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Hong Kong home for Chinese art trove
By Wang Jie

When the world?s biggest and most important collection of Chinese contemporary art is donated to a yet-to-be-opened Hong Kong museum, eyebrows are raised. Wang Jie looks at the issues.

When Uli Sigg, collector of the world's largest and most important collection of contemporary Chinese art, wants a museum to house his acquisitions - and he wants to donate around 1,500 works - one would think there would be avid takers scrambling worldwide for the mind-boggling gift.

And there were, but not many museums can accommodate and afford such a munificent prize. It would mean, in effect, building a new museum but the minimum cost of running even a modest one is said to be around US$20 million a year and Sigg's gargantuan collection entails astronomical costs.

Though he talked to European museums, the super collector and former Swiss ambassador to China finally decided he wanted his definitive collection displayed where the Chinese audience could access all the works across all genres covering more than 30 years - without restriction.

Then the options narrowed.

After discussions with museums on the Chinese mainland, including those in Shanghai and Shenzhen, Sigg announced on June 12 that he would donate 1,463 works, the majority of the collection, and sell another 27 to a museum yet to be established, M+ Museum set to open in 2017 in Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural District.

The ambitious district of 17 venues on Victoria Harbor will definitely establish Hong Kong as an international art hub. It will showcase Chinese and Asian arts, design, architecture and film from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Sigg's collection will be a cornerstone of the museum's collection. An agreement further states that around 500 works from the collection will be displayed every year in the 5,000-square-meter exhibition hall.

Sigg's gift is conservatively valued at around US$163 million; the museum's additional purchase is valued at US$22.9 million.

Last year Baron Guy and his wife Myriam Ullens sold 106 works of contemporary Chinese art at Sotheby's for US$46.6 million; they plan to auction the rest over time.

The Sigg collection contains the works of around 350 artists, including Ding Yi, Fang Lijun, Geng Jianyi, Gu Wenda, Huang Yongping, Liu Wei, Wang Guangyi, Xu Bing, Yang Shaobin, Yue Minjun, Yu Youhan, Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Peili and Zhang Xiaogang.

Sigg told an earlier press conference he had chosen Hong Kong "for its freedom and its proximity to mainland audiences."

"I'd had a number of exchanges with mainland institutions," Sigg was quoted as saying by The New York Times on June 12. "My first impulse was to think of the mainland. But the conditions are not such that art could be shown without limitations."

He said he preferred to donate to a brand-new Hong Kong project instead of an established Western museum.

"It's very important that a Chinese public have access to these works," he said. "The Chinese public ought to see its own contemporary art, which it doesn't know yet."

Sigg said in a statement, "By joining forces with M+, the art works will ultimately come full circle back to China as I have always hoped they would. My intention is to return something to China for what it has allowed me to experience over the last 33 years: an incredible journey."

Questions sparked

The donation and cooperation between museum and art collector have generated controversy, though Chinese art and culture officials and mainland museums have not commented. There's heated online debate by individuals, many of whom resent that the collection is going to Hong Kong and not staying on the mainland.

"This kind of donation is cheating. Actually Sigg is turning a public art museum into his private museum and the Kong Kong government is wasting taxpayers' money," wrote Jiang Yinfeng, an art critic based in Guangzhou in an article in the Oriental Morning Post newspaper on July 16.

In the view of many Chinese, donation by its nature should be generous and selfless, without strings attached, such as additional sale and the agreement on exhibiting 500 works a year.

However, it is not uncommon for conditions to be attached to gifts to art institutions in the West; donations may also involve additional sales and conditions about exhibiting works.

"This practice is fairly common in the West," local artist Wang Yuhong says. "I know collectors who donate works to a certain museum with pre-requisites, such as permanent display of some of the works."

Wang compares the situation to Eastern and Western views about dining. "A foreign friend once said he would treat me to a bottle of red wine at dinner but said we should still go Dutch on the dishes," he said. "Sound odd? Maybe in China people think that if someone offers to pay for a meal that includes everything, but that's not the way in the West."

Pi Li, curator of the yet-to-be-opened M+ Museum, predictably supports Sigg and the museum.

"The Hong Kong government won't carelessly spend their money," says Pi, who is teaching at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. "They have a strict budgeting system. Why must the collector be financially responsible for everything? The expense of insurance, renting a warehouse and transport of the Sigg collection over the past two decades has been daunting. I don't see what's wrong with the collector getting some compensation."

Lars Nittve, executive director of the M+ Museum, says Sigg succeeded in creating unparalleled documentation of Chinese cultural history.

"The period 1979-2009 is a unique moment in art history," he says. "Given the fact that many works, especially from the first 10 years of this period, were destroyed due to lack of interest from collectors and institutions, and the subsequent market boom for these works, it would be impossible to build a collection now similar in depth, scope and quantity."

In fact, Sigg landed in China in 1979 as the representative of Schindler Co, one of the first major joint ventures in China. His first-hand knowledge of China led to his appointment as Swiss ambassador to China in the mid-1980s. Sigg started collecting in 1985, collecting works as far back as 1979, and is said to be the only collector to have witnessed the development of Chinese contemporary art since its infancy.

Strong influences

His influence in the contemporary art community is illustrated by an apocryphal story that artists like to tell. It is said that once when visiting an artist's home, Sigg was bitten by the man's dog, and because of the unfortunate encounter, that painter remained obscure. For the record, Sigg denies anything like that happened, but the point has been made: He can make or break an artist.

"I know what is worthwhile collecting and what is not," Sigg has said. "I decided to collect as an institution would: documenting the art production of China from Day One till today - along the timeline, across all media, rather than according to personal taste as a private collector would. I set out to create that 'document' about Chinese contemporary art that is missing in China, and missing outside as well."

Jimmy Zhang, general manager of a government-affiliated culture company in Shanghai, says he met Sigg when the collector wanted to donate his collection in Shanghai and hoped for an iconic building.

"But it was hard to find an excellent museum named after him in the downtown area. The high cost of building and operating a museum so far has outweighed the attraction of the vast and prestigious collection. Maybe it is not difficult to convince some official leaders about building a museum for Sigg's collection, but then who else except the government could guarantee continuous support in the long run?"

Such contracts in perpetuity cannot be signed, he says.

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