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We talk to Zhang Hao Ming, part-owner of Beijing’s Art Now gallery which took part in Art Basel for the first time in June

Telecoms millionaire, restaurateur, hotelier, reality TV producer, gallery owner and collector

Zhang Hao Ming, 46, has an eye for an opportunity. He is a partner in the Art Now gallery in Beijing which took part in Art Basel for the first time in June. He is also a keen collector and says he now owns around “700 to 800” works, mostly “large pieces” and installations by Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indian artists. Some of these decorate his opulent home on the outskirts of Beijing, the rest are in storage. His fortune came initially from the telecoms industry. He also owns a string of restaurants in the Chinese capital. Now he says he “creates investment vehicles that have a relation to art”. His latest projects include the construction of a high-end hotel in Beijing where each of the 45 rooms has been entrusted to a foreign designer working in partnership with a Chinese artist. He is also planning a new restaurant where guests cook their own food with assistance from professional chefs and are filmed throughout for a reality TV show, which Zhang describes as his “Karaoke Dining” concept. Zhang says he does not intend to sell his art but will use the collection in future projects including his hotels and restaurants. He invited The Art Newspaper to his home.

The Art Newspaper: When and how did you first become interested in contemporary art?

Zhang Hao Ming: I began my first business in China in 1997, managing a clothing brand. But after a while I gave this up because the development of brands in China at that time was very difficult, and only a small number of people would buy branded goods.

Although that business didn’t work out, I got an unexpected reward: over five years I had dealings with the French brand owner, a collector, and through my visits to his home, I began to become aware of modern art. I realised art is not only something you put in museums—it can also be linked to your life in a special way.

At first I was mainly interested in classical oil paintings executed in a realistic style. People of my generation in China received a Soviet-style education. So most oil paintings we saw were of a revolutionary nature, reflecting the policy that art should serve political purposes. This interest only lasted two or three months. Then I met up with an old schoolmate, Huang Liaoyuan, my current partner in the Art Now Gallery. He had been managing rock and roll musicians, arranging gigs and so forth. When we met again after a decade I mentioned my interest in art and that I was visiting galleries. He put a new idea into my mind, the concept of contemporary art, which I didn’t have any idea of before. I always thought that art consisted solely of painting.

Since Huang was in the music business and many contemporary artists in China were fansof rock music, as well as many being musicians themselves, Huang knew them all. When Huang celebrated his birthday, those poor artists had nothing to give him other than their paintings. In this way he established a collection of over 600 works given to him by artists over two decades. Some of the artists are now very famous, such as Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, Wang Guangyi and Yang Shaobin. He introduced me to these artists and, towards the end of 2002, I started collecting their work. Early in 2003, when China was hit by Sars and everybody wanted to stay at home, I got to know these artists when they were spending time together drinking. I visited their studios and bought their works. At that time there was no local market for their art and the only buyers were foreigners. So when I first started to collect art, I was able to buy some nice pieces without spending a lot of money. The value of this work has increased a lot.

Over the past two or three years, I have changed my approach to collecting. This is partly because I acquired good contemporary pieces for reasonable prices before the market exploded, and I don’t want to buy art at today’s high prices.

TAN: Do you think Chinese contemporary art accurately reflects Chinese society?

ZHM: 1979 marks the beginning of Chinese contemporary art. Artists started to arrange their own shows before there were galleries. In 1985, a new school of thought came into being. I am fortunate to be a contemporary of many of today’s artists. Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun are the same age as me, so we experienced the same things. From 1980 to 1985, many young people in China enjoyed reading Western philosophical classics which were considered an alternative to communist teachings. For example, Sartre was very popular. So the so-called New Wave movement which began in 1985 was not like a storm that came out of nowhere, but rather a result of years of preparation in society. Later we experienced some other ideological movements. The debates among young people and between young people and the government was a prelude to the 1989 student movement. It seemed like democracy was in the air…this was accompanied by a very open-minded attitude towards art. Artists were much freer than today. Many works made at the time show a feeling that there was nothing you were forbidden from saying or doing. This went hand-in-hand with pro-Western attitudes and the acceptance of thinking and theories from the West.

