presently exist there. Following the sale of the UCCA in 2017, Guy Ullens looks back on a decade that stands as a milestone in the development of China. He discusses various aspects of this undertaking at a time when the museum has now become a reference point beyond Chinese borders.
Asian Art Newspaper: How did you become interested in contemporary art from China?
Guy Ullens: I had started to buy a few pieces and look at contemporary art from China in galleries in Hong Kong, which I found overall quite disappointing. However, there was Johnson Chang, an important dealer who was very much ahead of his time and whose gallery Hanart in Hong Kong was one of the few places where one could see what was really happening.
Around the same time, I became friends with a person who is the pinnacle of discretion and whom no-one knows. Before meeting him,
I was then acquiring ancient objects and my friend immediately recommended that I stop in order to devote my attention to another area. He indicated how some people, who had escaped China early on, were at the end of their lives and were leaving their children in remote countries like Brazil, or elsewhere, large collections of ancient classical paintings in which nobody was interested. Consequently, he urged me to forget about ancient objects and to collect these classical pieces instead – this would fill me with great joy. I followed his suggestion which led us to exhibit the collection, featuring some national treasures, in the Forbidden City in 2002. That was a key moment in our lives.
However, I had also started to collect contemporary works in China and I exhibited our collection in an exhibition called Paris-Pékin at Espace Pierre Cardin in Paris in October 2002. It was one of the first such exhibitions and the two large red dinosaurs (Made in China) by Sui Jianguo in the parking area created an incomparable buzz for the show. We staged a fantastic exhibition although neither of us had ever done anything like that before. Ultimately, as my two curators had a disagreement, it was the architect, Jean-Michel Wilmotte, who stepped in and involved his entire family to finish hanging the show. This exhibition led to other venues in Lyon, Antwerp in Belgium and little by little things came together – in China as well. Fei Dawei, a Chinese critic and curator, who was based in France, suggested I made some radical changes opting for a more professional set-up, as my personal assistant suddenly found herself overwhelmed with the handling of our collection and our curatorial activities. Finally, Fei Dawei became the person in charge of our collection. He was a marvellous intellectual and connoisseur of the Chinese contemporary art scene.
We then decided to start the museum in a wonderful building and needless to say, our budget ended up being much higher than anticipated. The undertaking was very demanding and at some point, my wife who temporarily had to carry on with the project by herself as I was recovering from surgery, told me she could not go on. She suggested we stop, but I begged her to reconsider. Ultimately, by 2007, we had succeeded in opening the museum.
AAN: How much time went by between the moment you thought about opening a museum and the moment it actually happened?
GU: Originally, it was a very simple idea: we wanted to find an old factory in order to store our collection, because Fei Dawei wanted me to include very large pieces. I did not want that because such pieces take up considerable space and are difficult to ship. That was the case with ‘the plane’ by Huang Yong-Ping, a piece we inherited from Fei Dawei and which is still a burden. In 2004, we thought about finding an old factory building in Shanghai, but Fei Dawei was aware that Shanghai was not an art-oriented city. Similarly to Paris, artists try to stay around Beijing as they realise that if they come from the provinces and are unable to leave, they hardly have a chance of breaking through. Therefore, at the time artists were all trying to settle in Beijing. In addition, there was the diaspora to consider with artists who had left Beijing after Tian An Men, or in conjunction with past events of the Cultural Revolution and had settled in the United States or in Paris.
AAN: The decade from the time you started the museum in 2007 to the moment you sold has been an amazing decade where everything changed in China. What are your thoughts?
GU: As we started out, there was no other major collectors. There was Uli Sigg, then there was Mr Logan, an American, and that was all. Artists had been released, but were working for the state who had emancipated them, and they found themselves with no clients. Therefore, we were the ones who happened to support them and we started to amass paintings that we literally adored.
