Adrian Cheng Is Building a New Culture for Chinese Millennials—One Art Mall at a Time
For the better part of the last decade, the K11 Art Foundation has quietly but surely built up its presence in the international art world. Who’s buying up cutting-edge works at Frieze London? K11. The Armory Show’s 2014 China Symposium and Chinese artist Cheng Ran’s residency-cum-exhibition at the New Museum? Both sponsored by K11. The Venice Biennale pop-up exhibition of Liang Yuanwei, curated by the Centre Pompidou’s Loïc Le Gall? Mounted by K11. The Serpentine Galleries, Centre Pompidou, New Museum, and MoMA PS1’s respective pop-ups in Shanghai and Hong Kong? Yup, all at K11.
Since its founding in 2010, the foundation has opened exhibition spaces in Hong Kong and Shanghai, established a residency program in Wuhan, and mounted more than 60 exhibitions that have helped define the vanguard in Chinese contemporary art. The next phase of its expansion officially kicks off next week during Art Basel in Hong Kong with the foundation’s first exhibition curated without an international partner (instead by its new artistic director, Venus Lau), and a new museum opening in Guangzhou with a show by photographer Chen Wei.
K11’s rapid rise to art-world ubiquity illustrates both the ambition of its founder, billionaire Chinese real estate and jewelry scion Adrian Cheng, and the art industry’s definitive pivot to Asia as dealers and institutions seek to engage the region’s rapidly growing number of billionaires and reflect the rising influence of its artists.
The 38-year-old Cheng does not mince words when describing that ambition. His goal is nothing less than “to create a contemporary Chinese culture,” he said when we met last November in a wood-paneled room at the top of a Shanghai tower that holds offices for two of Cheng’s companies (the Hong Kong-based real estate group New World Development, and Chow Tai Fook Jewelry Group, both founded by his grandfather Cheng Yu-tung, are among his largest holdings). The tower sits atop one of Cheng’s K11 “Art Malls,” as his department stores are known, a growing number of which house a K11 Art Foundation exhibition space alongside their retail offerings.
View of K11 Art Mall. Courtesy of K11 Art Foundation.
View of K11 Art Mall. Courtesy of K11 Art Foundation.
“This contemporary Chinese culture is for the new generation, for Generation Z, for the Millennials,” he said. He hopes this burgeoning cultural movement will, like the young people who will create and consume it, further position China on the world stage.
Many members of this new generation, especially those who might shop in a K11 Art Mall or peruse a K11 exhibition, have traveled extensively internationally and oftentimes attended boarding school or university in the U.K. or the U.S. before returning home to start a new business or take over a family enterprise. Cheng himself went to Harvard.
It’s also a generation that—thanks to the incredible expansion of the Chinese economy over the last two decades and, more recently, a U.S. president in Donald Trump whose America First policies have left a vacuum on the world stage—is inheriting a country primed for a soft power offensive akin to that forged by America in the second half of the 20th century. Cheng sees K11 as part of that offensive’s forward guard.
“As China is getting wealthier, people need to have more cultural identity,” he said. “We are proud of our own country and think contemporary Chinese culture is very important—not just art, but design, architecture, and furniture. Young generations want to be part of this new cultural identity that represents the new China; they want to grow with it, and also hopefully make it an international thing as well.”
The birth of the art mall
Cheng opened the first K11 Art Mall in Hong Kong in 2009 and founded the K11 Art Foundation one year later. The idea to integrate contemporary art into luxury retail spaces was, like most good ones in China, quickly copied by other developers to varying levels of success. But Cheng had a few distinct advantages: the immense scale of the New World Development Group’s landbank, with 10.6 million square feet in Hong Kong and over 86 million square feet of space in Mainland China as of December 31, 2017; a clear strategy of how to leverage that scale quickly, putting art at the center of the K11 brand; and recent behavioral shifts, particularly the tendency for young consumers to look to shopping centers to provide experiences, not just retail opportunities.
