back to

Ullens to sell UCCA, perhaps the most prestigious museum in China


For Randian, Diane Wong reports that the Baron and collector Guy Ullens will sell Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. This news follows years of decreased sponsorship from the museum’s founders, Guy and Myriam Ullens. Since its founding in 2007 and as Randian notes, the Ullens Center has become a major part of the Chinese art scene and has ushered in Western professionalization to the second-world country, where there is little government interest in, spaces or funding for contemporary art. With bilingual publications like LEAP and Randian, UCCA has worked to increase discourse between the Chinese and Western art worlds. (In full disclosure, I curated an exhibition there in 2014.)

Some observations: a.) Guy Ullens is also selling his collection, which totals nearly 1,000 works–though Ullens says the reasons for these sales is his age (he is 80+), perhaps this also has something to do with the cooling of the art market; b.) the sale of a major museum seems like something would only happen in China, given its privatized museum scene. Whatever the reason, I hope UCCA will stay in operation as long as possible.

Read Wong translated by Daniel Szehin Ho in partial below, or in full via Randian’s website.

On June 30, it was announced that Baron Guy Ullens is looking to sell Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) along with his art collection, which is formally separate from UCCA. No new buyers have been named in the press release, however, and the stunning news means that clouds are hanging over the future of the institution, widely regarded as the most important contemporary art institution in the country.

Founded by the Belgian collector-couple Baron Guy Ullens and Myriam Ullens, UCCA is a linchpin in the 798 Art Zone in northwestern Beijing. The Ullens began preparing in 2005, and in 2007 officially opened the privately funded contemporary art institution. In the last decade or so, UCCA has presented many landmark and critically acclaimed exhibitions, including “85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art” (2007), “House of Oracles: a Huang Yong Ping Retrospective” (2008), “Qiu Zhijie: Breaking through the Ice” (2009), “Zhang Huan: Hope Tunnel” (2010), “The Important Thing Is Not The Meat” a retrospective of Gu Dexin in 2012, “ON | OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice” (2013), “Hans van Dijk: 5000 Names” (2014), and more recently “William Kentridge: Model Operas” (2015) and “Rauschenberg in China” (2016). More importantly, UCCA brought new standards and professionalism in exhibition making, introducing both international and emerging artists, and all the while mounting considered exhibitions of artists in China—this in a country and at a time where official museums on the whole made very lackluster efforts in contemporary art and where the private museum boom was still to take off.

Born in San Francisco in 1935, Guy Ullens was first exposed to Chinese art while expanding his family business to China. Under the guidance of Wu Erlu and Johnson Chang, he began to collect modern Chinese painting and calligraphy along with contemporary art works. Retiring in 2000 from the family enterprise, Guy Ullens devoted his energies to the field of art, with his collection nearing 1000 pieces. Having founded the Ullens Foundation in Switzerland in 2003, the Ullens sponsored major exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art and expanded the scale of the collection. At a certain point, the Ullens decided to fund and build a museum. At a time when there were basically no patrons of art or art foundations in China, UCCA, over 6500 squared meters in size, was founded, with the operating funds primarily provided by the Ullens Foundation.

The single source of funding in those early days, the relatively high operating expenses of the institution, as well as the Ullens’ sales of artworks in auctions at times brought some controversy for the institution. In April 2011, for instance, UCCA announced an official cooperation with Minsheng, and in the same year, the Ullens auctioned off 195 contemporary art works in Sotheby’s spring auction in Hong Kong—which made many think that the Ullens were “abandoning China” and raised the question of UCCA changing hands. And yet the Minsheng deal was called off in the end, with no further news, while the Ullens reiterated the formal separate relationship between the Foundation and UCCA. With a steady situation at the institution, the rumors died down.

One year after the founding of UCCA, the Ullens had in fact already begun cutting the capital injection into the institution. By 2011, May Xue took on the position of CEO, along with Philip Tinari as director and You Yang as assistant director. By reorganizing the store, forming a board of directors, and increasing private donations from patrons, UCCA has gradually gained new sources of funding. In 2013, May Xue revealed that the Ullens Foundation had been cutting funding by 30% a year, from 86 million RMB in 2008 to 21 million RMB by 2013. In 2015, UCCA’s official operating budget revealed that out of 41 million RMB, only 20% was provided by the Ullens Foundation, with the rest coming from corporate sponsorship (20%), individual sponsorship (10%), the Ullens Store (20%), and the annual charity auction gala (20%). Though the departure of the Ullens will not put undue financial pressure on the institution and on whomever the new owners are in terms of funding, the statement released did not reveal the new buyers and future administrative adjustments. (When reached, neither Phil Tinari nor May Xue offered to comment beyond what was released in the official statement).