Art Basel

Hedge fund billionaire to show part of art collection during Art Basel Hong Kong – to educate public about a favourite artist

Super collector J. Tomilson ‘Tom’ Hill, of the Blackstone Group, will exhibit 15 works by American abstract artist Christopher Wool, of whose work he owns more than anyone else, including museums

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 February, 2018, 8:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 February, 2018, 11:55am

J. Tomilson “Tom” Hill has been to Hong Kong countless times because of his day job in finance – running Blackstone’s hedge fund business. But next month, the American billionaire is travelling to the city to launch an art exhibition.

“Christopher Wool: Highlights from the Hill Art Collection” opens during Art Basel week at H Queen’s Atrium and features 15 paintings and works on paper by the abstract American artist best known for his word paintings.

According to Hill, the exhibition is a taster for the opening of the Hill Art Foundation’s first permanent exhibition and education space in New York this September, when all 19 Wools in his collection will go on display.

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Hill tells the Post that he realised Hong Kong was a good platform for art after he first attended the city’s edition of Art Basel, the contemporary art fair, at the insistence of Melissa Chiu several years ago when she was director of the Asia Society Museum. 

“I don’t usually go to fairs but Melissa said it would be eye-opening, not just in terms of the art but also because of the people I would see,” recalls Hill, who is a former chairman of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, where Chiu is now director. He was impressed by how the art fair brought together “thought leaders” from all over the world, especially Asia. 

Incidentally, Hill is one of two Western collectors who are bringing a portion of their personal collections to Asia during Art Basel Hong Kong. Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo from Turin, Italy, will hold an exhibition at Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai to promote her art foundation, which is opening a new satellite centre in Madrid next year. 

That Hill is using his own money to launch a show for Wool raises the question of why he doesn’t just leave it to Luhring Augustine, the gallery that has represented the artist for around 30 years (and will be assisting in staging the upcoming exhibition).

The fact that Hill has invested heavily in Wool (he owns more of the artist’s works than anyone else, including museums) also blurs the line between collector and promoter. 

“The purpose of this exhibition is not to promote Wool any more than the retrospectives of his work at the Guggenheim and Art Institute of Chicago can be viewed as a ‘promotion’ of this artist,” he says. None of the work is going to be for sale, and it is a rare opportunity for visitors to see the range of Wool’s work over four decades, including some that Hill acquired directly from the artist’s own collection. 

The purpose of the exhibition is to provide the Hong Kong audience with a perspective of how Wool’s work fits into the broader tradition of abstraction
J. Tomilson ‘Tom’ Hill

“Wool is known in the Asia-Pacific market predominantly for his word paintings. The purpose of the exhibition is to provide the Hong Kong audience with a perspective of how Wool’s work fits into the broader tradition of abstraction.” 

Hill’s fortune, which is estimated by Forbes to be more than US$1 billion, has been boosted by his relatively early purchases of works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Wool that in recent years have soared in value.

He will probably become even more active in the art world since he stepped back from the day-to-day business at Blackstone last month. He is on the board of Metropolitan Museum of Art and is an adviser to Christie’s, the auction house. 

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Super collectors who have close relationships with the artists they collect, the dealers they buy from, and who have benefited from the sharp rise in the value of art bought and sold at the top end of the market reinforce the image of the art market as a game for a few rich people. Wool is one of a number of American artists whose works have risen in value at the same feverish rate as the prices for cryptocurrencies and for reasons equally inexplicable.

A Bloomberg Businessweek story following the US$26.5 million sale of Wool’s Apocalypse Now (1988) ran under the eye-catching headline: “One work’s 350,000 per cent rise through the booming art market”. 

Hill says he does not “invest” in art because he doesn’t care what his collection is worth and he rarely sells. (Experts interviewed by Bloomberg put it at around US$500 million in 2014). In fact, he has criticised fellow New York financier David Ganek for selling Apocalypse Now in 2013 against the artist’s own wishes.

The painting was sold when it was part of a Guggenheim retrospective for Wool – a museum show that greatly enhanced the artist’s place in art history, and the art market.

Hill also points out that his foundation’s main mission is to made art more accessible. Its education programme tries to fill a gap left by cuts to arts programmes in state schools. 

He says he is not just coming to Asia for the Wool exhibition. He will travel to China after Art Basel with the show’s producer, Alexandre Errera, to visit the studios of Chinese abstract artists he has started collecting in depth (Hong Kong-based Errera, who sold last year, came up with the idea of showcasing the Hill collection in the city after he helped source artworks for the collection as an independent art adviser).

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“We will visit Liu Wei – the younger Liu Wei. I first bought a triptych by him from Lehmann Maupin many years ago. I’ve also bought another Liu Wei from a French collection. Now, I hope to buy a third and a fourth. I also like Wang Guangle, whose work I have bought from the Ullens Collection. Altogether I have works by 15 Chinese artists,” he says. 

Hill has looked at art from the rest of Asia, but finds Chinese artists the most interesting. “I mostly have abstract art in my collection – apart from Francis Bacon. I believe that moments of great economic, scientific and cultural advancement are when great art gets produced.”

“It was the same during the Renaissance, which is why my collection has Renaissance bronzes. It was true in the US in the 1950s and ’60s, when abstract expressionism and minimalism came out of a period when we became an economic and cultural powerhouse.

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“China is going through incredible transformation and we are seeing a generation of post-Cultural Revolution artists who have great technical skills and are able to balance their local identity with global relevance.” 

Christopher Wool: Highlights from the Hill Art Collection, H Queen’s Atrium, March 27 to April 8