Developers in the U.S. have responded to the emptying of their mid-century malls with experiential concepts from trampoline parks to museums of feelings to virtual golf. Cheng, building his growing number of malls as this shift was taking place, dedicated a space in a selection of his K11 malls to what the brand’s website cannily calls “an art playground,” as well as other cultural activities; an escalator ride up from K11’s Shanghai exhibition space offers opportunities to take cooking classes, for example.
View of K11 Art Mall. Courtesy of K11 Art Foundation.
By 2009, the art market was already well-established in Hong Kong, its citizens eager for Cheng’s further injection of contemporary art. The ArtHK fair launched in 2008, helping international galleries—and international contemporary art—gain a bigger foothold in the city. Starting in 2009, those galleries began opening up spaces in the city. In 2011, one year after the K11 Art Foundation’s launch, Art Basel acquired the Hong Kong fair, definitively crowning the city as the art-world capital of Asia.
The audience in Mainland China was less developed. The K11 Art Mall in Shanghai opened in 2013, one year after the opening of the city’s Long Museum, begun by collectors Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei and a year before that of Budi Tek’s Yuz Museum, both now pillars in the city’s art landscape. The mall’s exhibition space made an initial splash in 2014 with a show of 40 works by Claude Monet, which drew long lines of art lovers, while the international art world scratched its head. Art in a shopping mall—who does that?
Why not, answered more than 200,000 people who attended the Monet exhibition during its three-and-a-half-month run; that show was followed by an exhibition of 240 works by Salvador Dalí, which ran through mid-February 2016. The foundation went on to sponsor exhibitions of Chinese artists like Tianzhuo Chen at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and Zhang Ding at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. Over the past two years, many of the contemporary art world’s most recognizable names, like Hans Ulrich Obrist, Lauren Cornell, and Klaus Biesenbach, began curating exhibitions at K11, in some cases with the double-billing of the Serpentine Galleries, New Museum, and MoMA PS1, respectively, lending weight to the still-fledgling foundation.
Obrist’s “Hack Space,” co-curated with Amira Gad in 2016 and featuring a mix of Chinese and international artists like Cao Fei, Simon Denny, and aaajiao, kicked off this series of collaborations in earnest with iterations at K11 locations in both Hong Kong and Shanghai. In 2017, K11 co-presented an exhibition, “.com/.cn” with MoMA PS1, curated by Biesenbach and PS1 chief curator Peter Eleey, which highlighted artists focusing on the influence of technology on both sides of the Great Firewall.
K11’s multifaceted relationship with PS1 is exemplary of the kind of partnerships the foundation has formed with international institutions. Formalized in 2015, it includes public-facing collaborations like “.com/.cn” and the lavish Chinese New Year celebration they have jointly hosted for 1,500 guests at PS1 over the past two years, as well as an ongoing research initiative that serves to uncover young Chinese artists.
Biesenbach said he was first pointed towards K11 by Cao Fei, who saw a natural affinity between the foundation’s mission and PS1’s effort, since the late ’90s, to provide Chinese contemporary artists a platform in the U.S. He pointed to the landmark 1998 show, “Inside Out: New Chinese Art,” which exposed the New York art world to artists like Cai Guo-Qiang, Wenda Gu, Chen Zhen, and Zhang Huan—members of the generation that preceded the one on which K11 most often focuses—as one example of MoMA PS1’s engagement with and propagation of Chinese contemporary art.
“Adrian being much younger than I am, he is adding on a younger generation” of artists to that dialogue, Biesenbach said. “But he has the experience and credibility of PS1 on his side.”
Installation view of “.com/.cn” co-presented by K11 Art Foundation and MoMA PS1, K11 Art Foundation Pop-up Space, Hong Kong, 2017.
