Boom in private museums

Published June 01, 2012
Boom in private museums
Forget the private jet, ditch that luxury yacht. For Asia’s burgeoning billionaires, the new mantra is ‘private museums’ that house the wealth of art of the super, super-rich, reports HELMI YUSOF
BT 20120601 HWART2 24245235

INDONESIA; Forays into art: Indonesian tobacco tycoon Oei Hong Djien simply wants to preserve his country’s rich artistic heritage with his OHD Museum of Modern and Contemporary (above) 


CHATTY and charming, Wang Wei likes to tell the same story to just about anyone who will listen: "I was once an ordinary housewife. But years ago I was introduced to the art world and I became a collector. I then decided to build my own museum. And when it opens, it will enrich the lives of other housewives with courses on painting and calligraphy, so that they too can become cultured like me."

If one didn't know better, one would think this woman was a pipe-dreamer - if not outright crazy. Except she is neither of these things, and she really is building an 11,000-sq m museum in Shanghai which she hopes one day will be "run by women". Married to Liu Yiqian, the billionaire financier and the 172nd richest man in China, she will call it Long Museum for longevity.

Rarefied circles

A little surprised? Don't be. She is not the only one. Across Asia, the super, super-rich are building museums as the latest signifier of their super-abundant wealth. In these rarefied circles, the word is: the personal jet and the luxury yacht are just so yesterday.

Top-quality art pieces are unique and cannot be owned by anyone else, unlike a Rolls Royce limousine or a Cartier bauble. So splashing millions on prized artworks whose value cannot be ascertained by anyone except maybe - and that's a huge maybe - the art experts, is the ultimate show of wealth.

In China, where the rich are eager to show they have arrived, museums are popping up with about the same frequency as amusement parks. Property magnate Dai Zhikang is opening the Himalayas Arts Museum in Shanghai, electronics tycoon Chen Yung-tai expanded his Aurora Museum in Shanghai, and Chen Dongsheng of Taiking Life Insurance started Taiking Space in Beijing.

At the recent Hong Kong International Art Fair 2012, a private forum was held for Asia's mega-rich on how to go about setting and running their own private museums. Though journalists were barred from attending the session, a joke went around that it began like this: "Step One: Have a lot of money. Step Two: Have even more money... "

Philip Dodd, the fair's advisor who also chaired the forum, says: "They are learning on the job, just as we once did in the West." He likens the current situation in Asia to that of America in the early 20th century when museums were started by rich philanthropists. They include oil tycoon J Paul Getty and businessmen Solomon R Guggenheim, the men behind the Getty and Guggenheim museums respectively. Both began life as private museums before serving more public functions.

Putting aside the opportunity to display one's wealth and erudition, the motives for starting one's own private museum does vary from one mogul to the next. Oei Hong Djien, Indonesia's tobacco tycoon and passionate art collector, simply wants to preserve his country's rich artistic heritage.

Dr Oei says: "Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world. We have a lot of great artists. But we don't have a national museum, and our government is not taking steps in that direction. So we, the people, have taken over that role from the government, especially when the world is looking into Asia right now."

Dr Oei's OHD Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art - OHD are his initials - in Java houses an enviable collection of 2,000 works, including masterworks by Affandi and Widayat. His compatriot, farming billionaire Budi Tek, built the Yuz Museum in Jakarta in 2008, and plans to build a second one called De Museum in Shanghai next year.

Meanwhile in India, Kiran Nadar who is the wife of billionaire industrialist Shiv Nadar opened a Delhi museum in her own name, while sugar baroness Rajshree Pathy is building a private museum in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. India has the most number of Asian billionaires after China.

All these beg the question: Why this? Why art? Why now?

"Why not?" answers Kwok Kian Chow, senior advisor to the yet-to-open National Art Gallery, Singapore. "The time is right for Asia to do so. It's been 60 years since the last World War. There's been enough time to Asian societies to prepare and gather their resources, enough time for a manifestation for history and heritage."

Mr Kwok, who was formerly the director of Singapore Art Museum, says private art efforts are important to art collections of any country: "Increasingly, public museums are recognising the importance of private collections as they capture the vision and perspective of the collector. In time to come, private collections will be embraced by specific communities who want to see the perpetuity of the collection. In terms of relevance, some private collections may even hold greater relevance than some public ones."

In Singapore, the private museum scene is certainly more modest than that of China, India and Indonesia. Of the 50 or so museums in Singapore, about a third are privately owned. They include museums centred on the works of certain artists, such as Wu Guanzhong at Art Retreat and the Tan Swie Hian Museum. There are also private museums devoted to specific types of art, such as the Mint Museum of Toys started by 63-year-old toy lover Chang Yang Fa, who runs his own engineering consulting firm.

Private museums started by wealthy figures include the Museum of Contemporary Chinese Art created by plastic surgeon Woffles Wu. He affectionately calls it the Mao-soleum for its many tongue-in-cheek artworks featuring iconic Communist leader Mao Zedong.

Dr Wu says running a private museum is no walk in the park: "You have to think about the security, programming, maintaining and rotating of works, investing in new works, divesting the old ones. It's not easy and certainly not cheap."

Dr Wu bought and converted a 1,114 sq m warehouse in Kaki Buki into the museum, so he does not have to pay rent. Admission at $20 is by appointment and can take place only between 9pm and 11.45pm, after Dr Wu is done with his lucrative day practice. He enthuses: "Art looks so much more beautiful in the theatre of the night."

Reflecting on Singapore's quieter scene, he says: "I know of Singaporeans who have beautiful paintings by Picasso, Miro, Chagall and others. If only they would come together to share these works in a public space to be enjoyed by all."

Monica Gunawan, an Indonesian gallerist who started Jakarta's private museum Art:1 with her well-known gallerist mother, Martha Gunawan, says: "Funding is always an issue. It costs tens of thousands of dollars to keep a museum like ours running, so we're always on the lookout for private donors to help."

Indeed, funding is the biggest reason why some private museums either decline and disappear, or convert to public museums. Historically, no private museum has lasted for more than a century.

Long-term issues

Lars Nittve, the former director of Tate Museum who now heads M+ Museum, Hong Kong's new nomadic museum without a building, says: "Most famous museums we know started out as something of private museum, and became public two or three generations down the line. They often require funding or public funding, so they go public or they merge with another museum - and these sometimes go on to become the major museums of the world."

Mr Nittve says that besides money, there is also the question of who will take over the leadership of the museum after the founder dies: "When I talk to art collectors, they tell me that their children don't have the same interest in art as they do."

When founders die, their children may decide to donate their collections to public museums. As Hong Kong Art Fair advisor Mr Dodd observes: "When you walk around the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, all the major collections are from private collectors."

But not all private museum owners are hand-wringing over the issue. Says tobacco tycoon Dr Oei: "As long as people smoke, I will have no problem; if they stop, I'll have to sell one painting at a time. But I've educated my sons well so now, they make even more money than I do. As for the art, my daughter-in-law cares about art and will look after it."

Now that's what you call a succession plan.









OHD Museum

OHD Museum is a modern and contemporary art museum owned by dr Oei Hong Djien (OHD). As a well-known art collector, curator, honorary-advisor to Singapore Art Museum, dr Oei Hong Djien started his collections in early 1970s.

Currently, with a vast collection of more than 2000 artworks, ranging from paintings, sculptures, installations and ceramics from different time periods, OHD Museum is located on Jalan Jenggolo 14, in the city of Magelang Central Java – Indonesia.