Art Market

12 Collectors Shaping the Chinese Art World

Frances Arnold
Nov 3, 2016 12:52AM

From founding art fairs and establishing private museums, to backing young galleries and young artists, China’s new generation of collectors aren’t just acquiring—they’re fostering growth across the arts ecosystem. Primarily born after mainland China’s opening-up in the late 1970s, they’ve been afforded key opportunities denied to their parents. The most significant has been access to international artists and histories through travel, communication, and, for many, studying abroad. For millennials in particular, growing up in a world connected like never before has given rise to a truly global generation.

At home, this group of 12 Chinese collectors have benefited from recent years’ establishing of a solid yet dynamic arts infrastructure in Greater China. A number of art fairs have solidified the region’s market for international contemporary art, among them Art Basel in Hong Kong, West Bund, and Art021. (The latter two open this week.) Local galleries have expanded and flourished and international galleries have set up shop in reaction to this increasingly vibrant art scene. Some among this dozen come from families with lengthy collecting backgrounds, and have applied their international outlook to steering their families’ classical collections to contemporary ground. For others, collecting began as a side project that has taken on a life of its own. A handful have incorporated a passion for art with commercial interests; many are now actively leveraging their status to support new generations of Chinese collectors, artists, and the art world at large.

A decade in the making, Qiao Zhibing’s collection is finally seeing the light of day. Although more senior than others on this list, Shanghai’s king of clubs is at the forefront of the next phase of the city’s youngest and most dynamic art districts, West Bund. Having long showcased international acquisitions in what must be China’s best-decorated karaoke bar, Shanghai Night, in 2015 the innovative entertainment mogul established Qiao Space in the riverside hub, where later this month he will team up with Hauser & Wirth to host Martin Creed’s first China-side solo show. Towards the end of next year, he will open Tank Shanghai, an art and recreation destination housed inside a string of empty oil tanks along the same riverside stretch. Spanning a range of media, his collection began with a work by Zhang Enli in 2006, taking an international turn in 2009 with the purchase of a sculpture by Antony Gormley.

Multi-billion-dollar real estate and retail company New World Development boasts a somewhat unique string to its bow, thanks to Executive Vice-Chairman and Joint General Manager Cheng’s passion for art. The business empire, which was founded by Cheng’s grandfather, debuted the first “art mall” in Hong Kong in 2009, bringing the model to Shanghai in 2013.

Cheng’s own K11 Art Foundation, the “museum retail” company and platform for emerging contemporary art he founded in 2010, seeks to bring art to the masses by offering educational programs and exhibitions across its locations—including Wuhan K11 Art Village, which hosts a local artist-in-residence and artist exchange program. Having long nurtured a love of the humanities (he concentrated in East Asian studies at Harvard), Cheng first became interested in contemporary art around 2006. Working in Beijing at the time, he met many Chinese artists whose work he would later go on to collect. Over the years the cultural entrepreneur’s acquisitions have become increasingly global, and include pieces by Adrián Villar Rojas, Tatiana Trouvé, and Neïl Beloufa.

Not your average UPenn student, 22-year-old Huang is cofounder of M WOODS, the private not-for-profit museum he opened (along with Lin Han and Wanwan Lei) in the Chinese capital’s 798 arts district in 2014 with a goal to become “the MoMA of China.” In between cramming art history and running the museum, you’ll find him globe-trotting in search of new artists—often on research trips for the New Museum, where he’s currently the youngest member of the International Leadership Council.

Inspired by weekend visits to the Tate Modern during his high school years in London, Huang began collecting at age 16, acquiring a single piece a year. Today, his robust collection is very much focused on his millennial generation: “I grew up in a digital, tech-savvy generation and I consciously try to support young artists and those working with new media and the internet,” he says. To that end, he supported Amalia Ulman’s studio and social media-based practice at this year’s Berlin Biennale, and is heavily involved in an exhibition of post-internet artists at M WOODS slated for next year.

“For me, it’s very important to meet the artist before purchasing; face-to-face communication is important,” explains Ying, collector and co-founder of ART021 Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair, which she launched with her husband David Chau in 2013. Ying’s engagement with the arts started from a young age—her mother worked at a  national art and culture institution, and was close friends with realist painter Chen Yifei.

Over the years, Ying has been steering her family’s formerly classical collection toward modern and contemporary works, beginning with her purchase of a work by Zhang Enli. Her taste continues to evolve, she says, and currently leans toward abstract pieces. “Especially after I founded ART021… my eyes [became] more sharp and picky.” While her primary focus is art, Ying is also a shareholder of Shanghai-based PR and modeling agency HUAYI Brothers Fashion Group, as well as an ambassador for several beauty, health, and fitness brands.

Half of Shanghai’s best-known art couple, Chau began his collecting career on a decidedly modest path. “I started collecting at a very young age, with coins and sports cards,” he recalls. “So it was a natural progression for me to get interested in art collecting.” While attending the University of British Columbia, Chau helped organize Chinese artists’ exhibitions at the Vancouver Art Gallery and soon developed a taste for early 20th-century artists like Lin Fengmian and Wu Dayu. By 2005 his collection took a different course, as he turned his attention to contemporary artists. These days, Chau’s collecting takes a back seat to his serial entrepreneurship: Art ventures include establishing C.C. Foundation, co-founding ART021, and kickstarting leading local galleries Leo Xu Projects and Antenna Space. 

