In a very short amount of time, Hong Kong businessman Adrian Cheng, 36, has become a ubiquitous character in the globalized art world. In the space of two years, he’s emerged as an important funder for New York’s Metropolitan Museum, where he financed an education program for an exhibition about Chinese art, as well as for London’s Institute for Contemporary Art and the Pompidou Center and Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Cheng has also collaborated with the Musée Marmottan–Claude Monet in Paris to organize an exhibition of the Impressionist painter’s works in Shanghai, while in November, he’s helping organize an exhibition about Savador Dalí and the Surrealist legacy in conjunction with the Dalí Foundation.
Adrian Cheng smiles nonstop, and he’s a model of courtesy. Early on, he was shy and even reserved, but today he seems to have made art into a social strike force. First and foremost, he’s a businessman who’s integrated art into his vision of the world and business. As the head of the colossal conglomerate New World Development, which was founded by his father and which, according to Forbes, is worth some $12.7 billion dollars, Cheng stands as Hong Kong’s fourth richest man. A Harvard alumn, Cheng also specializes in lyrical music and Japanese culture.
When he gets into something, he does it in a big way. The force behind the development of the trendy “K11” shopping malls in Hong Kong and Shanghai, he’s now planning to develop another fourteen. These malls are where Cheng shows works by young contemporary artists as well as the Monet—and soon, Dalí— exhibitions he’s had a hand in organizing. I’d met Cheng on several occasions around the world in the last few years and recently had the opportunity to chat with him briefly over the phone to discuss his projects and goals. Following are some excerpts of our conversation.
Here’s Cheng on the art and retail mix: “The collaboration between retail and art is efficient. People go to these places to see the exhibition, but they also go there to eat and shop. Today I’m even planning to create a program to teach art in shopping malls.”
Here’s his views on the use for art: “Art is very important for life, for humanity, for creativity. Art can elevate you. A few years ago, I noticed that people weren’t going to museums in China. My goal is to make art accessible to the masses.”
Cheng’s thinking about social innovation and beauty: “I’m trying to create social innovation. The target consumer in shopping malls is under 30 years old. They like to learn and discover. They also like good design. I’m betting on the long term. Yes, I’m a businessman, but I’m also an art lover. My family trusts me with this strategy. I’d like to create a healthy ecosystem in China. The audience for art is still very young. The standard for collecting is to acquire brand-new things. You know, Chinese people are very curious. We can create a specific Chinese model in this field.”
His perspective on private collections vs. public projects: “I have absolutely no desire to own a private museum. Yes, I am a collector, a private one. My collection is in my home and I don’t talk about what I collect. It’s a very personal thing. The general theme overall is focused on global emerging artists. In addition, I plan to develop an exhibition space in Beijing, modeled after a Kunsthalle, where we’d organize a triennial. My goal is to show avant-garde projects in today’s various media—art, video, etc. You have to push boundaries.
And finally, Cheng’s take on art and power: “Power is not a goal for me. I’m just trying to be an incubator, to be a social innovator, and I grow along with the projects. I’m a servant for the people.”