Davidoff Art Dialogue: 
Collecting Art in China

by 作者:大卫杜夫艺术培育计划 Davidoff Art Initiative
translated by 译: Ran Dian 燃点

Davidoff Art Initiative, launched in 2013, is a platform for promoting cultural exchange, particularly regarding the Dominican Republic and Caribbean, where many of Davidoff’s products are made. The Davidoff cigar company is headquartered in Basel and in 2012 it became an Associate Partner of Art Basel in Basel, Hong Kong and Miami. One of the main aims of Davidoff Art Initiative is supporting artist residencies around the world, including in Beijing, Berlin and New York.

Davidoff Art Residencies
Davidoff Art Initiative and randian 燃点 are cooperating to establish a Chinese-English directory of the leading artist residencies in China and international residencies for Chinese artists. The objective is to create a portal for China-International artist residencies, not only a directory of residencies but also a practical guide for artists and their supporters, whether curators, collectors or gallerists.

Davidoff Art Dialogues
Another important aspect of the platform is Davidoff Art Dialogues, public talks between leading artists, curators, collectors and museum directors about every aspect of art, from theoretical debates to collector experiences. The first China session was held in Hong Kong recently (you can read the edited transcript below) and the next will take place at the UCCA in Beijing this Friday.

Davidoff Art Dialogue: Collecting Art in China (Duddell’s, Hong Kong),  September 27, 2013

Philip Tinari, director, UCCA, Beijing
She Yong, collector
Shao Zhong, collector
Yang Bin, collector

Philip Tinari: As we all know, Chinese collectors are counted on in the world, and many international galleries have opened here. Yesterday was Christie’s inaugural auction in Mainland China, taking place in Shanghai. So who are the Chinese collectors, and what are their priorities? How are decisions made about their collections? What are they hoping to gain out of their interaction with the arts? How do they use art to change lives? What are their views on the future of the art world? What other activities does collecting entail? What is the relationship between collecting and career? These are the questions we will be discussing with our guests today. First, we’ll start with She Yong.

She Yong: I’m She Yong, from Chengdu, and I’m very pleased to be invited by Phil o this dialogue today. My collecting art began by chance. The fortunate moment was in 1995, when the sculptor Mr. Ye Yushan retired from his position as the President of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute (SCFAI) and started a business with me. We worked on city sculptures for 18 years together. Since SCFAI produced many prominent contemporary Chinese artists, we established an organization that collects contemporary art. The process of collecting is truly enjoyable, so we set up the organization “Tomorrow Art Management”, which not only collects but also exhibits and provides sponsorship for the arts, such as the Harper’s Bazaar campus tour, and a satellite exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale which showed over a hundred contemporary Chinese artists. At the moment, we’re following the German Neo-Expressionist movement with interest, which leads me to believe that in the next five years, art by outstanding overseas artists will be the upcoming trend.

Shao Zhong: Good afternoon, my name is Shao Zhong and I work in media. My interest in art is most likely a result of family background and influences. As a child, I’ve always enjoyed drawing; my family works in culture, and I received a traditional Chinese fine arts education. Of course I was also influenced by Soviet Russia. As a child, my idol was Repin, so I’ve always been intrigued by sketching and interrelations between the East and West. My family always had a hobby of collecting, so this dynamic fostered my interest in fine arts. To me, the definition of “collecting” is not unequivocal; it also represents an understanding of culture and history, and an understanding of the world. Moreover, art is an addiction. Collections originate from private or family collections, but at present my work in media is public, so I’ve experienced the transition from private to public. I believe the obstacle in China isn’t illiteracy, but art illiteracy. Communication to the public is vital in art education, thus I think that my collecting transcends boundaries. For instance, from early on I’ve admired Western contemporary art, but my family owned more traditional Chinese calligraphy and paintings. However, contemporary art fascinates me because it is an expression of the discrepancies in society. In 1996, when I started working at Leap, I had always thought the first cover should be Chen Yifei, and later on would be Xu Bing and other friends. In my opinion, collecting is a way to engage with the world from a social and personal perspective, which I find compelling. I really enjoy the YBAs (Young British Artists). My collection is a mash up of art, but this diversity is a platform for international discussion, and I believe, an interesting collocation of the individual and society.

