“Collectors create, combine, classify, and curate the objects they acquire in such a way that a new product, the collection, emerges. More precisely, they participate in the process of socially reconstructing shared meanings for the objects they collect” – Belk (1995)
The Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang, largely famous for his Cynical Realism paintings, is in high demand. In fact, the 2011 auction result for his triptych “Forever Lasting Love” (1988) set the world record for a living Chinese contemporary artist with a sale price of $10 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong (O’Dea, 2011). But that was not always the case. In 2007, the very same painting was sold for an equivalent of $1.8 million. How could such a rapid increase in market value for a painting from a lesser-known period of this artist take place? The answer partially lies in its provenance. The collection from which “Forever Lasting Love” emerged, belonged to Belgian industrialist and specialist collector Guy Ullens – who, after having been a yearlong patron of Chinese contemporary art, decided to sell his prominent collection. Thus the provenance and high quality of his private collection without a doubt led to bidding to quadruple, or even ten times, the pre-sale estimate (artprice, 2011).
As the statement by Russell Belk (1995) highlights, collections are production sites of meaning. With regard to contemporary art, it is worthwhile to consider a collection’s ability of not only conjuring the past, but also of shaping the future (Yao, 2007; McCoy, 2007). While private collectors can “capture the life of a vibrant art movement, driven as they are by passion, unencumbered by institutional impedimenta” (Erickson, 2007), they also hold no obligations towards any specific mission (McCoy, 2007). Collectors of contemporary art have a particularly influential role in Asian countries, which lack an active governmental involvement in developing and supporting this field further. With the rapid growth of the Chinese contemporary art market, it is thus of interest to explore who sets the taste and out of which reasons. Indeed, in recent years the traditional collector model is being challenged by the emergence of a young generation of Chinese collectors. As the role of the individual Chinese collector is a particularly influential one for determining the quality of art, it is thus of relevance to map the current environment of collecting Chinese contemporary art.
This paper puts forward the thesis that whereas the current nature of collecting contemporary art in China does not yet demonstrate the high level of critical thinking and sophistication that would be beneficial for the development of the contemporary art scene, there nevertheless lies potential for a more healthy development in the years to come. To highlight this, the different motives that come together in collecting contemporary art will be examined on the basis of Belk’s analysis of collecting as a consumption activity. The development of patronage and art appreciation throughout China’s tumultuous past, and the current barren cultural landscape give rise to a collector who differs greatly to the traditional model.
II. I Setting the Stage
Guy and Myriam Ullens, who passionately began collecting contemporary Chinese art in the 1980s, have been pivotal in supporting the contemporary art scene in China. In order to fund the construction of his private museum Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing, the industrialist Guy Ullens even sold his collections of Turner watercolors in 2007 (Gleadell, 2011). Yet, as noted before, the Ullens started selling their collection of Chinese contemporary art in two major 2011 auctions and distanced themselves from the UCCA. The couple achieved a record for a single-owner sale for Chinese contemporary art with a sales total of over $54 million (O’Dea, 2011). It is telling that the top ten lots of their second auction apparently all went to private Asian collectors. Only a few years prior, the Estella Collection made similar headlines. Financed by a group of investors and headed by New York Dealer Michael Goedhuis, this collection was comprised of artworks from some of the most popular Chinese contemporary artists, who had sold at a discount believing this to be a long-term collection of a wealthy private collector – which would ultimately help them build their reputations (Barboza, 2008). Yet at the height of the economic recession, the Estella Collection was sold at auction with high profit.
These two cases serve as point of departure to explore key issues that surround the collector of Chinese contemporary art. For one, both examples demonstrate the ambivalence that surrounds collector’s motives: the very collector who appears to being building something cultural and long-lasting to educate the public about the relevance of Chinese contemporary art, might just completely cash out his/her collection art at another point. In the case of many art buyers, the distinction between patron versus investor is indeed hard to delineate. Considering the sudden increase in price (and fame) of an artists work that a collector can bring about – this was specifically the case with Zhang Xiaogang after the Ullens private auction – then the tremendous influence of an art collector is evident. Furthermore, while the role of the foreign collector was pivotal in the past for developing contemporary art in China, the question regarding its momentary and future relevance arises when considering the increased presence of Asian / Chinese buyers.
Although motivations for collecting can be studied from various perspectives, there exists consensus that, firstly, collecting is a consumption activity and, secondly, that collecting is a process of creating or cultivating meaning (Moist, 2008). Belk’s discussion of collecting as “a perpetual pursuit of inessential luxury goods” in contemporary Western consumer society is relevant for any discussion on the current situation of collecting in China – which is sited in an environment that is experiencing unprecedented rapid economic growth. The necessary condition of collecting that Belk (1991) puts forward – namely that objects should derive larger meaning by their assemblage into a set, and that collecting is characterized by a “selective, active, and longitudinal process of acquisition” – requires further exploration in the case of Chinese collectors. Yet as will become clear, Belk’s definition of a collector not being someone ‘who acquires a set of items solely as an investment is perhaps too ‘black and white’ for the current art world in which boundaries are fading.
II. II Times are changing: the Rise of the ‘new Chinese’ collector
Up until recent years Chinese contemporary art could not flourish freely under the restrictive Communist regime, therefore rather finding its audience in Western diplomats and businessmen and its platform across the globe (Yao, 2007; Pollack, 2010). One should thus not understate the role of Western collectors in the Chinese contemporary art scene. Indeed, over 80% of buyers at Mainland Chinese galleries prior 2008 were Western and held an important position in developing the market for Chinese contemporary art (Castets, 2007).
Notably Uli Sigg, former Swiss ambassador in China and now “head cheerleader for Chinese contemporary art” (Pollack, 2010, p.93), has since the 1970sbuilt one of the most comprehensive encyclopedia-like collections. Immensely influential in developing Chinese contemporary artists, Sigg’s standard for collecting is based on the idea that an artwork should document “something important in Chinese society or a preoccupation of Chinese artists” – it should be historically relevant and representative for China. Sigg does not regard himself as a collector, which he underlines with stating “I’m more of a researcher who is fortunate enough to keep some of my research” (as cited in Spiegler, 2005). For him, China is the ultimate study object, with his personal taste being the least relevant criterion in building a web of Chinese history. It is s notable that Sigg is extremely aware of his influence and impact on the canon of Chinese art history – an issue he places in China’s art landscape that lacks critics or institutions and is driven primarily by the market. Kent and Vicki Logan similarly are a significant collector couple of contemporary art, whose standard is that an artwork should be not only visually arresting, but also a reflection of contemporary social or cultural events (Goldsmith, 2008). Kent Logan perceives his position as an opportunity ‘to create a collection that really is a snapshot of a society through time’ and exhibits a strong level of philanthropy when donating major artworks to museums (as cited in Goldsmith, 2008, p. 114). Similarly, Chris and Eloisa Haudenschild have since the late 1990s committed themselves to contemporary Chinese video art and photography with the primary interest in assisting and connecting with emerging artists (McCoy, 2007). Albeit in varying degrees, these collectors demonstrate an approach to collecting that is selective and longitudinal – thereby fulfilling Belk’s definition of what a collector should be.