HONG KONG – I didn’t know what art was ten years ago,” confesses Budi Tek. But that was then. The acquisitive Tek is now one of the most significant collectors of contemporary art – he was named one of the Top 10 most powerful figures in the art world by Art + Auction magazine and ranks on Art Review’s ‘Power 100’ list. This month, the Chinese-Indonesian entrepreneur, collector and philanthropist will preside over the public opening of his latest venture: the Shanghai Yuz Museum, a private museum housed in a former airplane hangar on the Shanghai riverfront. The opening show, organised by independent curator Wu Hung, will include 100 examples from Tek’s collection of more than 1000 contemporary works.

“In the West there are many private spaces and it’s not such a wow thing,” says Tek. “In Asia it’s more rare.” It is, however, definitely a trend, and many are pursuing such projects on an unprecedented scale.


The Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing, designed by American architect Steven Holl. Courtesy of the Sifang Art Museum.

Take the Sifang Art Museum, in Nanjing, a 30,000-square-foot space designed by American architect Steven Holl. The director of the project is 31-year-old Lu Xun, who was studying engineering at the University of Cambridge in 2003 when his father, the real estate developer Lu Jun, bought a 115-acre plot of land in the lush Pearl Spring forest. They partnered to begin a $164 million development to showcase the work of leading international architects. Formally known as the Contemporary International Practical Exhibition of Architecture, the park features 24 buildings by architects such as David Adjaye, Wang Shu and Arata Isozaki. The cynosure of the entire project is the Sifang, which opened in November 2013, and is dedicated to the Lu family’s contemporary art collection.

Lu and Tek are among a growing number of ‘super collectors’ who are choosing to establish private museums, often designed by big-name architects, rather than loaning or donating works to public institutions. Along with the Shanghai Yuz Museum, there is the Long Museum West Bund, which opened this spring, the second museum in Shanghai established by the billionaire financier Liu Yiqian and his wife, Wang Wei. And there are the many ‘boutique’ spaces, like businessman Peter Fung’s recently opened Liang Yi Museum, in Hong Kong.

Jeffrey Johnson, director of Columbia University’s China Megacities Lab, calls it the ‘museumification’ of China; new art institutions, created mostly by Asia’s wealthy collectors, are being built all over Beijing, Shanghai and smaller cities across the nation. “We’ve seen museum-building booms elsewhere,” Johnson recently told The Economist, “but nothing of this sustained magnitude and pace.” The Chinese government is leading much of the development with the goal of promoting China’s ancient cultural history. Increasingly, however, wealthy private individuals, sometimes with official support, are also open-ing museums devoted to non-Chinese and Western art.


Xu Zhen, Play-Jessica, 2013 and Danh Vo, We The People, 2010–13, at the Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing.Courtesy of the Sifang Art Museum, Nanjing.


THE BOUTIQUE APPROACH

Lu and his father are taking a ‘boutique’ approach to the museum, commissioning new art to be shown inside as well as on the grounds of the park. “We started this project as a tribute to architecture and over years we added the element of art,” explains Lu. Although they broke ground on the park in 2003, father and son did not start buying art in any systematic way until 2008. In 2007, when the younger Lu returned to China to devote himself full-time to the job of acquiring art for the museum, he says he knew very little about the world of contemporary art, and his father, who is a collector of documents from the era of the Chinese Republic, had only ever bought a few paintings. The collection grew rapidly, however, and now numbers somewhere between 200 and 300 works.

“We were kind of naïve then, in 2003, without knowing a lot about how to properly show art – a lot of the details like lighting, air conditioning, preservation of the work inside the museum,” says Lu. “We are, of course, a lot more professional now, but it took some time before we realised that a good museum needs someone who is already seasoned in the field, but luckily we had Steven Holl.”


Lu Xun, art collector and director of the Sifang Art Museum project.

Like all the architects in the project, the New York–based Holl was given maximum artistic freedom for his concept. The resulting building comprises two levels – a ground floor with straight walls and a second, C-shaped space with slanting walls and winding passages that lead in a counterclockwise direction to a high gallery that appears to be suspended in air. Holl’s project description explains that the design is meant to “explore shifting viewpoints, layers of space, expanses of mist and water, which characterise the deep alternating spatial mysteries of the composition of a Chinese painting.”

The actual floor space for exhibitions is only about 20,000 square feet, which Lu describes as “tiny, tiny, tiny” compared to other museums in China. For the opening exhibition last November, they could display about 45 works.

The museum is not perfectly versatile, like MoMA or Tate, which have flexible rooms that can fit all kinds of art,” says Lu. “Our museum has its personality and that personality comes from the architecture.” The idea was to shift from the traditional white cube museum gallery and “create high-personality spaces that highlight the work,” he continues. “If it’s successfully done it can add another dimension to the work itself.”