Yang Bin: I’m from Beijing. I work as a retailer of Cadillac, Buick and Chevrolet. I also just mentioned that I’m in the wine business; I have a small wine company. My collection consists mostly of contemporary Chinese pieces. I have a couple pieces by Fang Lijun and Liu Wei, but recently I’ve also collected some Western contemporary art from galleries and exhibitions. You asked why I collect art, I don’t know why. With my earnings I bought cars and houses; I didn’t know what to do with the extra money. Dining and drinking doesn’t cost too much, so I spent some on art.

Question: What was the first piece of art you bought?

Yang Bin: I don’t remember the first piece well. I bought a couple pieces by Leng Jun, Zhou Chunya, and others from an art gallery after I had renovated a house in Shanghai.

Phil Tinari: Recently, the emergence of Chinese collectors has been a topic of discussion. In the West they say there are no real collectors in China, only investors, a fact that has become basic common sense. My question is: what is the problem with this conclusion? What is the relationship between investment and collection of art?

Yang Bin: I think this conclusion is true for both the West and China. Though they say the duration of Chinese collections are too short, we sell as soon as we’ve bought. Western collectors, such as the Ullens, are also selling, but they wait for a longer period of time.

She Yong: I agree with Yang Bin. China is rapidly developing. In the 80’s, the standard of wealth was an annual income of 10,000RMB. In 30 years we have prospered to the today’s state of wealth. In a period of development, the investment mentality is inevitable. China is also unable to purchase artworks with government capital. I believe the [investment] phenomenon is temporary, it will quickly change, and I rarely make profit off of art.

Shao Zhong: I think collection and investment should be separated. Artron recently disclosed statistics on the return of investment on art. In a span of ten years, the entire return investment on artworks was unquestionably lower than that of real estate. In terms of investment, I would suggest real estate, since the average return in the past ten years on artworks have been 25%. It’s very low. It’s too early in China for art investment; it’s not the time. As someone working in media, I believe that if investment and collection are not differentiated, it could be a huge problem. Collecting is collecting, while investment involves different considerations. Personal taste is not a concern as it is with collecting art. What I find interesting is, works bought at 10,000 RMB a couple years ago, including those by Feng Zikai and Guan Liang whose traditional ink works have a modernist or contemporary quality, are now increasing greatly in value. But if investing and collecting are not kept separate, there will be misunderstandings. Collecting is a personal hobby. For example, Fang Lijun and I have been good friends for around 20 years; not only do I collect his work, but we also interact in our industries. Publishers and contemporary arts progress together with time. It is more meaningful to interact with art in a cultured and cultural way. I think investment and collection should be independently defined.

Phil Tinari: Yes, collections exist as a group or ensemble of objects. The word “collection” itself is evidence of that. For instance, I’ve collected shells or coins. The collection is a group of objects together; its wholeness depends on the presence of all parts. It’s a similar concept for artworks; an individual’s interests and directions differ from that of others, but it’s the consideration of the inclination or wholeness, whether academically or historically, that defines a collection.