After 1989, the Chinese art community was depressed for quite a long time. People felt very helpless and lost. So people no longer talked about politics, and instead started talking about money. Because people felt it was useless discussing the things they used to be so enthusiastic about, another kind of thinking took hold of young people, especially young intellectuals: stay away from politics and live a materialist life. So there are two streams in contemporary Chinese art. One is politics and the other is cynical realism. The former is embodied by older artists mostly born in the mid-1950s, such as Wang Guangyi and Zhang Xiaogang, whose understanding of society is sharper than ours. These people’s works focused on the reflection of society during the Cultural Revolution. Others, such as Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun and Yang Shaobin, were born in the early 1960s, and witnessed the bloody events of 1989. They grew up after that and felt very depressed. So most of their works contain stupid smiles or the naive expression of peasants in the north, or self-mockery. I can understand why these artists worked in a hopeless state—it is because they lost the passion they had at a younger age. They became bored, so the content of their work is a reflection of their own status, of their lives. If you ask me which of the two streams I prefer, I would say cynical realism, as it recorded the feelings and state of mind of my generation.

I also like even younger artists today and people who are no longer young but have never become very famous. Artists who focus on society and use satire. I like people who are serious enough to try to understand and remain critical of society. For instance, I own works by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, a Beijing couple in their 40s. You could describe their work as barbaric or horrible. But you can also understand their way of thinking. Xiao Yu is also a very critical artist. I have one of his pieces in which he combines two famous Olympic buildings in Beijing, the Opera House and the new Bird’s Nest stadium, which together resemble an ancient Chinese coin.

I like contemporary art because of its core, which is the concept behind the art. Contemporary art not only brings out your emotions, it also offers you more of an aftertaste than traditional art, the kind you have after reading a book. I try to understand what the artist is trying to express.

My collection currently consists of 700 to 800 pieces, mostly large pieces. Since 2005 I have focused mainly on installations and photography. Now I also collect video.

TAN: How do you feel about work produced outside China?

ZHM: My collecting has shifted in the past year. I have been buying contemporary Japanese, Korean, and Indian art, instead of concentrating just on Chinese artists. I feel art is without borders. I also feel that the prices for Chinese contemporary art are sometimes far above fair value. In the past two or three years an art market was formed in China, almost overnight. It was too fast for our artists, collectors and investors to be mentally prepared. Both sides of the market did things irrationally.

The artists reproduce their own works in large numbers, while speculators acquire pieces at very high prices. This means the free market has gone out of reasonable control. And there are no critics in China. We need critics, but most of them have become advertisers. This is unfair for buyers because we need to hear different voices to enable us to appreciate art. Buyers and sellers have no intermediaries who will objectively say: you should not paint like that, and you should not buy like that even though art is a very personal matter, so you should not listen to others too much, because everyone has their own taste. A good collector should both draw upon other people’s insights and have his own judgment.

In the past two years, many famous artists have developed the wrong kind of attitude, while investors think they should only focus on these famous names. As a result, well-known artists are only considering the price of their work and are not taking their reputations seriously. Speculators don’t care about quality and their only concern is whether they can resell at higher prices. Many famous collectors I meet do not talk about the art itself but about how much the prices will go up.

TAN: Are there other parts of the world that interest you?

ZHM: I feel the Russian art market is promising. For one thing, in Russia the standards of arteducation are better than in China. Also, culturally Russia is closer to Europe. In particular, many oligarchs have recently emerged from the oil industry in Russia, and they are able to acquire top contemporary art. After all, it is a matter of financial strength. So I think Russia will be the next big art collection market, much larger than China.

TAN: Do you buy at auction?

ZHM: Yes, I do go to auctions; most pieces I buy there are from foreign countries. I bought almost half of all the Japanese, Korean and Indian works at the first Christie’s contemporary art auction in Hong Kong [in November 2005]. I visited Japan’s largest auction last year with Huang and Taiwan’s Chen Guanyu, and together we bought about a quarter of all the lots on offer for only about US$1m. The total auction value was only US$4m. But in China, with US$4m you can only buy one piece by a famous contemporary artist.

