As Hong Kong Buzzes, China's Mainland Museums Are Left Behind

Hong Kong is gearing to be a major world art capital
Hong Kong is gearing to be a major world art capital
Na Di

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.”

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!