We were driven by sheer enthusiasm! In that respect, I remember this story that took place a few years earlier, when I added a basement to my home in order to store my classical paintings and to keep them away from the sunlight. Together with these pieces, I also stored all the works we had acquired in China. Our architect, Marc Corbiau, who had completed the basement and loves art, one day took a look at the Chinese contemporary art pieces and said he did not want any of them in his projects. A few years later, he attended the Venice Biennale where the late Harald Szeemann curated a section highlighting contemporary art from China. My architect came back to me saying it was still as awful, but complimented me on my good intuition with the pieces that would allow me to make a lot of money. I replied that this was absolutely not my intention. On the contrary, I wanted to support a very talented generation of artists and try to bring them to the same level as their counterparts in Europe or in the United States. Consequently, we worked extremely hard in order to stage some exhibitions in Europe and in China.
AAN: That decade also marked the birth of the contemporary art scene in China. What was your personal experience?
GU: For us, it all happened very casually. There was a huge interest from two people – me and my wife – who had no training in that area, but little-by-little things started to change as and when we had the opportunity to buy pieces that I thought were phenomenal. However, these artists were still considerably unhappy as they did not have any clients. They were trying to persevere, to get information, but could not find anyone. There was still great political prejudice against them and frequently they were not given their passports. Some of these artists had just been liberated and we had a very simple, but marvellous, relationship with them. It was an amazing period, as with no clients they had all the time in the world. They therefore completed few pieces, but of amazing quality. We met fascinating people!
At the time, Beijing under Deng Xiao Ping was a interesting place to be. The sad events of Tian An Men, on the other hand, brought a communist resurgence with a violent reaction against Gorbachev, who was about to loose control in the Soviet Union. Suddenly, Gorbachev was advocating his new anti-communist policy, giving all former Soviet Eastern Bloc republics their independence. Needless to say, the Chinese government was horrified about what was happening. Deng Xiao Ping and his team had a strong reaction as they thought the changes in the Soviet Union would put the Chinese government in a difficult position. It is undeniable that after the passing away of Mao, Deng Xiao Ping came to power and brought a certain stability which was not a given in the first place. He had to face enormous challenges. In my opinion, he was a genius and he was able to turn things around in a smooth way.
During this time under Deng Xiao Ping, artists were working moderately, were available and we became very close to all of them.
A few years later, Chinese contemporary art was suddenly propelled to the forefront at the Venice Biennale, in 1999, with the late Harald Szeemann, who gave it the recognition it deserved. It was an extraordinary moment and slightly after, we started looking for a space. Fei Dawei was difficult as he wanted a lot of installations, photography and video, things that could neither be shown, manipulated or stored. His dream was to bring Huang Yong-Ping’s plane to the 1999 Venice Biennale and win a prize there – that actually never happened. It was a difficult time and things were getting complicated, because Fei Dawei was largely more qualified than me and my wife, and he was also trying to make his own dreams come true, dreams that were not necessarily ours.
We were also facing the question how to store all these installations. As bringing them back to Europe was very expensive and there was no space for storage, we started looking for a factory for double use where with the proper infrastructure, we would have stored these monstrous installations. Then we would have organised a few unpretentious and humble exhibitions with the idea of highlighting what we thought was interesting. Sometimes people tend to give me and my wife a dimension we do not have. They would love to make heroes out of us, but we are not. We hobbled along, making it through an entire obstacle course until the day I had this moment of madness as Fei Dawei found a space in Beijing. Tom Krens, from the Guggenheim, was also interested, but wanted the Chinese government to pay for it which did not work out so he left. Although Fei Dawei was convinced we would never get the space in the Chaoyang district of the city (now called 798 Art Zone), but we ultimately did. The factory was in dreadful condition, but with the help of architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, we turned this Bauhaus monument around, keeping its original features for a space that will last forever.
AAN: The museum, did not have its own collection. Retrospectively, was this the right decision ?
GU: It was the only solution because going beyond contemporary art from China, the area has become extremely broad between the United States, Iceland, Europe and China, with the result that there is contemporary art everywhere. We have tried to keep an unpretentious character with no universal ambition, aiming at showing the Chinese audience a maximum range of things. Had we started a collection, we would have had to consider principles such as whether these works could be sold again. I guess that very quickly people would have followed what we were selling and would have started to wonder about the reasons of such sales.
AAN: As for the legal status of the museum, how did it come about?
