beijing. The Belgian foodstuffs baron Guy Ullens is to hand over the management of his contemporary art gallery in Beijing to “long-term partners” and divest himself of the institution.
He will also sell in stages the extensive collection of Chinese contemporary art amassed with his wife Myriam, with the first 106 pieces to be auctioned by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong on 3 April.
Once he has done this, he says he intends to spend more time on his charitable education work in Nepal and return to collecting young artists, with his focus now on Indian rather than Chinese artists.
The baron opened the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in a former munitions factory in the 798 district of Beijing in November 2007. The not-for-profit gallery, which contains three exhibition halls, an auditorium, restaurant, library, and bookstore, was entirely funded by Ullens.
Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Ullens said he had originally hoped to use UCCA to show his extensive holdings of Chinese contemporary art. “That idea was very quickly shot down … so we [moved] very quickly to promoting Chinese art by doing special exhibitions and temporary shows.”
At first, UCCA struggled to find its feet. Six months after its launch, four out of the five senior staff members who had been introduced to the press at the launch had resigned or had been replaced.
The gallery was criticised for employing too many Europeans—its director is the French curator Jérôme Sans—amid suggestions that the Chinese resented a foreigner opening an ambitious and important institution like UCCA. Ullens admitted those suggestions were partly true. “The Chinese have been nice, we’ve had very nice relationships, we’ve never had censorship. The problem is they have structures and you need to have Chinese partners to navigate the structures. So it’s true, to some extent it’s true.”
A year ago, Ullens formed a partnership with the Minsheng Art Museum run by a bank of the same name. That collaboration is now “dead”, says Ullens.
His priority now is to secure the future of the gallery by finding other private partners who can take over its management. He also intends to strengthen its corporate governance.
“We’re looking for a very different structure to what we’ve had until now which is my wife and myself. That was perfect for starting up something because we took fast decisions, moved around, were highly opportunistic but that’s not the way in the long run to keep it going.”
When asked if he wanted the eventual owners of UCCA to keep his name on the gallery, Ullens said: “I don’t give a damn.”
Ullens, now 76, says he is “too old” to travel to Beijing as regularly as in previous years and has no intention of leaving UCCA to his children. “I’ve done what I had to do and it’s over now,” he said, adding that, “if you’ve created a mess you have to solve it yourself.”
Ullens says he hopes UCCA will remain as ambitious as ever in its programming. The gallery has hosted notable shows including a travelling Huang Yong Ping retrospective in 2008, Chen Wenbo and Yan Pei Ming exhibitions in 2009 and a Zhang Huan display in 2010, among many others.
The first large Ai Weiwei solo exhibition in China, which had been scheduled to open in March, has now been postponed for “six months or a year”. “Being on time in China is a problem,” says Ullens adding that he very much hopes the show will still happen. “I’m a superfan [of Ai Weiwei’s]. I love the guy.”
The Ullens Collection
Meanwhile, Ullens says he will now sell all his Chinese contemporary art in stages having failed to find a single buyer for it. “The dream was to sell the whole collection as one in China but that was too much. The collection is huge.”
On 3 April Sotheby’s in Hong Kong will offer 106 Ullens works dating from the 1980s and early 1990s, in an auction expected to make from $12.7m to $16.7m. It includes a Zhang Xiaogang triptych, Forever Lasting Love, (estimate: $3.2-3.8m) and a painting of Mao Zedong by Wang Guangyi (estimate: $190,000-$260,000).
When asked if he would continue to collect Chinese art, Ullens said: “I don’t want to keep going in the same area,” adding that he was interested now in Indian artists and had recently purchased his first piece by Bharti Kher, a painting entitled The Left-Over DNA of a Little Mouse that the Cat Ate.