Ullens makes U-turn to refocus on Asian space

After seeming to grow cool on his Chinese venture, the collector is now staging numerous shows and branching into Indian art


Baron Guy Ullens, the Belgian collector and foodstuffs entrepreneur, insists that buying works by younger Chinese artists, and hosting exhibitions devoted to established and emerging Chinese artists at his Ullens Center for Contemporary Art private space in Beijing, count among his priorities. Ullens also says he has jettisoned plans to sell his extensive Chinese contemporary art collection, amassed with his wife Myriam, in stages at auction, even though a sale of works drawn from his collection made $55m in total at Sotheby’s Hong Kong early last year.

In a controversial interview last year with The Art Newspaper, however, Ullens seemed to be cooling on his Chinese venture, saying that he planned to hand over management of the centre to “long-term partners”. This scheme now appears to be on the back burner. “We’ve not developed this plan,” says Ullens, who appointed a new director last December. Philip Tinari, the US-born academic and journalist, replaces Jérôme Sans, the former co-director of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

Tinari, who speaks fluent Mandarin, is “plugged into the Beijing scene”, Ullens says. The centre was initially criticised for employing too many Europeans, including Sans. Ullens now believes he has found the solution in the joint managerial partnership of Tinari and Mei Xue, the chief executive.

Plans for an art advisory board and Chinese collectors’ circle form part of this rapprochement. “The Chinese need to know how the West works and vice versa,” says Ullens, who also praises the Chinese government highly. “The new political management [of the country] will transform China, boosting creativity and research.” Tinari and Ullens’s ambitious plans for the centre also include exhibitions devoted to the Beijing born-artists Jennifer Wen Ma (until 27 May) and Yun-Fei Ji (3 June-15 July) as well as a show comprising works by 35 young Chinese artists due to open in January 2013. New exhibition spaces incorporating a new area for outdoor sculptures also feature in the masterplan for the centre. “We plan to show 30 to 40 Chinese works from the Ullens Foundation collection [in the new sculpture space], which are currently stored in Geneva,” he says.

A selection of works from the foundation, mostly from the 1980s, are also included in a major retrospective of Gu Dexin’s art (“The Important Thing Is Not the Meat”, until 27 May). A 1980s trailblazer, Gu featured in the important exhibition “Les Magiciens de la Terre” at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1989.

The show is curated by Tinari, who has persuaded Ullens to part with some of his pieces (the centre has mainly hosted several special exhibitions and temporary shows rather than showcase works from the baron’s collection). “I have shown very [few] of my works until now. This is a way of showing I haven’t left the scene,” Ullens says. According to China Daily, Zhu Qi, a contemporary art critic from Shanghai, wrote on his blog in February last year that “[the Ullens centre] has lost its confidence in the Chinese contemporary art market”.

“That’s not the case at all,” says Ullens, who adds that he continues to acquire works by emerging Chinese artists and stresses that there will be no more auctions to offload his works. “There is a wave of key young artists with their own personalities. To move on, you have to sacrifice old loves,” he says.

Ullens’s shift includes a renewed focus on contemporary Asian art, especially from India, though he is also “starting to look at Korea and Indonesia”. He would not be drawn on the Indian artists included in his collection, but admits that he “loves Bharti Kher as she is highly creative”. He also rates Kher’s husband, the Indian art stalwart Subodh Gupta. “But there is a problem with availability in this area,” he says.

Some of Ullens’s contemporary Indian works are set to go on show in “Indian Highway”, a touring group exhibition which, say the organisers at the Ullens centre, is the largest exhibition of Indian art in China to date (23 June-26 August). The show, which aims to be an overview of the subcontinent’s most significant artists, launched at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 2008. Another nod to the West comes in a show of works by Marcel Duchamp planned for the centre—another first for China—this autumn. The centre declined to comment, however, on the institutions and collections from which the Duchamp works will be drawn.