GU: Once as I was in Paris, I was invited and introduced to the Chinese Prime Minister. He urged me to meet with his Minister of Culture in Beijing. Upon our meeting, the Minister of Culture clearly stated that he forbid me from setting up a foundation because I would end up depending on his Ministry: the Ministry of Culture and Propaganda. The museum would then have entered an area within which I would not have been able to do anything. Therefore, the message was simple: if I decided to move forward with the museum, he commanded me to become a commercial company. Retrospectively, I am so happy it happened that way! On our side, we went way above budget, and in terms of annual budget, we found ourselves on the same level as any museum
AAN: Before the museum was actually sold in 2017, there was a first attempt at selling it a few years earlier.
GU: Yes, there was an earlier attempt to sell the museum in 2011. All the agreements between Goldman Sachs and one of the first Chinese banks had been signed and ultimately, the Chinese bank suddenly backed out. This is a common pattern in China. Now, with the final sale in 2017, Lazard was in charge of selecting a Chinese candidate who acted exactly the same way. As we wanted to sell the museum the first time around, we thought we had accomplished our mission and people had seen enough of us: the museum was doing well, Philippe Tinari (the present curator) joined the museum slightly later and Jérôme Sans was still the curator in charge. More importantly, we felt the fundamentals had been put in place.
AAN: Did you manage to have a good overview of the legal and fiscal situation for the museum when you were setting it up ?
GU: In the beginning, we were literally lost, be this for issues regarding the firemen, the police, the social services. We made a million mistakes and the initial team we had was not that strong in terms of management and were all new to the job. It was very complicated.
AAN: Once you decided to set up the museum as a commercial entity, did things go smoothly ?
GU: Our district manager in Beijing came to see me once in a while in order to provide the mayor with a report. The first encounters were slightly tense, especially in view of the inauguration of the museum and then, over time, he turned out to be a charming person. Overall, we always had a very cordial relationship with China. They could have been at war with us regarding the censorship of this or that piece. However, becoming aware and realising what our intentions were, we had a kind of ‘credit’ with them which is always something to be welcomed. Today, the city of Shanghai supports its new museums whereas we had absolutely nothing. It was extremely difficult and if I had to do it again, I would do it differently.
AAN: What exactly would you do differently?
GU: I made the investment. If we had been a foundation, it would probably have been much easier to raise funds for the museum. However, had we set up the museum as a foundation, I would have lost control of the entire undertaking. During the selling process in 2017, there were important tensions with my executive board who was anxious to find out who I was going to bring as a buyer. It was very difficult. Initially, they thought that setting up a foundation in Hong Kong would solve the problem, but that was not the case.
My successors are much smarter than me: the central part of the museum has now become a foundation which allows them to raise funds more easily among Chinese people and beyond. In addition, some of the activities they have taken over like the education of children for example are considered and run as a business. Clearly, the whole set up is much more subtle now than when we started out.
AAN: Did you encounter any difficulties with the government in the daily operations of the museum?
GU: I have never felt that. I must obviously have had a team around me that was quite close to the party otherwise I do not think they would have let me operate independently like that. That team must have submitted and made an excellent presentation of our initiatives to the government, reflecting our innocence all the more as we never did anything twisted.
AAN: What heritage are you leaving behind ?
GU: If in 2000 you told anybody that one were to open a museum in Beijing with avant-garde art, people would have considered you mad. If it were not for the cost and for my failed exit in 2011, it was time to sell as a solid and competent team like the Minsheng Bank was taking over our entity, taking it forward. In comparison, I must admit that we were very small. The image people sometimes have played tricks on me and did not serve me well as all too often, they considered me immensely and endlessly rich which was not the case.
AAN: After the failed attempt to sell the museum in 2011, did you postpone the sale for some time or did you remain open to the idea if the right opportunity came along ?
GU: I already wanted to leave the museum in 2011 and change my life: I was 76 years old and I felt that was enough. For me, it was clear from the start that by building the museum, I would later end up passing it on to somebody else.
AAN: You took a chance on hiring the present director of the museum, Philippe Tinari.