Collecting power-couple Lin and Lei cofounded Beijing’s private contemporary art museum M WOODS with Huang in 2014. “We arrived at collecting in different ways,” explains Lin, who studied animation design before founding an events company for luxury brands in mainland China in 2009. While Lin made his first purchase in 2013, “Wanwan has been around art and artists her whole life,” he says of Lei, who began her first of many gallery jobs at age 17 while earning her undergraduate art history degree at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Art. She also modeled for Chinese painter Liu Ye during this time.

“I had less exposure in my younger years but I started collecting when I realized I had so much to learn from artists,” adds Lin. “I think that art offers new energy—it is like the sun, or a light that enables people to see each other. This is why we collect and why we want to share the collection.” Lin’s first purchase was a mask painting by contemporary Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi. But recently, the couple have begun exploring cross-period commonalities. “We have been looking to the past a lot, but only because we see this as a tool to better understand the future,” says Lei. With this ethos, the pair have plans to open a second Beijing space outside of the 798 hub, specifically geared toward showing emerging artists.

Li was inspired to collect by her antique-collecting father. After majoring in painting at Shanghai University’s Fine Arts College in 2007, she began considering a collection of her own, picking up a work by Xu Bing in 2011. From there, her collection has focused exclusively on Chinese artists, continuing to expand in volume, dimensions, and media. Li is particularly drawn to contemporary artists such as Cai Guo-Qiang, Zhang Enli, and Sun Xun, whose work incorporates both a palpable Chinese lexicon and international perspective. By the end of this year, the young Chinese collector will open an art space in Shanghai’s M50 art hub to showcase her collection, as well as provide a venue for talks, education, and performance art.

“I like to show art in a public space, a living space—not just a white cube,” says Chong. With this sentiment in mind, the UCLA alum regularly hosts exhibitions, talks, and social gatherings at Mingo, his restaurant housed inside a turn-of-the-century villa in Shanghai’s former French concession, as part of his initiative Art Project CZ.

Chong credits his interest in collecting art with his mother, who started her own collection in 2001. However, it was not until 2010 that he made his first purchase—a self-portrait by Yayoi Kusama. Today, his collection centers on artists of his own generation (those born after 1975) with rising stars Liang Manqi and Chongqing-born painter Xie Nanxing currently on his radar.

Thirty-three-year-old Lu is the young Chinese collector behind Sifang Art Museum, a spectacular Steven Holl-designed space set inside Laoshan National Forest Park (just across the Yangtze River from the city of Nanjing) that he opened with his father, real estate developer Lu Jun, in 2013—having left postgraduate studies at Cambridge four years prior to help run the project.

Lu has not only inherited his family’s passion for collecting Chinese contemporary art, but he has also brought an international ethos to the site by way of a specific interest in working with globally renowned architects and artists for site-specific projects. The museum’s campus boasts 20 villas designed by some 20 international architects—including David Adjaye and Ai Weiwei—and was shortlisted for last year’s Leading Cultural Destinations Awards.

“It’s important to keep reading and keep looking,” says Yi of her approach to collecting. A first purchase of a Martin Kippenberger painting (“he represented everything I admire in an artist”) kickstarted a collection of mid-career and young artists from the U.S., South Africa, France, Switzerland, U.K., Turkey, and beyond. Earlier this year, Yi co-founded YIS Foundation, a research organization aimed at fostering best practices and professional development in the Chinese art ecosystem.

“The past two decades saw a dramatic growth of the contemporary art market in China; however, systematic research and regulatory initiatives fall short in relation to the market boom,” she says. “At the foundation, we endeavour to alter this status quo.” The inaugural project, YIS LIST, rates young contemporary Chinese artists based on international exhibition records and will be debuted in Shanghai this month.

It was a Francis Bacon painting at London’s Tate Modern that first inspired young Beijing-based collector Zhang to begin acquiring works. His first purchase was in 2013, and today his collection comprises pieces by the likes of Rudolf Stingel, Urs Fischer, Gerhard Richter, and Takashi Murakami. In addition to his work in real estate development and medical investment, the Suzhou native is currently exploring possibilities for opening an art space next year in Beijing’s Chaoyang district. 

“I’m Buddhist, and from 2006 started collecting statues of Buddha,” explains Sichuan-born Huang of the various changes of course his collecting has undergone over the years. Despite an initial purchase of a piece of ancient porcelain in 2003, by 2007 his focus had shifted to Chinese contemporary art when he picked up Xiang Jing’s sculptural work, The Center of Quietude (2007).

The former champion bodybuilder sees his collection as having five main pillars: painting, contemporary ink, video and photography, sculpture, and, a particular favorite, conceptual work. “Whenever I’m considering a piece of work or an artist, I look at what strength they bring to their respective category,” he says. A personal highlight of his collection is Zheng Guogu’s set of metallic sculptures resembling soap dispensers and soda cans, Rusty for Another 2000 Years (1999-2008). Huang recently presented his collection at MOCA Chengdu, an experience that he saw as a homecoming of sorts: “I am from Sichuan, and wanted to bring the positive energy of contemporary art to my home province.”

Frances Arnold
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019