Ending years of speculation, the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority today announced that the Uli Sigg collection, the world’s premier trove of contemporary Chinese art, will go to the M+ museum in Hong Kong.
Slated to open in 2017, M+ will receive 1,463 works as an outright donation, plus an additional 47 pieces as a partial gift for the price of $22.7 million. In all, the experimental artworks, created primarily between 1979 and 2009 by some 350 artists, are valued by Sotheby’s at $163 million. Among the artists represented are Zhang Xiaogang, Xu Bing, Zhang Peili, Fang Lijun, Gu Wenda, Liu Wei, Yue Minjun and Yang Shaobin.
Sigg (b. 1946), a Swiss businessman and former ambassador to China, began to amass avant-garde work from the People’s Republic two decades ago. At the time, he says, “nobody was collecting Chinese contemporary art even remotely systematically—neither individuals nor institutions in China or abroad.” So he decided to “collect like an institution would: documenting the art production of China from day one to today—along the timeline, across all media, rather than according to my personal taste.” Until about 2004, he might have added, prices were startlingly low by international standards.
Sigg is legendary in China for making many hundreds of visits to the studios of then obscure or persecuted artists, and for early on displaying his finds on the walls of his offices and residences, often to the bewilderment of his more traditionally minded Chinese colleagues. Later, the bulk of his collection was moved to his castle near Mauensee, Switzerland, where it was thought he might establish a private museum, if he did not sell off his holdings at enormous profit or, conversely, find a suitable museum to accept them nearly in toto.
M+, a 645,000-square-foot facility, is part of a $2.8-billion complex being erected on landfill in a now rather seedy area across Victoria Bay from Central Hong Kong. The park-like West Kowloon Cultural District will encompass 17 new cultural venues, most devoted to the performing arts. M+ is directed by the Swedish-born Lars Nittve, former head of such institutions as Tate Modern (London) and the Moderna Museet (Stockholm). During its first three years of operation, the museum will devote some 54,000 square feet to two major shows drawn from the newly designated M+ Sigg Collection. It will also host events related to the annual Chinese Contemporary Art Award, created by Sigg in 1997, and the CCAA Art Critic award, which he initiated in 2007.
These arrangements are in line with the explicit M+ policy of being clearly rooted in Hong Kong (and, indeed, in the Kowloon district, where pop-up shows and other forms of community outreach are already under way) and yet fully global. Several Hong Kong artists—such as Lee Kit and Pak Sheung-Chuen—have recently been added to the Sigg holdings. Meanwhile, press materials note Sigg’s membership on international advisory committees for MoMA (New York) and Tate Gallery (London), and compare his benefaction, in size and market value, to those of Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, Anthony d’Offay, Paul Mellon and the Annbenbergs.
The Sigg donation is also being spun as the return of these cultural assets to their homeland in China. But this is a little like saying a collection of American Pop art has returned to the U.S. because it has been given to a museum in Puerto Rico. Political and cultural distinctions between Hong Kong and mainland China remain sharp, nowhere more so than in the minds of their respective residents.
Officials in the PRC, where every year brings more enormous museum spaces to be filled, remain ambivalent toward the adventurous-now commercially successful—art it once disowned. Tradition-based work, saturated with “Chineseness” and more conducive to national “harmony” (i.e., exclusive governance by the Communist Party) is a much safer bet. Caution also prevails in the West, out of cultural unfamiliarity and skepticism about Chinese critical standards and business practices.
Thus the Sigg-M+ deal is one more instance of Hong Kong, whose art fair just became part of the Art Basel consortium, bidding to make itself the prime marketplace and, now, prime showplace for contemporary art in Asia.