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Beijing's Art District to get its first Kunsthalle

Backed by businessman-collector Guy Ullens

The hip art scene of Beijing happens in a former industrial complex built by Bauhaus-trained East German architects, Dashanzi 798 Art District. Five years ago it had some artists working there, a basic cafe and not much else. Now it is like Chelsea, with dozens of galleries, hundreds of artists, and tourists arriving by the busload to buy. But as Thomas Krens, director of New York’s Guggenheim Foundation said, it lacks an anchor, a proper art institution.

That is what the Ullens Center for the Arts aims to be, in the 5,000 sq. m Art Deco factory space they will be inaugurating this autumn. Guy and Myriam Ullens (see p38), whose foundation is behind it, aim high. The chairman of the board of directors is Jan Debbaut, former Director of Collections at Tate, the architect is Jean-Michel Wilmotte, who is currently also working on the Louvre, the chief curator is Colin Chinnery, headhunted from the British Council and a fluent Chinese-speaker. The advisor on acquisitions is veteran curator Fei Dawei.

The centre intends to be be born fully fledged, with 3,000 sq. m of climate-controlled exhibition spaces, the best library and archive in Beijing for art, an auditorium/cinema and all the usual services.

The Ullens Collection belongs to the Ullens Foundation, and while it seems natural that this should be exhibited in the centre, the precise nature of the relationship between the two is still unrevealed. The Ullens Foundation paid for China’s first ever national Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale, and now they will also be providing China with its first museum of contemporary art.

There are a number of possible answers: that Guy Ullens wants his name to make a big mark on Chinese territory where there is no public competition as yet; that he believes this is what the Chinese people need; that he believes, to the extent of paying out many millions of euros, that the art he has bought needs to be better served; or even, simply, that having been used to doing business with the emerging Chinese economy, he now wants to carry on the process in the more enjoyable field of art. Whatever the reason, with the Ullens Center, the Chinese art scene is entering its institutional phase and from now onwards will be less fluid, more defined, safer and more like the West.