What is going on at the Ullens Center in Beijing?

Since it opened last November, four out of five senior curators and directors have left and one has apparently been redeployed

BEIJING. The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing (UCCA), a new gallery entirely funded by Belgian foodstuffs baron Guy Ullens and his wife Myriam, was inaugurated to great razzmatazz last November with what was rumoured to be the most expensive opening the Chinese art world had ever seen. Local press reported a total of RMB 100m ($14m) was spent on the series of events to mark the centre’s launch.

Just six months later, four out of the five senior staff members, introduced to the press at the opening, have left the gallery. The fifth has apparently been redeployed and UCCA itself has faced harsh criticism from the Beijing art world over its management and curatorial approach.

The departures started in February when artistic director, Fei Dawei, stepped down to assume a new “research-based” role. Last month we reported that Virginia Ibbott, director of external relations, and Jan Debbaut, senior artistic advisor, had also parted company with UCCA. Now, news has emerged that chief curator Colin Chinnery and administrative director Julien Chandet also left the gallery in April.

Colin Chinnery told The Art Newspaper his departure was “an amicable split. It was a positive move for me.” Virginia Ibbott was unwilling to comment. Jan Debbaut says that, as senior artistic advisor, he had only been planning to work with UCCA for a short time and that he left once his work had been completed. Fei Dawei did not turn up for a scheduled interview. A spokeswoman for UCCA, Elisa Cousseran, says Fei Dawei is in the process of establishing the educational programmes but two sources inside the gallery say he has no new position in the organisation.

While new appointments have been made—Jérôme Sans was appointed artistic director in February—and Chinese curator Guo Xiaoyan has been promoted to the position of chief curator, the departure of the entire team presented to the press at the gallery’s inauguration seems to be an indication of a radical overhaul of UCCA’s management and objectives.

According to insiders, the main reasons for the sudden management shake up has been the result of a huge shift in emphasis as Guy Ullens has changed the financial targets for the centre, moving the break even point from 2013 to 2010. Within the next two years, the staff is expected to generate e6m annually to cover costs. This has driven the internal changes, as financial considerations will be the driving force. Jérôme Sans, a former co-director of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and former head of programming at the Baltic in Gateshead, England, who had most recently been working as cultural curator for Le Méridien Hotels, is expected to spearhead this new financial focus. As well as the staff departures, a Rebecca Horn exhibition, originally scheduled to open in November, has been postponed until Spring 2009. Mr Sans, who only spends ten days a month in China, was unavailable for comment. Guy Ullens was also unavailable for comment.

If the target of e6m revenue is reached, it would place UCCA among the highest earning art organisations in China, either commercial or state-owned. To generate money UCCA is developing its shop, extending the range of limited edition art work and souvenirs, such as plastic dinosaurs selling for RMB 45,000 ($6,500) each. It is also opening a restaurant and continuing its search for sponsors.

Under attack

As the most serious attempt to date to create a not-for-profit art centre in China, UCCA has had to deal with a diverse set of circumstances, not entirely unique to China, but exacerbated by concerns over cultural imperialism, the highly competitive Chinese art scene and the particular circumstances and situation of art institutions in the country.

Currently China has a handful of state-owned art museums which dominate the upper tiers of the country’s high profile art events, especially Beijing’s National Art Museum of China, the Shanghai Art Museum and Guangdong Museum of Art. By opening a gallery that directly challenges the position of these state-run institutions, UCCA has set itself up for criticism, especially as many in China object to the establishment of a foreign-run art institution in the heart of the capital’s main art district. Despite the constant sniping, much of which is directed at the perceived lack of Chinese nationals in senior management positions, none of the art world figures approached by The Art Newspaper would speak on the record.

Responding on behalf of UCCA, spokeswoman Elisa Cousseran said: “Guy Ullens is making this centre sustainable. Our team is 80% Chinese, but it is not easy to work with people creating a new concept of an institution; everybody is working together and everyone is useful. We have a platform of talking together. We may have had a massive opening but we are here to stay. Guy Ullens is one of the first people to acknowledge there is something else to do in China besides business. He has been very generous, giving back to the Chinese artists.”

Chris Gill

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