I also buy many installations that I don’t think anybody else in China would buy. Installations are not popular with auction houses, because they cannot sell at good prices and they are very difficult to transport, install and display. So I understand why even at major art fairs such as Art Basel, most of the items are “on the shelf”. It is basically for the convenience of display and deal-making. Most people today are buying off-the-shelf items, but really good collectors today are no longer focusing just on these pieces.

TAN: Are there any other collectors who have inspired you?

ZHM: I visited some collectors in Switzerland and I learned a lot. They do not view the pieces as currency and simply show them off, but really enjoy them. You can see this in their faces. This is what we need in China. The Swiss have a strong banking system. So had it not been for the financial value of art, the Swiss would not have been so interested in collecting. I think they know the value of collecting, and they enjoy both the spiritual delight and the financial gains, which are equally indispensable.

There is a cultural reason. For instance, when Karaoke first came to China, every household that could afford it bought the equipment, no matter whether they really enjoyed singing. It was for their guests, to show off. Whenever guests came, the host would be able to invite them to sing. When a collecting culture was established, when people in Switzerland visited other people’s houses, they would see good art and feel like having the same back home to show their good taste. Given China’s one-child family structure, I believe a piano is a must for everyone who can afford one.

TAN: Do you collect any European/US artists?

ZHM: Yes. I mostly buy them from Art Basel. I have collected some pieces, but as my child is still quite young I keep them in storage. Also, after attending Art Basel, friends introduced me to galleries in France. I have works from France, Italy, Britain, Austria, the United States.

TAN: Which foreign artists do you collect? Damien Hirst, for instance?

ZHM: Yes, I have Damien Hirst’s work.

TAN: Jeff Koons?

ZHM: No, not yet.

TAN: Which artists do you feel are important for the future?

ZHM: Li Bo is very interesting and important. At Art Basel in June we showed a piece of her work [at the Art Now gallery]—she spent a lot of time on it, an installation built from string.

TAN: So how do you see things developing over the next 20 years?

ZHM: In 20 years, looking back at today’s art, we will be very clear as to what it means. This is because artists should be 10 to 20 years ahead of society in their ideas. So you couldn’t expect today’s society to really understand today’s work. But in 20 years you will see artists as visionaries, and you will ask, “how were they able to think of those things at that time?” So, being a collector is actually far better than being the usual type of investor.

Making money is easy. You can do it with cars, or tea, buying paintings—whatever makes money, there is no difference. But we are lucky there is so much good art now, we can invest in it for the future. Being a collector is an extremely satisfying thing, it gives me much more satisfaction than investment. So that is why I never mix collecting with business. Business is about my requirement for money, collecting is about my cultural and spiritual needs.

TAN: As for business, you work in telecoms?

ZHM: I used to, but now I create investment vehicles that have a relation to art. For instance, I am developing an art hotel in the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing. The exterior is finished, but because of the Olympics we have suspended work until September or October, so it won’t be ready until next year. There will be 45 rooms, the majority designed by foreign designers, working together with Chinese artists. So various contemporary artists have built their works in each room. You cannot ask an artist to go ahead and design a room, but with designers they can combine art and lifestyles—this is the main concept of the hotel. In essence, as soon as you enter this hotel you will feel art influence your spirit.

TAN: Will it be expensive to stay there?

ZHM: It won’t be cheap, $500-$1,000 per night. About the same as designer hotels abroad.

TAN: And any other projects?

ZHM: Yes, I am working on a new concept restaurant. The concept is that guests will cook their own food. We will provide chefs to assist, and purchase ingredients according to requirements. Many young people no longer learn how to cook, and that is very bad. So we will provide a room, and all the equipment, and then you can invite your guests and cook for them. This is a very new idea. For instance, we are already talking to some embassies, they will bring some famous chefs from their countries and they can prepare a meal in the restaurant. I am also planning a reality TV series to tie in with this, so we will film the people cooking, if they agree. It will be very interesting.

Translated from Mandarin by Chris Gill

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Telecoms millionaire, restaurateur, hotelier, reality TV producer, gallery owner and collector'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 193 July 2008