At Sotheby’s Hong Kong yesterday, Guy Ullens, founder of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing, sold 86 works—of 90 offered—for a total of nearly $17 million (including commissions). The partial sell-off (from a collection estimated at 1,500 items from both East and West) has fueled rumors that the UCCA will soon close. Yet just 10 days ago, the institution named Philip Tinari as its new director, replacing Jérôme Sans, who has served since 2008.
This brings to some $71 million the total the Belgian collector has garnered from his holdings in contemporary Chinese work, following a spring 2011 sale at Sotheby’s HK of 100 pieces. Top lot in yesterday’s bidding was Zeng Fanzhi’s painting Mask Series No. 26 (1998), which went for $2.6 million. In the earlier sale, Forever Lasting Love (1988), a triptych by Zhang Xiaogang, brought just over $10 million—a record for the artist and the third-highest price ever paid for a contemporary Chinese work at auction.
The American-born Tinari, 32, holds a BA in literature from Duke University and an MA in East Asian studies from Harvard. Fluent in Mandarin, he was a Fulbright Fellow at Beijing University and has lived in China for nearly 10 years. Previously editor of Artforum‘s China edition, he is at present adjunct professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Asian liaison for Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach, and editor of the dual-language international art magazine LEAP, published six times per year by Beijing’s Modern Media Group.
This change in leadership suggests a desire by the UCCA to work more closely with local cultural figures, organizations and sponsors. The energetic and widely respected Sans, though eminently qualified as the former director of England’s BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art and co-director of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, always divided his time between China and Europe.
Tinari, despite his deep integration into the Chinese art scene, also faces large challenges at the UCCA, where his appointment begins in December. The 70,000-square-foot center, housed in the twin vaulted naves of a beautifully repurposed former munitions factory, is now the anchoring institution in Beijing’s 798 art district. But its history is troubled.
Launched in November 2007 with a stellar staff headed by scholar and curator Fei Dawei, the UCCA early on espoused the highest professional standards—above all, a determination to keep programming free from commercial influences. Many of its exhibitions have been admirable, from the inaugural survey of ’85 New Wave material to a one-person show by painter Liu Xiaodong in 2010. Yet Fei Dawei departed virtually before the doors opened, and senior staff members—almost always Westerners—have rotated at an alarming rate. By 2008 the institution was hosting “Christian Dior & Chinese Artists,” a product-placement exhibition featuring commissioned works by Chinese art stars, displayed side by side with luxury items from the French fashion house.
Earlier this year, the first Ullens sale at Sotheby’s HK prompted speculation that the UCCA would shortly be taken over by the Minsheng Bank, which administers art funds totaling some $35 million and already operates a kunsthalle in Shanghai. Instead, the bank now plans to found its own mammoth art center at a location near 798. Whether this deep-pockets competition will prove invigorating or enervating for the UCCA remains to be seen.
Zeng Fanzhi, MASK SERIES 1998 NO. 26, oil on canvas, 70 1/2 by 78 3/8 in.; Phlip Tinari