Post-Mao… Wow!

Courtesy of UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art), Beijing

How did a Belgian businessman come to fund China’s top contemporary art institution? Baron Guy Ullens, the force behind the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, explains.

I think China was very important for my country, Belgium. It’s certainly been important for me, having grown up listening to my father speak about his six years there to our opening the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing six months ago. Both my uncle and my father were diplomats in China during an extraordinary period. My uncle Jules Guillaume was the Belgian ambassador during the Sino-Japanese War while my father, Jean, was posted to China just after World War I. I was born in San Francisco. I studied in Europe and later at Stanford, where I earned an MBA, before reluctantly returning to Belgium in 1961 to run my family’s business.

The business, a sugar refinery, hadn’t been looked after for years and was in pretty bad shape. By the early eighties I turned things around and we started to expand—first into Asia and then, in 1985, to China specifically. That was still very early for China, on the business side. But I was determined. That’s how my wife, Myriam, and I came to spend long periods of time there, and it’s also when we discovered the country’s contemporary art scene.

I didn’t know much about contemporary art until we began visiting artists in their tiny workshops in and around Beijing. Until then we collected classical pieces: Chinese objects and ancient paintings. What I liked was the quality and the originality of the art I saw. And I liked the artists—among them Liu Xiaodong, Fang Lijun, the Ai Weiwei family. They were very curious to know what was happening in the West. We’d have long discussions over lunch, we would go with them out of the city on weekends, to the hills, around the Wall, or to the Ming Tombs for a picnic.

Most of the artists in Beijing had moved there from other areas of the country because if their workshops had been in Shanghai, for example, they would have been considered provincial. So it was very nice for us spending time with them. We all felt like foreigners. That’s how we came to be adopted by this group of Chinese artists. They sympathized with us and we with them, immediately.

In the West, artists from China weren’t known. We decided to change that, and in doing so we changed our lives. Our first step was to introduce the work in Europe. We began organizing shows in France and Belgium. Our first exhibit of Chinese contemporary art, “Paris-Pékin,” was in October 2002 at the Espace Cardin in Paris and was based on our private collection. Fifteen thousand visitors came. We invited CCTV and Shanghai TV to broadcast the event. We wanted people on the mainland to see the popularity of their artists.

There were other shows—in Antwerp, in Lyon—but everyone kept telling me, Hire a curator! You can’t go on mounting exhibits as an amateur director. That’s what led us to Fei Dawei, a Chinese curator living in France. He said, “You’re missing videos and installation art.” When I asked where we would store everything, he suggested that we find an old factory in China to house the collection.

Dawei, Mimi, and I started the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. We later teamed up with French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, Chinese architect Qingyun Ma, and our art advisor, Jan Debbaut. We were all familiar with Zone 798, the industrial area in Beijing’s Dashanzi district, which had been a huge munitions complex occupied by the Chinese army. Once the military moved out, the artists moved in.

In the center of 798 are two 50-foot-tall buildings designed by Bauhaus architects. Still, no one knows how such an extraordinary space was constructed during a period when China and East Germany were so poor, after the war, in 1951 and ’52. At first the structures seemed too big—and too expensive—for the collection. But we finally made up our minds and applied for a lease. We got it—and surprisingly, not for one building but for both.

UCCA opened last November, but we’re still in the process of transforming the structures. Our vision is…it’s something quite ambitious. What we are trying to create is a first-class museum space to showcase and promote the best contemporary art in China, where the government and the public have only very recently begun to take an interest. None of the pieces we show are for sale; all are presented in a logical, informative way. We’re building as complete a collection as possible—and commissioning new works. For years to come we want our shows to stand as the ultimate statement on contemporary Chinese art. And we won’t stop there.

We’re putting together a beautiful library. We have 3,000 books and magazines at the moment, and we’ve just received a gift of another 20,000. We could end up, very quickly, with 100,000 volumes. We are already working with Beijing University and other institutions and data banks because, amazingly, we have the opportunity to become the great art library in Asia. We have set up a beautiful hall. It’s not big—140 seats—but it is very sophisticated and wired for simultaneous translation. We’re going to be hosting conferences and, in the future, presenting films. We can show beautiful documentaries on art and on periods in Chinese history without being too controlled.

Yes, of course, censorship is an issue—it is an enormous issue and a challenge. Along the way we have come up against hundreds of difficulties. Amazingly the Chinese are changing their laws and practices all the time. Nonprofit organizations? They don’t exist in the country! The government says: If you are commercial, we’ll leave you alone. If you want to create a completely nonprofit organization, you must depend on the Ministry of Culture and Propaganda. So we have to work on the legal system to try and change that. At the moment, though, it’s not too bad. Any profit will go back into funding the center.

Twenty years ago, when my wife and I became seriously involved (ours is a second marriage), she said to me, “I’m finished with business. I’m going to do humanitarian work. And that’s many times more difficult than any business.” First she went to Nepal, to the countryside, and founded an orphanage. Now there are two of these orphanages. Then we set up a school in Kathmandu called the Ullens School; this April we will have 350 students. And now we’ve teamed up with the Bank Street School from New York. Two years ago Mimi started a European-based cancer foundation. She started in Belgium, where there are three hospitals participating, and next she intends to take it into the UK and France. These are our major projects. They all move step by step. But, at the moment, we are totally involved in China.

Ullens Foundation Stats

Three organizations supported by the Guy and Myriam Ullens Foundation stand apart.

Happy House Foundation

Based in Kathmandu, Nepal, the foundation runs orphanages, a school, and emergency centers for children. It also supports the department of science and engineering at Kathmandu University. Lalitpur Submetro-5, Kumari Pati

Mimi Foundation

This foundation, which was launched in Belgium in 2004, aims to improve the lives of patients undergoing chemotherapy. 45 Av. des Statuaires, Brussels; fondationmimi.be

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art

UCCA is a nonprofit art center in Beijing that presents work by established and emerging artists, commissions new work, and sponsors events and exhibitions of Chinese art worldwide. 798 Art District no. 4, Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang District; ullens-center.org

CONTACT

Readers interested in becoming involved with UCCA or any other Ullens Foundation initiatives should contact Monique Brees at monique@verbier.ch. For more information, visit ullens-center.org.