Guy Ullens beams from ear to ear under the vaulted roof of a giant, ground-breaking new centre for contemporary art that the Belgian and his wife, Myriam, have set up in Beijing. 'These are probably the most exciting days of our lives,' says Ullens, a former sugar baron turned art collector and philanthropist.
Art mavens expect the opening of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (Ucca) to mark a fresh stage in the red-hot world of mainland China's modern art scene, with the Ullens determined to offer an alternative to a wave of commercialism that has overtaken the scene in tandem with ballooning prices in Hong Kong and overseas markets.
Paris-based art critic and curator Fei Dawei, the new artistic director of the 8,000 square metre Ucca, echoes Ullens' sense of excitement and idealism. 'We are in the process of realising our dream, our passion for contemporary Chinese art,' says Fei. 'It is a passion we share with Chinese artists and we will be achieving it together.'
Opening on Monday in a disused Bauhaus-style factory in Beijing's voguish 798 arts district, Ucca is a museum in all but name, albeit a private one. Crucially, according to its founders and directors, it is not-for-profit. Ullens declined to name the size of the investment, made through the Guy and Myriam Ullens Foundation, set up in Switzerland in 2002. However, senior art adviser Jan Debbaut says: 'We have the resources of Guy and Myriam [Ullens], which are, to put it simply, generous for an institution like us.'
Despite its philanthropic status, Ucca is no amateur operation: Thursday's soft opening of the mainland's first international standard arts centre was said to be a slick affair. Outside in the district's narrow streets, half a dozen numbered black Audis marked with Ucca's distinctive red, black and white logo purred as they waited for VIPs. The mainland has no clear laws governing charitable or not-for-profit activity of this kind, but that did not dissuade the couple. 'That was our deal,' Ullens shrugs.
The centre will also include a restaurant and a shop. 'That will be the way to organise ourselves and make some money,' Ullens says.
Ucca hopes to be a catalyst for creativity for artists in China and overseas and to organise exhibitions for emerging artists and commission new works. It will host both group and individual exhibitions in its sweeping, 10-metre high, black and white naves, fund education programmes, and maintain the mainland's first public art library, with books in several languages including Chinese and English. An auditorium, theatre and meeting rooms offer space for films, symposia and conferences. Ucca will also offer curatorial training, something many art critics say is sorely lacking on the mainland.
A red brick chimney - a holdover from the site's days as an East German-designed electronics factory - will be the centre's symbol, soaring scores of metres into the sky. Its unvarnished, round base lies at the back of the main hall, from where it pierces the roof and disappears out of sight.
Bolstered by the Ullens' more than 1,300-strong private collection of contemporary art, Ucca is, according to senior art adviser Jan Debbaut, 'a museum from the beginning'.
The centre's first exhibition, '85 New Wave, is a retrospective of the moment 22 years ago when ideological restrictions began to lift on the mainland, leading to an explosion of creativity and the subsequent birth of contemporary art in China. The exhibition's 30 profiled artists, whose 137 works were gathered from museums and private collections around the world, include Gu Dexin, Gu Wenda and Huang Yongping, whose work has rarely been shown in China.
Many of the artists working during this seminal phase of Chinese contemporary art now live abroad and, ironically, are rarely seen at home. A 4,000-page catalogue with 20,000 images accompanies the show.
For Ullens, the opening marked the culmination of a 20-year passion for contemporary Chinese art. He had been drawn to China since boyhood, attracted by his father's enthusiasm for the country. Ullens' father arrived in China as a 21-year-old early last century, and 'had looked after the construction of Belgian railroads', Ullens says.
'He went everywhere in China, and one of the great things was to talk about his great time, how happy he'd been here, how openly you could speak with all the people, how all the stereotypes of Chinese people were wrong ... I have always dreamed of China as a magic land.'
Ullens began to build his collection in the 1980s. 'My business efforts in China were not very successful, but during the weekends I had found a community of young artists doing new art.'
Ullens began buying works from the artists, and today the couple's collection is one of the most significant in the world.
Despite his fascination with China, a key aspect of the centre's work will be to showcase major international art in Beijing, because even as prices for works by artists such as Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang set multimillion-dollar records for Chinese art, the scene in Beijing remains largely local, with few international exhibitions.
Curator Colin Chinnery is determined to rescue Beijing from the stigma of provincialism. 'It's a huge gap in the scene here,' he says.
Above all, the centre aims to be current. 'We want to explore what artists find important right now, and that's how we define 'contemporary',' Chinnery says.
After '85 New Wave, the centre will exhibit the work of artist Lawrence Wiener; early next year it will show a Huang Yongping retrospective, House of Oracles. In July will be home to Korean artist Won Ju-lim's New Work (a response to Beijing), and in October it will house a specially commissioned work by German artist Rebecca Horn entitled Thunder of Dew from Moon and Sun.
'85 New Wave - The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art, Nov 5-Feb 17, Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100015, Tue-Sun, 10am-6pm, free. For details go to ucca.org.cn/