Shao Zhong: First, I think my collection might be particular, since I deal with theory, my feelings towards art differs. I often conduct experiments that I find significant. I begin with instinct and then reflect upon them with theory, using my retrospection to justify the reasons behind my feelings towards an artwork and then determining the value of the piece, or the relationship between the artist, their past, and society and its history. I’ve bought many pieces by the YBAs. I’m not personally involved with their organization or structure, but I find enjoyment in it; it’s quite an interesting connection. I think having a personal system—unless you are a professional collector or have plans to donate your personal collection to the public or a museum—helps the collector to focus on a particular domain or topic. At the moment, I seldom see Chinese collectors function this way. I’m not sure if anyone present here has seen this, but up till now I haven’t

She Yong: What Shao Zhong just said was great. I actually admire collectors with a system. Honestly I personally am pretty mindless in collecting. Art differes from science in that it’s not precise and it is multidirectional when transmitting information. In the process of collecting, I often receive advice from experts or friends and am influenced by the system, though I don’t collect with a plan or structure in mind. For example, in the process of collecting contemporary art, it is unlike a beautiful painted landscape which solely depends on sensory appreciation. It depends on intellectual appreciation. You must contemplate it and assess its concepts to appreciate it, involving a more individualized experience.

Yang Bin: Actually when I first started, the environment for collecting was not ideal. I couldn’t find many artists, and there were only a few galleries, so the process required fumbling about, slowly forming a collection. Now the situation is better: when there are more experts, it becomes possible to have a system.

Phil Tinari: She Yong mentioned the direction of the Neo-Expressionist movement, so you are still considering the problem with a particular ideological influence in mind.

She Yong: Actually in the collecting process, even though there is no system, there needs to be reflection after acquiring an artwork, especially contemporary art. We find a lot of chaos amidst collecting. Is it the case for people outside of China? We discover that the Neo-Expressionist mentality is obvious: it exists in history, in the context of the hardships of the German nation, so it is important to appreciate it with a sympathetic mind. German art is about unpleasant art. The reason why it appeals to us is because appreciating such art is similar to the religious and introspective process when we speak of faith and meditation.

Phil Tinari: This was already mentioned, but I know close proximity with artists is a reason for collecting, so I’d like to know if any specific artist has influenced your lives.

Yang Bin: When my house was being renovated, the roof was made in an Anish Kapoor style. That’s the artist’s influence on me.

Shao Zhong: Maybe I’m a little different. I like beautiful things, so I’m affected by beauty. I won’t collect objects that are not beautiful. I don’t collect just any contemporary or traditional art pieces. The influence an artist has on me is through beauty, whether it is an abstract or figurative one The varied influence of beauty by different artists is significant to me. For instance, I like works by the YBAs for their bright and simple aesthetics regardless of the media. And it is very suitable to put in a living space. I think all these factors affect me. If a work doesn’t induce a sense of beauty, if it can’t be put in my home, I won’t collect it. Museum and public collections are a different case. To me, a sense of beauty is decidedly important. I grew up with figurative ink paintings, never understanding Picasso. Slowly with time and a growing understanding of form and color, I’ve come to appreciate it. When I was a child, I studied with very talented children. I always thought my drawing could never surpass them because it’s in their DNA. It was as if by default they could draw straighter lines than me. I might have had opportunities to work with them or manage them, but I would never be innately better at drawing. However, an artist once told me, you may stop drawing, but you must never stop looking. Visual appreciation is vital: the more you see, the more you will understand and enjoy. So since I was ten, I’ve kept up the habit of looking at art. It’s quite difficult to make the leap from figurative art to the abstract nature of contemporary art. It’s an obstacle, but if you maintain the habit for eight to ten years, it’ll be pivotal in your appreciation.

Phil TinariShe Yong, which artists have had a significant influence on you?

She Yong: To choose a particular one might be difficult. Previously I spoke of my time working on sculptures with Professor Ye Yushan and how I spent essentially everyday with the professors at SCFAI. Their influence on me was huge. Artists were the first group of people in China who did what they wanted and said what they wanted when no one else dared. They greatly influenced me.

Phil Tinari: A frequently asked question, which Shao Zhong has already mentioned, is when will Chinese collectors purchase large quantities of non-Chinese art? What are your views on the topic and on the dissimilarities between Chinese and overseas art?

