Chinese Contemporary Art: Q&A with Philip Tinari

A chat with the forward-thinking curator.

Philip Tinari was barely 21—and still in college—when he curated his first contemporary Asian art show. The encounter sparked such an obsession that he took off for Beijing soon after with nothing more than a few Chinese artists’ phone numbers in tow. Fluency in the language meant myriad jobs for the Philadelphia native, like translating Ai Weiwei’s early blog posts and working on Sotheby’s first sale of contemporary Chinese art.

As enthusiasm for Asian art reached a fever pitch, Tinari founded China’s preeminent bilingual art magazine, LEAP. In 2011 the Beijing-based Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), established by Belgian collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens to feature work by China’s most innovative artists, appointed Tinari director—the youngest in its history. And this spring the 34-year-old’s consummate eye was on display at New York’s largest art fair, the Armory Show, as the curator of a section focusing on Chinese art.

Q: With practically no contemporary art scene in Beijing when you arrived, what compelled you to stay?
I bumped into the art world just as it was emerging from an underground era. Few were paying attention to what was happening in Beijing then—there were no real galleries or museums to speak of. I saw an intellectually challenging atmosphere full of possibilities.

Q: What does today’s global enthusiasm for Chinese contemporary art mean for artists?
It means someone like Li Liao, a performance artist who worked in a Foxconn factory until earning enough to buy an iPad, is now allowed to address issues of both Chinese and global relevance. It also means that a global fair like the Armory Show can devote an entire section to Chinese artists and galleries—known and emerging—and it will draw crowds. Audiences no longer feel China is so far away.

Q: What’s in store for this next generation?
It won’t just be high auction prices—what the last generation achieved. They’re looking to find a place in an international conversation. And with a global perspective built into our institutional DNA, the UCCA helps them do just that.

UCCA is at 798 Art District, 4 Jiuxianqiao Rd.; ucca.org.cn.