As a result, Lu has ended up commissioning many works for the museum – and much of them for the outdoor spaces. He sees this as a benefit to the overall experience, so that the concept of the museum expands beyond the walls and into nature. Recently, he has been in conversation with Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson about creating a large-scale outdoor installation. “We walked around the grounds and talked about something that was not a piece of art but some kind of walking installation, that would be all around the space,” says Lu. Other recent visitors include William Kentridge and Dahn Vo. “The park is a museum and an opportunity for all kinds of creative projects.”


Adel Abdessemed, Telle mère tel fils [Like Mother Like Son], 2008. Courtesy of the Yuz Museum Shanghai.

GOING LARGE

Tek is at the other end of the spectrum from Lu, opening one of the largest private museums in all of Asia for monumental works of art. He started modestly, opening first the Yuz Museum in Jakarta in 2007, after being active in the art world for only a few years. “With the first museum, we decided to open a space just for gathering and displaying my works, and eventually it turned out that we were applying for a license for a private museum,” he says. “And slowly it became a real museum, just by itself. In the last few years, we realised that running the private space is not easy but people really appreciate what we’re doing in Jakarta.” Initially, Tek focused on contemporary Chinese names such as Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, Xu Bing and Zeng Fanzhi, mostly works from the 1980s and 1990s. But he quickly expanded his interests to include Western artists like Adel Abdessemed, Maurizio Cattelan and Antony Gormley, becoming one of the most active buyers at international art fairs and auctions.

Over the years, he acquired larger and larger installations, which meant he needed more exhibition space. “Subconsciously, I guess I was thinking about something to do with my life,” he says. “For me, maybe it was a calling.”

A few years ago, Tek was invited to participate in a government-sponsored project to transform an airport district along the Huangpu River into a cultural corridor. The Shanghai Yuz Museum will join the Long Museum in what is now known as the West Bund Cultural Corridor, “like what happened on the Left Bank of Paris,” he explains. Though some of the works on display in Shanghai will come from his private collection, he also plans presentations that will include loans from other collectors and institutions. 


The Shanghai Yuz Museum, converted from an airplane hanger into a “green cube” museum by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto. Courtesy of the Yuz Museum Shanghai.

“In Shanghai it turns out that the local government is very supportive,” says Tek. “We are fortunate in that the exhibitions are being helped by the local government, so it’s less of a burden for us, but running it is another matter.” He declined to discuss his financial investment in the museum or the collection, but he says that he expects it will be profitable within three years. He plans to plow all the profits back into the collections.

Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto has converted a vast 97,000-square foot airplane hangar into what he calls a “green cube” museum – as opposed to the traditional white cube gallery – because the vast exhibition halls open outward to offer views of the landscape. Tek feels the design is perfectly suited to display the kinds of monumental installation works with which he has lately become enamoured.

Still, he expects his tastes and his role in running the museum to continue to evolve. “I believe that a private museum will eventually become a public museum, when I’m not around, when my kids are not interested in running it,” he says. “But who knows? We’ll just do it step by step.

I don’t have any long-term agenda. It’s a self-evolution, this kind of thing. You cannot have projections of five, ten, twenty years for art like you would for a company. With museums you just follow your instincts.”


Entrepreneur, collector and philanthropist Budi Tek, patron of the Shanghai and Jakarta Yuz Museums. © Vincent Yu/AP/Corbis.

COMMON THEMES

Lu Xun and Budi Tek have distinct visions of what a private art museum can be, but both regard their private museums as a way to build a legacy. As Tek puts it, “There’s a Chinese saying: You never know your faith until you’re 50 years old. Everyone must have their own legacy, something they want to leave to this world. We’re all going to die, so what do you leave behind? You disappear from this world; you’re nothing. So you need to do something for this world, and through art and museums, I mean to do something that makes me happy and makes me leave something behind, eventually.”

Like many individuals who establish private museums, Lu and Tek share an appreciation for how contemporary art can create a conversation with the natural environ-ment, a willingness to let the projects develop over time and the sense that collecting art has changed their lives – and can have an impact on other people.

“As one starts to collect, you always want to share your experiences and share your passion,” says Lu. “It doesn’t matter how many pieces you collect, you just want to showcase it, in the home or in the office, or even on a shelf in the kitchen.” Because of the uniqueness and scale of contemporary art, he says, “you really need to build something large enough to house them in a proper way that’s appreciated by the artists and the public.” And it is the engagement with viewers that has been crucially important for Tek from the moment he began collecting seriously: “We always had the idea of sharing the experience with others, and it’s definitely a growing collection.”

Nina Siegal is based in Amsterdam and writes regularly for the International New York Times. Her second novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), was published in March.