What Will Guy Ullens’s Sale of the UCCA Mean for the Museum’s Future?

  • Photo courtesy of Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

    Photo courtesy of Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

The future of one of China’s most respected contemporary art institutions was thrown into uncertainty on Thursday as Guy Ullens announced his intention to shift ownership of not only his eponymous Beijing museum, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), but also the art collection he has amassed over the course of over 30 years.

The official statement follows days of speculation on Chinese social networking sites Douban and Weixin. Pointing to age as a factor for the octogenarian’s surprise sale, the announcement notes that Ullens is “looking at options of how and when this would happen.” Until a suitable buyer for the exhibition space is settled upon, “UCCA will continue to run as normal under its current leadership.”

Founders Baron and Baroness Guy and Myriam Ullens de Schooten began collecting Chinese contemporary art more than 30 years ago. In 2007, the Belgian couple added UCCA to an expansive portfolio of initiatives spanning philanthropic to entrepreneurial. Housed in a former 1950s workshop, the 8,000-square-meter space has become a linchpin of late to Beijing’s wider 798 art hub, lending the complex global renown, top-notch programming, and an all-important critical sway. As hipster coffee joints, wedding photographers seeking urban edginess, and souvenir sellers continue to transform what was briefly a flagship district of grassroots artistic spirit in China, UCCA is one of a handful of spaces maintaining 798’s critical counterbalance.

The space’s inaugural exhibition “’85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art” was curated by the Center’s inaugural director Fei Dawei. Continuing UCCA’s strength at chronicling a still-young art scene was 2009’s “Breaking Forecast: 8 Key Figures of China’s New Generation Artists,” which featured the likes of Cao Fei, Yang Fudong, and Qiu Zhijie, and was co-curated by UCCA’s second director, Jérôme Sans.

In December 2011, Philip Tinari began his ongoing directorship of UCCA. That same year, Ullens sold over 180 works from his collection in Spring and Fall auctions at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, fueling rumors of an imminent off-loading of both the collection, and UCCA itself. While that proved to not be the case, Zhang Xiaogang’s triptych Forever Lasting Love (1988) broke records when it went under the hammer for a whopping $10 million.

Details of when the remaining collection will be sold, with whom, and which works are earmarked are not yet known, beyond yesterday’s teasingly sparse statement that works would be sold “through private sales and at auction later this year.” Baron and Baroness Ullens will not, it seems, follow the example of fellow European super-collector Uli Sigg, who in 2012 donated the majority of his collection of some 1,500 contemporary Chinese artworks, valued at $163 million, to Hong Kong’s yet-to-open M+ Museum (though a minority of the collection was sold for $22.8 million).

On the one hand, the Ullens’s departure from UCCA may amount to little: The nonprofit has long had  several funding streams in place beyond that of its founders. They include a membership program, patrons council, UCCASTORE, and an annual gala and benefit auction, which raised $1.7 million last year for 2016’s exhibitions and public programs. What remains to be seen, however, is whether UCCA’s new owners will adopt the same hands-off approach that has empowered the institution’s various directors to create a world-class platform that successfully navigates China’s murky ground between public and private.

Despite this, not all of UCCA’s decisions have been well met—a 2008 Christian Dior exhibit, for example, and more recently, what some saw as caving to Chinese authorities by removing Ai Weiwei’s name from the English and Chinese press releases of “Hans van Dijk: 5000 Names” in 2014. For the most part, though, the institution documents, drives, and champions boundary-pushing contemporary art from China and abroad like few others in China right now. Here’s hoping it continues to do just that in the months and years to come.


—Frances Arnold