Cheng joined MoMA PS1’s board in 2016. Another young Chinese collector, Linyao Kiki Liu, director of her family’s Si Shang Art Museum in Beijing, joined in 2017. When in China, Biesenbach is more often than not at one of their sides. However, he said these relationships are less about fundraising than they are aimed at better servicing the institution’s visitors and maintaining its position on the vanguard of contemporary art.
“Nineteen percent of the audience of MoMA PS1 is Asian or Asian-American,” he said, with a big part of that group being young Chinese tourists. He said one of those tourists recently pulled him aside in the museum’s hallway to say that after seeing the “.com/.cn” show, they decided that they had to come see PS1 itself in person. The studio visits that Biesenbach goes on with Cheng every time he visits China, as part of their joint research initiative, led to a show by the young, Beijing-based artist Li Binyuan at PS1, which opens April 15th.
“MoMA PS1 tries to always be where so many of the artists are, and we work with so many Chinese artists right now, so for us it is very important” to have partners on the ground, Bisenbach said. “K11 has grown to be our closest collaborator because they do what we do: They have residencies, they do research, they are artist-centric, and they are very generous in giving information out.”
chi K11 art museum, Courtesy of K11 Art Foundation.
But while Biesenbach has perhaps integrated himself into the Chinese art world more than most, he is far from the only U.S. museum director who is looking to China for growth. Michael Govan of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), for example, hosts one of Art Basel in Hong Kong’s most highly anticipated fêtes each year, in what could be read as a repositioning of that institution as a transpacific cultural entity.
K11’s new artistic director, Venus Lau, said that the partnerships the foundation has forged over the past several years have created invaluable bridges between the Chinese art world and that of the west, and has served K11’s core mission of incubating young Chinese artists. However, with those bridges firmly in place, it is time for K11 to branch out on its own.
“We exchanged a lot of views, knowledge, and perspectives through these collaborations,” she said. “But I think this is the time for us to review all of the perspectives that we’ve accumulated and generate things on our own, to show from the perspective of K11, a foundation based in Hong Kong, how we look at issues and what topics are worth paying attention to.”
Building an ecosystem
Cheng said that this next step of K11’s development will further leverage his real estate holdings to create what he now calls “the K11 art ecosystem” across all of China’s major cities. That ecosystem now includes eight artist studios, dubbed a K11 Art Village, in the central industrial hub of Wuhan, which reopened in November 2017; and, as of March 31st, a space in Guangzhou, a port city near Hong Kong with a population of 14 million. By the end of 2022, 29 art malls spanning over 23 million square feet in nine cities across Greater China will be fully operational. Cheng said the aim is to have each of their exhibitions tour multiple locations to allow for maximum exposure.
To service the growing K11 ecosystem, Cheng has staffed up. Last fall, he hired May Xue, the former CEO of Beijing’s renowned Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), and Lau, previously the director of Shenzhen’s OCT Contemporary Art Terminal and a consulting curator at UCCA, to direct local teams at each of K11’s locations. All told, over 20 people now work for the foundation, up from five in 2015. This allows the foundation to have an expansive view on how art practice is developing in China.
“The local teams can track what’s happening, where art is emerging, who the new artists are, and what they’re doing,” Cheng said. This lets them forecast and predict trends, not just in art but in in other cultural fields, as well, earlier and with more accuracy than was previously the case, he said.
It also guides them on how better to support the growth of interest in contemporary art and contemporary Chinese culture, countrywide. For example, Cheng’s team noticed early on that—unsurprisingly, due to how rapidly the country’s art market expanded—research and documentation of the recent art history of China was lacking.
Opening operatic performance Trayastrimsa of Tianzhuo Chen. Courtesy of K11 Art Foundation.
“People were focusing too much on the market and actually neglected to document and archive the academic side,” he said.
K11 responded by launching research and publishing initiatives on art historical movements from the 1980s, ’90s, and early 2000s that led up to the art shown at K11 locations today, “reconstructing contemporary Chinese art history,” as he put it. Further, educational initiatives are in development, he said, but remain under wraps.
