HONG KONG — Rarely do Chinese names appear in news stories about people donating their art collections to museums. That is especially true in the realm of contemporary visual art.
But prominent Chinese art collector Guan Yi recently made an exception by donating 37 pieces of his collection to Hong Kong’s M+ Museum, which is scheduled to open in 2017.
The works focus on the ’85 New Wave artists and the impact they made on China’s artistic evolution. “It is a reflection of the change over the past three decades in which concept is at the core of Chinese art,” says Guan Yi. “These works are the best record of the Pearl River Delta art ecology since the beginning of China’s process of reform and opening up.”
The question is why a Chinese collector chose to leave to a Hong Kong museum and not to one in Beijing or another mainland city. A similar question came to mind in 2012, when the famous Swiss collector Uli Sigg donated more than 1,000 works worth an estimated $168 million U.S. dollars to the same M+ Museum.
“I first considered the mainland museums since all this artwork is closely related to mainland China,” he told this newspaper at the time. “But after searching in several Chinese cities, I didn’t find anywhere suitable to give them.”
But a bit of research reveals other reasons why collectors aren’t keen to donate art to Chinese institutions.
Wang Huangsheng, Central Academy of Fine Arts director, denounced a publishing house last year that sold all paintings it had received from artists as gifts to cover the company’s operation costs.
It is also not at all unusual to read in the Chinese press about donated artwork going missing. This happened a few years ago when several famous Chinese painters contributed their work to a charity sale to help victims of the disastrous Sichuan earthquake.
Chinese museums also have a notorious reputation for damaging artwork. For all these reasons, it comes as little surprise that would-be benefactors would want to look elsewhere when making a donation.
It’s the law
Meanwhile, Hong Kong is not a place knows for nurturing the arts. And yet it is home to Asia’s most thriving market for the art trade. “People know they can make their deals here because if problems arise, the justice system is as reliable as in the West,” one dealer explains. “Meanwhile, in China, there could be a lot of local conditions that we don’t understand. We aren’t going to feel secure in that same way.”
Obviously, the same lack of security also applies to donating artwork to a museum. Compared to Chinese museums, M+ is financially transparent. It publishes an annual report and is open about both its purchases and what it has been bequethed.
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing (FB)
Collectors also must take into account logistical considerations when donating large-scale art or work that involves complicated installation and preservation.
“How a collector chooses the museum he wants to give his works to is a process of like attracts like,” says M+ senior curator Pi Li. “A collector has his own judgment about the context in which his collection will be given extra value.”
It must be said that tax deductibility is often another motive for Western collectors’ donations to museums, and this practice doesn’t yet exist in Chinese.
“Chinese collectors are pretty much newcomers to contemporary visual art,” as one veteran puts it. “The first-generation collectors haven’t even had enough fun themselves. In China, donation is a purely charitable act without any incentives and isn’t done unless one feels no longer capable of preserving a big collection or if the collection risks being damaged. After all, not everybody is financially capable of supporting a private museum.”
You Yang, vice director of Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, a Beijing art center created by the Belgian collector Guy Ullens, says China up to now has lacked an art institution that focuses on systematically collecting Chinese contemporary visual art.
“This requires multiple factors such as fundraising, artistic value judgment, preservation and display conditions as well as an academic research capability,” he says. But You also notes that the anticipated Hong Kong museum provides some tough competition in the neighborhood. “Of course, the vision and passion that M+ possesses, and the massive scale of urban resources that M+ can mobilize, is still something most Chinese institutions can’t even dream of.”