CEO of Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art quits, adding to doubts over future of Beijing art landmark as it seeks buyer

With Ullens Centre in capital’s 798 Art District up for sale, resignation of chief executive officer May Xue Mei affects one of the art space’s main assets – its management team

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 April, 2017, 10:59am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 April, 2017, 10:59am

The chief executive officer of Beijing’s Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art has resigned, casting fresh doubts on the future of one of China’s most influential independent art organisations nine months after its owner and namesake put it up for sale.

The UCCA announced via its official WeChat account on April 14 that May Xue Mei was stepping down after six years at the helm of the centre, a landmark of the Chinese capital’s 798 Art District.

“We are confident that UCCA can look forward to another successful chapter under the leadership of Director Philip Tinari, [Chief Operating Officer] Ada Zhang, and Deputy Director You Yang,” the statement said.

Xue joined the 10-year-old organisation in 2008 as director of UCCAStore, the art centre’s shop, and became chief executive in 2011. Her tenure saw UCCA move from being financially dependent on founder Guy Ullens and his wife Myriam’s foundation to getting around 80 per cent of its 41 million yuan (HK$46.2 million, US$5.95 million) annual operating costs from sponsorship, a yearly gala dinner and auction, revenue from the shop and admission charges.

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UCCA’s main assets are its brand name and its management team, since it owns no art (Ullens’ personal art collection has remained separate from the organisation) and no property (the centre has a six-year lease for its 798 home).

It has a reputation for museum-quality exhibitions, putting on heavyweight shows such as “On/Off: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice” (2013), the largest Asian retrospective of British artist Tino Sehgal in the same year, “Rauschenberg In China” (2016) and “Zeng Fanzhi: Parcours” (2016).

Its transition towards financial independence was seen as a model for the 30 or so independent contemporary art museums in mainland China, where private museums have yet to mature into sustainable, non-profit bodies run by a board of trustees that are independent of the commitment of an individual founder.

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UCCA’s future still depends on whether a new owner can be found. “Guy Ullens is still looking to hand over the stewardship of UCCA. We can confirm that we are in discussions with a number of potential buyers and the talks are progressing well,” the centre said in an email response.

Budi Tek, the founder of Shanghai’s Yuz Museum, told the South China Morning Post earlier this month it was hard to get charitable status for private museums in China, though ill-health is driving him to try to secure such status for the contemporary art museum.