Arts & Giving

Art for one and art for all

In the run-up to the second annual Private Museum Forum, Charlotte Sinclair reports on the art-loving philanthropists who are bringing their extraordinary collections into the public domain

February 18 2012
Charlotte Sinclair

In May last year, art collectors from east and west met in a quiet corner of Hong Kong’s aircraft hangar-sized convention centre. While the bustle of the city’s annual art fair, Art HK, buzzed along outside, they took their seats at a round table for the inaugural meeting of the Hong Kong Private Museum Forum, the first of its kind in the world. Here were 30 owners (or soon-to-be-owners) of private museums, the new cathedrals to art – extraordinary buildings of architectural innovation built to show off the art-collecting passions of the wealthy and discerning to an eager public.

Of course, private museums are nothing new. The mighty Guggenheim and Getty museums, and Wallace and Frick collections, all originated from the personal art stashes of wealthy philanthropists. And in recent years, a plethora of not-for-profit contemporary art spaces have popped up from Miami to Moscow.

What has changed, however, is the scale and scope of these museums. With the world gone mad for contemporary art, private museums are no longer appointment-only venues for the cognoscenti. The new wave of major collectors is building cultural monuments, from the PinchukArtCentre in Ukraine, The Broad Art Foundation in LA and the Saatchi Gallery in London to the Deste Foundation in Athens and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas (courtesy of Walmart heiress Alice Walton). These are spaces defined by the tastes of their owners, but also by a shared sense of freedom. “The private museum is not reliant on public funding or sponsorship; it’s light on its feet,” says Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s deputy chairman and senior international specialist in contemporary art.

Private museums make a virtue of their distinction from public institutions. An exhibition that might take four years to come to fruition at a publicly funded space, may take only a few weeks at a private museum. At a time when public museum budgets are being slashed, collectors are commissioning artists directly, following in a tradition of art patronage distinguished by the Medicis and providing vital exposure for emerging artists. “Arguably, you see more cutting-edge contemporary art in private foundations than you might in a museum,” says Barker.

Still, the lines between public and private institutions are becoming blurred. (Most of these top-flight collectors, for instance, sit on the boards of the big public museums.) Collectors invest millions of dollars in art centres that run visionary educational programmes. What may begin as a thrust for legacy quickly accelerates into a life’s work. “What they show is selective and subjective, but they apply an educational and curatorial aspect as well,” says Melanie Clore, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe. “The benefit is that they can be very cohesive. They have a depth to them.”

One need only look at the attendance figures at Charles Saatchi’s King’s Road gallery to see the growing power of the private museum. His 2010 exhibition Newspeak: British Art Now received 4,785 daily visitors, reaching a total of 557,192 attendees. That’s second only to the Royal Academy’s Van Gogh exhibition.

Nor is this a western phenomenon. In “new” territories such as China, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and India, the private museum has become all-important. In China, while public institutions are playing catch-up on the contemporary art front, wealthy individuals are plugging the gap, opening museums that provide public access to the most important artists working today.

Hence the importance of the Hong Kong forum, which will repeat at Art HK this May. It is the brainchild of Philip Dodd, a former director of the ICA and current chairman of Made In China, a company that brokers cultural and business relationships between east and west. He has travelled to China every month for the past seven years. “My dream for the forum is that these private museums might exchange exhibitions, so there becomes a network much like the one public museums have,” he says. It’s a revolutionary idea. If private institutions began to swap exhibitions, or curate new exhibitions by cherry-picking the best art from each other’s collections, it could change the way we view art.

Dodd uses Charles Saatchi as an example of private museums’ growing influence: “The YBAs were the first generation of artists to be launched by a guy who ran a private museum. As public museums run out of money, they can’t make big acquisitions. These collectors are buying early and becoming the tastemakers.”

“I don’t know that we’re changing the art world,” says Anita Zabludowicz, co-founder of the Zabludowicz Collection in London. “I think we’re filling a gap in the art world. Our focus is emerging artists; we give them a platform, which can then influence larger institutions to work with them.” She is keen to attend the forum this year. “There’s huge potential in these kinds of meetings to increase the breadth of our practice in all different directions. By hearing about each museum – its goals, its manifesto – we can learn so much,” she says. Is the endgame to transfer exhibitions? “Creating a show that’s shared between a few museums would be fantastic.”

Zabludowicz’s permanent exhibition space sprang from a sense of responsibility. “At the time [2007] we were buying installation works that were institutional in their scale. Storage is a terrible thing for a young artist, so it was necessary to create this space.”

A similar sense of duty impelled Don and Mera Rubell to open the Rubell Family Collection in Miami 18 years ago. The couple have been collecting since 1964 and their catalogue reads like a history of contemporary art, with works by Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Cindy Sherman.

“You discover very quickly on this journey that you’re just the custodian of the important cultural artefacts of our time. So how could you not make them available to the public?” asks Mera Rubell, in her charming Brooklyn accent. The couple evince the same rigour in their practice as any public institution. “It’s about a commitment to a young artist. As long as the artist continues to grow, and we can afford the work, we will continue to buy it,” says Don Rubell, “so we can show not just one piece of art but the whole career development of an artist.”

The Rubells attended last spring’s Private Museum Forum in Hong Kong; the topic of museum sustainability was of particular interest to the couple, who are planning to open a further space in Washington DC. “You have to remember that all collectors are sociopaths,” says Don Rubell. “I always say that the one thing we all have in common is a first-grade report card that says, ‘Does not play well with other children’. But we played well together at this forum.” So well that the Rubells are discussing bringing another collector’s works to their new space. “What would be better than having a conversation about Indonesian art in Washington?” asks Mera.