A more subtle shift has also occurred in how the foundation frames its content and mission—from creating dialogue and bridges between east and west to addressing universal questions. From a soft-power perspective, it represents a striking shift, not just at K11 but across a number of other cultural actors in the past two years, toward presenting the next generation of Chinese citizens as global voices on a global stage.
“Art is a universal language,” Cheng said, adding that the artists with whom K11 works “are not looking at or identifying themselves as Chinese, because they think of being an artist is an open architecture. As an artist, it’s not about countries. Art is just art.”
Reflecting a universal perspective
The exhibition that K11 will open during Art Basel in Hong Kong serves as a launchpad for this universal dialogue. Titled “Emerald City,” it is the first exhibition the foundation has mounted without an international partner. It features works by a multigenerational swath of artists from around the world—Ashley Bickerton, Dora Budor, Nina Canell, Peter Halley, Shen Xin, Keiichi Tanaami, and Zhang Enli among them—who, on the face of it, may not seem to have all that much in common. What unites the works, and the exhibition, Lau said, is a focus on the “universal knowledge” of geometry as a language to describe space.
“It’s a kind of truth that can be used in every different type of space, in different regions, in different cultures,” Lau said. “You can use the same rules to measure a space in China or in New York. It doesn’t allow opacity. And so, in this case, opacity is basically used as a metaphor for difference.” She noted with a laugh that, despite the show’s focus, she’s actually “very bad at math.”
Lau said that focusing on a universal type of knowledge like geometry serves a dual purpose: to question what viewers should expect from a Hong Kong-based art foundation led by a female, Chinese curator, and to look at the globalized nature of the art world itself—engaging a dialogue about how people who fly the same paths around our blue dot, and engage with a largely global dialogue about contemporary art, can still look at, understand, and embrace difference.
It’s a heady topic, and one that echoes the foundation’s ambitions to expand its scope of inquiry from the specific—the digital world, an interlocutor between east and west—to universal, leveling up the institution’s global clout. Subsequent shows this year feature art world figures like Katharina Grosse, although the foundation will continue to support emerging Chinese artists, with solo shows of Zhao Yang and Shen Xin.
Art for the masses
The latest stage of K11’s development is perhaps best understood as a move from beta to version 1.0. Cheng appears determined to use his means and his influence to release many more upgrades still.
He isn’t interested in erecting a museum or two along Shanghai’s West Bund and emulating the growth path of institutions like the Frick Collection or the Whitney Museum of American Art: building a collection and then transferring custodianship to a board and access to the public. Rather, Cheng envisions K11’s role and his legacy in terms of broad cultural impact.
Installation view of Adrian Wong’s “New Orient Garden” at chi K11 art museum. Courtesy of K11 Art Foundation.
“We want to create something that can propagate culture domestically and also internationally. We want to showcase the creativity of China,” he said. “We don’t want to just focus on art; we want to cross different segments in the cultural world. We want to cross art with fashion, we want to cross art with architecture, art with furniture, art with celebrities.”
Last year, for example he arranged for Chinese video artist Cheng Ran to create a work that featured what he called “a people’s celebrity,” the well-known actress Zhao Liying. (She also serves as a brand ambassador for Chow Tai Fook Jewelry, another one of Cheng’s holdings.) Lau notes that these kinds of integrations and interdisciplinary activations will vary in their scope. “It doesn’t mean that we have to put fashion in every show, or we don’t have to play hip hop or pop music in our exhibition space,” in order to attract a broad audience, she said. However, she shares Cheng’s vision that contemporary art should be related to contemporary culture.
“If I’m working with contemporary artists, I need to know what the contemporary culture is that they’re creating within, including fashion, including music,” she said.
“What we’re trying to do is art for the masses,” Cheng said. “From 2010, we’ve been incubating contemporary Chinese artists, curators, and grooming an audience.”
“This,” he said, “is a new start.”
Header image: Portrait of Adrian Cheng by Inga Beckmann.