GU: Originally, Philippe Tinari was a small publisher. He was very young, around 28 years old and living in Beijing. My director of the museum at the time urged me to hire him. Philippe and his team were lucky to surf on what we had started and built from scratch because he was a little handicapped having no references in the curatorial world. However, he has very quickly gained international standing and that is an enormous joy. Philippe never counted the hours, travelled a lot and is in the process of finishing a Phd at the University of Oxford. The present buyers agreed to move forward with the acquisition of the museum under the condition they could keep Philippe Tinari in addition to my name, by still calling the museum the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.
AAN: Since its launch and until the time you sold, was the museum based on your generosity?
GU: The basic financing did come from my wife and myself.
AAN: While you had the museum in Beijing, did your collection go beyond China and expand into neighbouring countries?
GU: Yes. I was assessing whether in neighbouring countries artists were also as ‘hungry’, which is how I would qualify the passion of the Chinese artists. I tried to see if I would find that same ambiance elsewhere, but I did not. I have come to the conclusion that the situation in China is exceptional. I found wonderful artists in India from whom I bought in a small quantity, but I did not find the same passion, the same commitment, or museums there. What the Chinese artists have accomplished is admirable! I can never praise them enough !
Outside China, I did not find that extraordinary explosion of art which is perhaps based on the quality of China’s fine art schools. Hangzhou had 12,000 students three years ago, teaching eight or 10 disciplines. The same goes for the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. For me, that was the basis of the creation of Chinese contemporary art. They had exceptionally qualified teachers and highly motivated students. I only entered the stage with my wife in order to show them the way. My mission was very simple: it was to start something. In short, we were initiators, but not people who do the interlude or the second part.
AAN : Do you still hold a position in the museum ?
GU: I am a small shareholder. However, I want to avoid playing the part of the ‘mother-in-law’. We all know about that caricature and we certainly do not want to be associated with it.
AAN: Hong Kong and Shanghai have grown into art centres in their own right. What about Beijing?
GU: I originally thought Beijing would become one of the large contemporary art centres. However, I have the feeling that the Chinese leaders do not want that at all, from what I understand. They prefer these turbulences to be carried out elsewhere because there is always a danger of possible agitation from the students. I think the government has a very clear vision about how to avoid difficulties. For everything that may be the subject of possible turbulences, Hong Kong is the perfect place.
AAN: Abroad, many people tend to criticise China for not being a true democracy. What are your feelings?
GU: That would not be advisable because what we see very clearly with Xi Jinping is what I would call an ‘imperial inspiration;, highlighting these old Chinese traditions. What is presently happening is that China is in the process of starting to export its model which seems to be much more effective. This model can already be found in Hungary, and perhaps a little bit in Poland.
AAN: Did you keep your collection of ancient Chinese art ?
GU: No, I did not. In order to do all these things, one needs to be a billionaire and I am not as wealthy as I am often portrayed. I always had to sell something else, in this case the ancient part, in order to focus on a different area. I have been relentlessly free spirited, and I was fortunate to have a wife who supported me in my various initiatives. It has been quite an undertaking, but a fabulous one!
AAN: Today in China, even the contemporary art market has to deal with the issue of fakes …
GU: If you go to an art school in China, that very question will sparkle an extensive debate because the first thing a young artist is taught is to copy and to reproduce. An excellent copy is regarded very highly. I do not know how they make the difference between the copy and the original work. One enters a world which is not ours where a reproduction is not necessarily something awful that needs to be stopped. I am however convinced that there are people working exclusively on fakes and that are making a living with it. They are so gifted!
AAN: So, has China has been an extraordinary adventure for you?
GU: That chapter is now closed and I am in the process of taking apart what I have built. I have a very large family, and I should not leave them with too many things that will end up being a burden. China represents 30 years of my life and it was a huge passion. It was an opportunity which made me profoundly happy as I could make a contribution at the right time. Fortunately, life did not punish me and my wife for having too much ambition and for having too many dreams.
UCCA, 4 Jiuxianqiao Rd, Chaoyang Qu, Beijing Shi, China, 100096, ucca.org.cn