She Yong: There is a trend of globalization among collectors too. The reason why Chinese collectors haven’t purchased large amounts of art from abroad is due to barriers posed by border control, customs, tax or other obstacles. I personally feel that the most notable development in the art world in the past five years is the import of works by international blue chip artists. In reality, our understanding of foreign art and artists isn’t comprehensive, so our purchases of Western pieces don’t stand out in the international market as a significant gesture, but more like a number.

Shao Zhong: I personally see it this way, contemporary art must reflect the present condition. For example, if I had a small exhibition space and I have personal collections of traditional ink works, Chinese contemporary art, and Western contemporary art to choose from, which would I pick ? I would quickly decide on my collection of Western art, solely because it is more captivating and relevant to our time. An exhibition of traditional ink paintings would be strange because it’s not current. I’m not familiar with contemporary Chinese art, and I’m not criticizing, but I feel it is lagging behind by ten years. It doesn’t have a sense of the present; it’s more like symbols, and I can’t collect symbols. I think the art has to be relevant to your identity, your experience, and your understanding of the world. People in media must be pioneers, which means being a visionary of your time. If you aren’t, it will seem outdated and dull. Non-Chinese art is not necessarily better than Chinese work, but the price is fair. Contemporary Chinese art is very expensive, but there is no market. Some artists are inspiring and influential, but there is a strange phenomenon that the ones who have yet to be influential ask for higher prices and are wealthier than the former. Another problem is liquidity. Liquidity must be considered in collecting. International collections have a benefit of an established standardized pricing. Like stocks, settling a bargain and liquidity is important. If collected pieces can’t find profit on the market, then there is a problem with the collection. International contemporary artworks have good liquidity, you can put them on auctions anytime, anywhere and you’ll always have a reference point for prices because of comprehensive established sales records and provenance. You rarely encounter fake pieces with these. Chinese contemporary artists have started establishing archives and documenting their work, but it’s still behind..

Yang Bin: Many Chinese have started to collect Western works slowly, but Westerners seem to be too impatient and thinks that we are too slow. I think one of the main reasons is the language barrier. Only a handful of people speak foreign languages, which makes understanding and collecting non-Chinese art difficult. It might be helpful for foreigners to adopt Chinese names so that we could remember them more easily!

Phil Tinari: Have you considered opening an art museum?

She Yong: Since we had collected so many pieces, we thought about building a museum to store all of them. But I didn’t find the idea appealing. It requires an excess amount of money, time, and it’s hard to manage. We wanted to build a museum that connects to our daily life as well as provides space for art appreciation. In the E’mei Mountains we have made plans for one called the Yellow River Art Museum

Shao Zhong: I think building art museums in China is taken very seriously, while in the West a private residence could be regarded as a museum. But China’s understanding of art museum is different; it has to be a public space. I could have a space as a museum, and there could also be a bar for drinks and conversations. I think it’s a matter of perspective. I’ve been to many museums abroad, and they all have different characteristics. In China, people think of museums as these large establishments, but they don’t have to be the same. Private museums and public spaces shouldn’t be discussed under the same category. I don’t think there should be too many public museums. Actually, there should be various types of museums, which fosters different kinds of perception and appreciation among the public. At each purchase, you have to think about consider its dimensions and placement. Of course, investment would be an entirely different concept.

Yang Bin: Art museums are not merely large houses. The Chinese understanding of art museum is a pretty building. Museums have multiple functions, but we don’t have the people who know how to manage and operate them. It is pointless to keep building them in China. In the past two years, I offered to build an art museum in one of the top mainland universities. We had even found the investors, and I had agreed to exhibit my collection. Then during a meal with a senior leader at the university, he said that he’d like to include calligraphy by some “arty” members of the Communist Party. I almost passed out.

Phil Tinari: One of the most troublesome things I found about running a museum is the bureaucracy. And sometimes the importing, customs, taxes, etc. as well. Have these challenges affected your collection?