In Shanghai, private museums are proliferating at the speed of China’s new bullet train. Even the bar at the Peninsula Hotel has a bird’s-eye view on to Thomas Ou’s Rockbund Art Museum. “In China, this is now the museum era,” says Dodd. While Chinese contemporary art has enthralled the west, the country’s home-grown museums have been slow to catch on. (Not to mention the government’s dubious treatment of China’s best-known artist, Ai Weiwei.) This is where the new, super-rich collectors come in. “These are people who have made their money and are now moving into culture. There’s a genuine patriotic dimension to their activities,” Dodd continues. “They want to educate China about its own recent history. There’s also a sense that they are being pulled by a historical wind that’s raising China up; they want to be part of redefining the country, and Asia, to the rest of the world.”

One of these collectors, 47-year-old property developer Dai Zhikang, has a personal net worth of $1.2bn. The son of farmers, he is quiet and unassuming in person. We meet in the Jumeirah hotel, which is part of Dai’s vast complex that includes the adjacent 23,000sq m Himalayas Art Museum, due to open in May. An example of the scale of the ambitions at work in the country, the building – with its organic, curving exoskeleton – is the work of Arata Isozaki, architect of the Barcelona Olympic Stadium. “This is all new for China,” says Dai. “We are pioneers. The government doesn’t understand culture or contemporary art, so it’s dependent upon private collectors. It’s our duty to open these museums. Our aim is to be a place for learning, studying and education.” He will show contemporary and traditional Chinese art but also art from the west, including a show devoted to British sculptor Tony Cragg.

Dai understands the need for collectors to learn from each other: “It’s good for private museums to exchange ideas and experiences.” Not least about sustainability. “When I tell western friends that we have a museum in a supermarket, they consider it a strange idea. But art and business are interactive. We develop both,” says Dai.

Wang Wei was voted Best Collector at Art Finance magazine’s Art Power awards in 2010. A slim and youthful 49 years, Wang is the wife of billionaire entrepreneur Liu Yiqian. This November they will open the $31m Dragon Art Museum in Shanghai’s Pudong area, with Wang as director. “I have so much art coming to Shanghai at the moment that my house has turned into a warehouse, so we had to move out,” she smiles. Her museum will be devoted to Chinese antiquities, revolutionary art and work by contemporary Chinese artists.

“Private museums will soon be at the same level as top museums such as the Tate and the Met,” she says. At the upcoming forum she would like “to encourage other collectors to continue to open these institutions, because it’s not easy. Also, I want to learn how to operate the museum.” Wang was invited to speak at the Louvre recently. “I gave a speech about how it was my dream to bring my collections of revolutionary Chinese art to the museum,” she says. “They thought it would be impossible. But I think one day I can do it.”

At the home of collector Budi Tek, one is greeted in the entrance hall by an Anish Kapoor wall piece, a Yayoi Kusama polka-dot Venus de Milo and an Ai Weiwei sculpture. In 2011, the Indonesian-Chinese Tek was voted one of Art+Auction’s 10 most powerful art-world figures. Founder of the Yuz Museum in Jakarta, and currently building a 6,000sq m museum in Shanghai – with plans for another site in Singapore – the affable Tek is an important and prolific collector. His tastes run to extra-large installation pieces, represented by artists such as Ai Weiwei and Maurizio Cattelan. He owns a staggering collection of Asian and western contemporary art (including a 7m-long Anselm Kiefer work), which is regularly on loan to the Guggenheim or the Centre Pompidou. (His collection will form an exhibition at the Today Art Museum in Beijing this August.)

“The private museums make more sense to China now,” says Tek. “The government claims they are going to build a lot of museums, but they don’t yet have the collection. Private museums are a wake-up call. If the private museums are exhibiting better works than the public museums, they will think, ‘What happened?’” He hopes to call in pieces from public and private museums all over the world for the exhibition space within his Shanghai institution. “We have discussed this with many great artists, and they’re happy to participate in future shows,” he says.

The age of the blockbuster private museum show feels imminent. Next year, Takashi Murakami’s retrospective will travel from Versailles not to MoMA but to Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art, owned by the Al-Thanis, the ruling family of Qatar. (Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the 28-year-old daughter of the Emir of Qatar, topped the Art+Auction power list.)

Meanwhile, Ginevra Elkann is currently hosting (until March 4) an exhibition of Gilbert and George’s Urethra Postcard Art at the Renzo Piano-designed Pinacoteca Agnelli space in Turin, where she is president. Founded to showcase the collection of her grandparents, Giovanni and Marella Agnelli, the museum has seen its remit broadened under the direction of Elkann, who hosts exhibitions on the theme of collecting. Recent successes include the Englishman James Brett’s Museum of Everything and Jean Pigozzi’s contemporary African art collection. For her, the Hong Kong forum is a chance “to network and communicate and discuss the possibility of being able to do a show together”.

As Dodd puts it: “It’s more likely that a great show of Chinese art from the past 30 years is going to come to the west via Chinese collectors getting together with the Rubells than if they wait for two public museums to do it.” So; a brave new world for museums? “Maybe we’re passing out of the public museum era back into a private museum era,” Dodd muses. Time will tell; what’s certain is that the Art HK Private Museum Forum reflects a shift in the way art is being seen – one that can only be good for the art-loving public.