With Sotheby’s announcement of their sale of Guy Ullens’ collection of Chinese contemporary art comes news that Ullens is divesting himself of his Chinese contemporary art museum in Beijing, handing it over to long-term Chinese partners. A major Ai Weiwei exhibition planned at the space was recently canceled due to political pressure. Check out our take below, in two parts.
Ai Exhibition Canceled Under Political Pressure
Early this morning, the AFP reported that a major Ai Weiwei exhibition, the first of its kind in Mainland China, planned for the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing has been canceled after the Chinese government asked the museum to move the opening of the exhibition from March to a later date. The German Press Agency has details:
“UCCA told me [the exhibition] would be postponed until October because it was too sensitive to show in March,” [Ai Weiwei] told the German Press Agency DPA by telephone. But Ai said he thought it would be “more sensitive” to hold the show in October. “And if my exhibition has to be shown under censorship, I’d rather just cancel it. It’s meaningless,” he said.
Ai Weiwei is no stranger to controversy in Mainland China, and nor does he try to avoid it, pointedly critiquing the Chinese government in works like “Remembering” (2009), an installation made out of backpacks responding to the death of school children in the Sichuan earthquake. But Ai has been encountering ever-increasing pressure to follow the demands of the government, with the destruction of his Shanghai studio, ensuing house arrest and now exhibition cancellation.
The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, under financial pressure since its opening in 2007, falters majorly with the cancellation of the exhibition, and its response to the cancellation shows an institution unable to shake the looming threat of Chinese political censorship and unwilling to try. Their communications director Vivienne Li “told AFP the gallery did not want to upset authorities by exhibiting a “sensitive” artist like Ai,” writes AFP. If the UCCA is too afraid of authority to stick to its programming, the museum will lose what little credibility it had before these latest events.
Founder Guy Ullens Leaves UCCA
Guy Ullens, founder of the UCCA and its only major funding source, has announced his plans to leave the UCCA and give the museum over to “long-term partners,” reports The Art Newspaper (TAN). Early warning signs were apparent in Ullens’ decision to sell his Chinese contemporary art through Sotheby’s auction house, which we reported on last week. It seems like Ullens is ready to get out of the Chinese art game for good. TAN writes that Ullens is planning to sell off his entire Chinese collection, not just the earlier pieces that are at auction April 3:
Once [Ullens has sold his collection], he says he intends to spend more time on his charitable education work in Nepal and return to collecting young artists, with his focus now on Indian rather than Chinese artists.
Ullens explains that he is trying to revamp the UCCA, developing a more integrated China-friendly administration for an institution that has often been criticized for favoring European staff over Chinese. A once-flexible administration will have to be beefed up with local partners to navigate the currents of what Ullens calls the “structures” of Chinese political bureaucracy. These “structures” certainly include the political pressure that lead to the cancellation of Ai’s exhibition above.
[Ullens’] priority now is to secure the future of the gallery by finding other private partners who can take over its management. He also intends to strengthen its corporate governance.
Yet Ullens also just seems frustrated about the barriers in the institution’s way and fed up with dealing with them. Writes the AFP, “When asked if he wanted the eventual owners of UCCA to keep his name on the gallery, Ullens said: ‘I don’t give a damn.’”
The UCCA’s position in the Chinese art world in the past 4 years has been a strange one. Stable funding and a relatively independent voice have given the institution the ability to mount ambitious exhibitions and retrospectives whose scale and concurrent quality was rare. Yet there remained the persistent sense that this museum was an outsider in Beijing, a foreign institution on the level of Pace’s commercial gallery outpost in the city. It couldn’t wholly integrate, but it must be said that integration is a very difficult line to walk in the Chinese art world. Few innovative local institutions can remain independently voiced, the rare exception being the Long March Space.
What the UCCA needs right now from an art world perspective is the assurance that its programming won’t be influenced by political pressure. That seems a lot to hope for in the face of the administration change and the constant need of funding for this large, ambitious museum. Ideally, solid Chinese partners will be found to take over the museum without turning it into another pay-for-play art space without curatorial vision. If the UCCA ends up closing, or drastically shifting direction, it would doubtless be an enormous blow to Beijing’s contemporary art world on an international level, a community with a major lack of credible institutions.