She Yong: At the moment, no. I have a small museum for my sculpture collection that is not even 1000 square meters in a courtyard. It is also a private space. And prior to 2005, all the pieces were of historical and communist subject matters. We were conventional so we were not regulated.

Shao Zhong: If it’s not for public viewing, these problems won’t exist. For instance, if you publish a magazine for yourself, then no one will regulate it. But if you publish it for public distribution, then you’ll encounter many obstacles. Buying art is easier compared to publishing magazines. They don’t understand contemporary art.

Phil Tinari: But recently, many collectors have started to find a place in Hong Kong for storing artworks.

Yang Bin: I was just going to mention this. I’ve recently acquired a piece that was unable to be shipped in. The reason was mostly tax-related, not political.

Phil Tinari: Last question: we know life is short, but art is eternal. Where do you hope to see your collection in a hundred years?

She Yong: I haven’t considered this. I guess we’ll be gone, while the works still remain. As to where, that’s difficult to say, maybe they’ll be stored in a museum .

Shao Zhong: Since I work in media, I might view this differently. I think it may be interesting to juxtapose or compare the changes of my generation with the artworks made by artists of the same generation. People and artworks from the same era. It would be interesting to exhibit contemporary events alongside artworks from our time. Many artists have contributed to my work, and artistic creation is very interesting because it is a process to understand the changes our society has undergone in the past 10 years. This is why my magazines continue to collaborate with artists, to create a retrospective and meaningful look into society.

Questions from the Audience:

Audience: Regarding collecting artworks, I’d like to ask about the pieces themselves. When a work is in front of you, what factors determine your final decision to collect it, and provoke you from simply liking it to collecting it?

Yang Bin: If you’re buying one or two pieces, you’ll consider where to place them, but once you’ve bought enough you won’t be concerned with these issues. If you like it, you’ll purchase it.

She Yong: I’m similar to Yang Bin, but I’m more conscious of the themes, they need to resonate with me. But I’ve never analyzed art, so it’s mostly intuitive.

Shao Zhong: I think you should do your due diligence first. People like us have been exposed to art since youth, yet like buying clothes, we often end up buying pieces we don’t like later on. Investing and collecting are different. Investments need professional consulting, but personal taste will change, and everyone likes different things. A collection is often begun with financial excess. Liquidity is also a problem with art. It’s less of an issue if you buy jewelry.

Audience: Previously you mentioned that you’ve acquired many pieces from prominent Chinese artists born in the 50s and 60s and now have also been observing non-Chinese artists. Have you been following the younger Chinese artists, and have you offered support to this new generation of artists?

She Yong: The reason why I’ve paid attention to non-Western art is because I heard at the Venice Biennale that Fang Lijun has started collecting works by international artists himself. In regards to the new generation of artists, I am supportive of them. For instance, in my collaboration with Bazaar Art, we organized campus tours and provided three years of sponsorship for students to study in Europe. Of course, I’ll also collect some of their work, but it takes time for young artists to develop and mature.

Shao Zhong: I think there are two types of young artists. The first is highly experimental young artists who should be encouraged because Chinese contemporary art needs pioneers. The pieces worth collecting and supporting are those that are emblematic, experimental, and reflective of its time because they allow the viewer to feel a connection with the world and its progression. It is also important to look at these new artists with a professional eye instead of seeing it as investment. The value in experimental work does not lie in its financial return but in its ability to inspire the society. Collecting such art has two functions: one is to reflect changes in this epoch, and the other is to encourage young artists to create for art’s sake, not for financial gain.

Yang Bin: The price on young artists is quite low, and there are too many to fully collect. But they should be supported and followed, and maybe there is a specific form of help. I’ve recently opened a cafe; I’m thinking I could hang some works by young artists. It could help.

Phil Tinari: Due to time restrictions, we may have to end here. Thank you to our three guest speakers for the insight on their personal life and art.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *