Museum depressingly closed
During a period that’s been turbulent on all fronts, where numerous museums around the world remain depressingly closed while some, notably in the United States, have been forced to sell pieces from their collections to cover running costs due to the lack of visitors, China continues to open new museums.
These initiatives are not only thanks to the altruism of the country’s super-rich, but they can also be primarily attributed to the fact that whenever there’s a large-scale development project the State also makes it a requirement to open these kind of institutions. This is how a 16,000 m2 museum opened on 1 October in Shunde in the region of Guangdong, which apparently and according to photographs appears to be extraordinary.
It has been designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando (Read the report including the interview of Tadao Ando) but from certain angles it bears closer resemblance to the Guggenheim in New York by Frank Lloyd Wright than the Japanese architect’s recent creations. The He Museum is funded by the He family who are originally from Beijiao in Guangdong province. The father, He Xiangjian, founded the Midea Group in 1968 and made his fortune in air-conditioners and household appliances.
Fifth-largest fortune in China
Today he has the fifth-largest fortune in China and is worth 36.1 billion dollars according to Forbes. He retired from business in 2012. In June 2020 he was the victim of a kidnapping attempt. His son, He Jianfeng, is now director of the Midea Group and replied to our questions in writing. He justifies the choice of the Japanese architect despite the fact that “there are so many good architects in China” because Ando “has designed 88 art museums around the world, so he has a unique understanding of the structure and space used in museums.
Impression of a temple
In 2015, Tadao Ando visited Shunde (1) to view the site of the museum. He conducted extensive research on China’s ancient history and Lingnan architecture (2) to inform HEM’s design. When I saw the HEM architectural design for the first time, I was so surprised because it is not a standard piece of ‘Ando architecture’ compared with the Benesse House Museum, Lee Ufan Museum and Osaka Culturarium at Tempozan. At first glance, HEM is not as ‘Ando’, but Tadao Ando’s ideas and elements are ubiquitous. The double-helix staircases made from smooth concrete in the art museum are very difficult to construct. This structure is called a ‘variable truncated hyperboloid staircase’ in architecture, commonly known as the ‘DNA staircase’. It creates the impression of a temple when visitors look up to the roof in the central atrium with the natural light shining in from the sky”.
In terms of financing the establishment He Jiangfeng makes clear that “the museum is entirely funded by money from the family foundation.” He adds, however, in reference to the state plan for the Greater Bay Area which includes the locality of the He Museum (3), “given that this is a key national development strategy, the government maintains an open, inclusive and supportive attitude towards cultural development.”
At first glance the museum’s objectives look like the same statements of good intentions that often get talked about, such as the desire for “cross-cultural exchange”. But more specifically, the director of the museum, Shao Shu, explains in a zoom call (he refused to allow the interview to be filmed) that the local public, contrary to in Beijing or Shanghai, has few opportunities to see international art. This is what the He Museum will strive to showcase. Incidentally, they also plan to support the work of local artists.
50 million dollars a year?
He Jianfeng adds that the collection contains 500 pieces made up of 75% Chinese artists and 25% foreign artists. The He family have been collecting for 10 years and are at the centre of the Chinese market, and the He Museum is considered to be one of the largest current buyers. Shao Shu, without giving a specific figure, says that their acquisition budget could approximate 50 million dollars a year.
In concrete terms, the museum’s collections are divided into three parts: one is dedicated to modern Chinese art from Guangdong, another to contemporary Chinese art post-1989, and a third to international art from Picasso to the present day. In terms of western art, “the owners have grown familiar with certain big names who they like, such as Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh. These artists have an interest on educational grounds for the local public.”
Tadao Ando’s Urban Wandering
The director of the He Museum also cites a book by Tadao Ando on European art as a guiding principle for building the collection. It seems to have only been published in Chinese and its title could be this: 安藤忠雄的都市彷徨( Tadao Ando’s Urban Wandering). “It features the names of artists such as Calder, Sugimoto, Kusama. It is a source of inspiration for us.” Shao Shu also lists certain acquisitions without going into much detail, with pieces by Anish Kapoor and Damien Hirst.
The most original thing about the He Museum’s organization is the selection process for the artworks in their collection. A research group at the museum composed of 4 individuals make suggestions for acquisitions completed by external figures (no names are given). This group includes one individual from an auction house, one from a large Chinese gallery, and another from a large western gallery. The group of people changes annually. Next March there is an exhibition scheduled on “Tadao Ando, art and life” featuring 10 artists including Lee Ufan, Ellsworth Kelly, Pablo Picasso, Richard Long and Shiraga.
This mixed acquisitions body, featuring a combination of members of the art trade and an internal committee headed of course by the family, presents an original mode of functioning yet lacks the clearsighted vision of a leader who is outside the art market. But the He Museum harks back to institutions like the Guggenheim in New York, where the family members who founded the museum were fervent art lovers of their time.
Non profit organization
Lastly, Shao Shu points out that the owner of this museum, contrary to a number of museum owners in China who are motivated by profit, does not intend to sell its collections. “The founder of the museum visited many museums and after having met with the Rockefeller family decided to create a non-profit organization.”
It is difficult to form an opinion without having seen the museum. Here’s hoping that the borders will reopen soon… On 23 January 2021 another museum designed by Tadao Ando is due to be inaugurated: the Pinault collection, in Paris.
(1) An administrative subdivision of Guangdong province which is itself under the jurisdiction of Foshan.
(2) Cantonese architecture.
(3) The Greater Bay Area is an ambitious national plan aimed at integrating the two Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macao, together with the nine cities across the Pearl River Delta, namely Guangzhou, Huizhou, Dongguan, Shenzhen, Jiangmen, Zhuhai, Zhongshan, Foshan, and Zhaoqing.
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