European art museums flock to Asia to exhibit - and attract donations

Europe's top museums have courted rich Asian benefactors by showing some of their art in the region; now smaller players are joining in

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 4:46am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 4:46am

Last summer the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam brought a small collection of the late Dutch painter's replicas to Hong Kong. It was a glimpse of a bold plan: an exhibition of the artist's post-Impressionist masterpieces to go on tour around China.

"The interest in Asia is growing and there's growing tourism from China ... [and] Asia. We are very keen to be part of that whole dynamic," says Van Gogh Museum director Axel Ruger.

The Van Gogh Museum isn't alone. Smaller European arts centres are following in the path of the big British and American institutions in building bonds with Asia, and in particular China. It means more than just art and cultural exchanges. Strong ties can persuade patrons from Asia to donate money, the kind of generosity that has helped support several Western institutions as they struggle with funding losses amid the region's prolonged economic crisis.

To Hong Kong art collector Alan Lau, Western cultural institutions' enthusiasm for China and the rest of Asia is natural, both economically and culturally. "Interest in art rises with interest in economies," Lau says.

"The Anglo-Saxon world is saturated. They are already settled in the Middle East, so China or Asia is surprisingly the last 'unconquered' frontier for many of these institutions."

The money is definitely in this part of the world, particularly in Hong Kong, as the museum big boys have discovered. A year and a half ago, Musee du Louvre in Paris set out to raise €26 million (HK$281 million) to restore and refurbish eight galleries that house 2,200 items of 18th century decorative art. The museum, home to Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, turned to Hong Kong when fundraising fell €4 million short. Museum officials named Pansy Ho Chiu-king, daughter of gambling mogul Stanley Ho Hung-sun, the museum's "China ambassador". She then threw a fundraiser at the Grand Hyatt in Hong Kong.

Henri Loyrette, who was the Louvre's director until last year, said that 25 years ago the museum was 100 per cent government-funded. Today French taxpayers cover only 45 per cent of its operating costs. With the museum visited by more than 300,000 Chinese in 2011, 7.5 times more than the number a decade ago, working with China had become "important", Loyrette told reporters.

Asia has also figured in the financial and artistic plans of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Last year, the Hong Kong-based Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation gave US$10 million to establish a Chinese art initiative designed to bring contemporary artists' work to the museum. The museum plans to commission artists from throughout China to produce works that will become part of the Guggenheim's permanent collection - great recognition for any previously unknown artist.

The museum acquired many Asian works in the 1960s. In subsequent decades, the number acquired fell.

Over the last five years, the museum has hosted solo exhibitions of Korean painter Lee Ufan and Chinese gunpowder art master Cai Guo-chiang. Last year, the Guggenheim's UBS MAP Global Art Initiative ran an exhibition, called "No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia", at the Asia Society Hong Kong, the Asia branch of the New York institution.

"[Fundraising] is not the intention," says Richard Armstrong, director of the museum and its foundation. "As a private museum, support comes when you have good programmes, not the other way around."

The Van Gogh Museum, which drew more than 1.4 million visitors last year, hopes to build an 800 square metre entrance by 2015. The museum says it will need to raise €15 million but that it cannot depend on public money.

In 2001, Halbe Zijlstra, the then-Dutch culture secretary, proposed slashing arts funding by 25 per cent, or €200 million, by 2013. More than 60 artistic directors from around the world wrote begging the government and parliament not to make the cuts.

Ruger says government money covered just 25 per cent of the Van Gogh Museum's budget. Fifty per cent of the budget is covered by ticket sales, the rest by fundraising and commercial activities, such as the licensing of images of Van Gogh's paintings for consumer products like watches. Ruger says the museum hopes net income from the Hong Kong sales exhibition will finance the expansion.

Cuts in European governments' culture budgets have affected operations at many institutions.

The Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan - home of Caravaggio's 1606 painting Supper at Emmaus, on display at the Asia Society Hong Kong - has lost more than 40 per cent of its government funding over the last five years, says its director, Sandrina Bandera. The museum is saddled with debt, including utilities bills. "We have had to reduce our exhibitions and we are not able to do many of our events," Bandera says.

In 2010, a violent protest broke out at Milan's La Scala opera house after the government cut culture spending by 37 per cent. A hundred protesters were charged. A number of them were treated in hospital.

"[Institutions] are facing financial stress. There are some 3,600 museums in Italy, 500 archaeological sites and 65,000 churches, all incredible heritage that we need to protect," says Alessandro Schiavo, consul general of Italy in Hong Kong and Macau. "We need to look for a new formula to support the arts from private sources …The problem of funding is very stringent, but if you have a good proposal, the funding comes."

Bandera, of the Milan museum, is counting on Chinese collectors' growing interest in Old Masters.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust sponsored the Caravaggio painting's visit, and paid its HK$4.82 million transportation and loan fee.

The point of bringing Italian masterpieces, such as the Caravaggio painting and Botticelli's Venus, which was exhibited in Hong Kong last year, was not to raise money, but to promote cultural exchange, says Schiavo.

Nevertheless, the exchanges had financial rewards. Schiavo says that after the ballet company performed Giselle at the Hong Kong Arts Festival with La Scala last month, the theatre received some private donations.

Since then, private non-profit Italian arts groups - including HangarBicocca, an exhibition space in Milan, and Zuecca Project Space in Venice, which last year presented Ai Weiwei's rendering of his 2011 detention - have been seeking to visit Hong Kong to make connections.

Smaller European institutions have a long way to go compared with the established players in Britain and the US.

Tate - which runs four Tate museums in Britain, including the Tate Modern and Tate Britain in London - is widely regarded as the institution that has been the most aggressive at raising private donations around the world.

Its artistic acquisition committees have worldwide ties, wooing some of the richest collectors and philanthropists, who have helped raise almost £2 million (HK$25.8 million) every year.

The global network includes some of the most prominent names in the Asian art world, among them Hong Kong business owner David Tang, chairman of Tate's Asia Pacific acquisitions committee, and Hong Kong collector Lau.

Hong Kong's Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation opened a gallery for Buddhist sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2009. In January, the museum exhibited its "Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700 - 1900" show. The rare Chinese ink works, dating back to as early as the Tang dynasty and the Five dynasties period that followed it in the 10th century, were loaned to 20 museums, including the Hong Kong Museum of Art.

"We try to invite people to experience a cultural experience, not just to see the pieces," says Zhang Hongxing, senior curator for Chinese collectors at the V&A's Asian department.

The Museum of Modern Art has been showing the works of young Chinese artists at its New York space. Even without sponsoring a major exhibition or engaging in fundraising, the museum works hard to create connections with the Asian world.

China has enormous potential for the art world in the future, its director, Glenn Lowry, said during a visit to Hong Kong in winter.

He said making connections and creating spectacular programmes were vital in attracting donations.