An art collector not in it for the money

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 May, 2010, 12:00am

Art means more than just making a profit for young Chinese collector Richard Chang.

By putting together a collection in a systematic way and sponsoring exhibitions as well as opening his own museum, Chang is striving to set himself apart from his mainland counterparts.

'If you think your art piece is worth more money and you want to sell it, that's fine, but that's not what I want to do,' said 37-year-old, New York-born Chang. He is the founder of the Beijing-based non-profit Domus Collection, a foundation that promotes contemporary art.

'Art is meant to be accessible but it's not so accessible because of the prices. My role is to try to make it as accessible as possible.

'Every year I do a show of my collection to bring art to the people. A lot of people can't travel to London to see a show. I want to create a contemporary dialogue by colliding Chinese and Western art,' said Chang, who is in Hong Kong for ART HK, for which he serves as a member of an advisory group.

Chang founded the Domus Collection in 2008, showcasing his work at regular shows, including 'Roundtrip: Beijing-New York Now', opening tonight at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

'It's a private collection,' he said of his more than 700 pieces of Western and Eastern art in various mediums, stored in four different cities around the world. 'But it is also to provide education and to promote art in a contemporary space.'

Chang said that although he is not an artist, he still plays an important role in the art world as a collector. 'Museums are around because of collectors. They are sort of at the core of the entire system. They go buy art and support the artists. They support the galleries.'

Market speculators would probably only look at the names of artists, but to Chang, it is important to get to know the artists and understand their works. 'All the art I collect, I know the artists, including Damien Hirst.'

He bought his first piece, a Pablo Picasso drawing that cost several hundred thousand US dollars, in 1996. He began collecting contemporary art the following year. Since then, Chang has been travelling to up to 10 art fairs around the world each year.

How much has he spent? 'I always break my budget,' he quips, declining to reveal the figure. But apparently he is an extremely popular face at international galleries exhibiting at the art fair at Wan Chai's Convention and Exhibition Centre, which ends today.

Chang does not reveal too much of his family background, merely saying that his family was originally from Shangdong and has been actively involved in philanthropy, particularly in education and disaster relief. And now, as the director of Tira Holdings, a private investment firm for his family's office, he is adding art to the other interests.

Fair director Magnus Renfrew introduced Chang at the fair's press conference on Wednesday and Chang worked with fair organisers to help bring more mainland collectors to Hong Kong. Auction houses, including Christie's, Bonhams and Est-Ouest Auctions, also held their spring sales last week and this weekend.

Chang, a member of the Asia Pacific Acquisitions Committee at the Tate in London as well as a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art PS1 Contemporary Art Centre in New York, said Chinese collectors now had more interest in Hong Kong because of their changing taste in art.

'At the moment, I think a lot of collectors are continuing to collect safe names, big artists, for example, Zhang Xiaogang. But Chinese collectors are looking a little beyond what they used to look at. They are looking at more Western art.'

With a thriving art market and a fair at the hub of the Chinese scene, Hong Kong has a role to play for Chinese collectors, Chang says. With the establishment of the HK$21 billion arts hub, Hong Kong could achieve a more influential role in China.

'And I hope that people from mainland China can get to see this arts hub because it is much closer to them than the Tate and the MoMA.'

Museums in Hong Kong should also try to forge relationships with mainland collectors for exhibition purposes, Chang said, adding that he would be interested in loaning his private collection to museums in Hong Kong.

'I've loaned to museums in China,' Chang says.

But loaning to museums cannot compare to opening his own museum, showing his own collection as well as collaborating with others. 'It's going to happen in the next few years. It has to be a special occasion, in a special, architecturally designed space.'

Chang said he had been looking at potential sites in various mainland cities other than Beijing and Shanghai. He said the government could also get involved, especially when it hoped to establish a new museum. 'The thing about art is that it draws people. Art collectors travel to see art and see a building. When you create a very good space, with great shows, they will travel,' Chang said.

He hopes that the way he collects art can influence fellow collectors in China. 'Collectors are very competitive. They are very successful people. They watch what each other is buying. They might try to outdo [what I'm doing] or copy it.'