How Lu Xun Made Art One Of Shanghai’s Fastest-Growing Commodities
The Sifang Art Museum glows like a Star Wars pod atop an emerald hill in Nanjing. This shimmering, space-age building near Shanghai was the brainchild of Generation T honouree Lu Xun, who has been collecting contemporary Chinese art since 2009. In 2013, he dreamed up the concept for the now-renowned Sifang Art Museum, a private space with an extraordinarily photogenic exterior, designed by American architect Steven Holl.
Spanning over 115 acres of forest land, it incorporates artworks by more than 20 international designers, including the world-famous Ai Weiwei, Pritzker Prize winner Wang Shu, Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, Italian designer Ettore Sottsass, and British architect David Adjaye.
Built around the museum is a vast complex that includes hotels, conference centres, shops, flats and luxury rental villas. Reviewers immediately raved about it – in 2015, the Sifang Art Museum and its garden were called the “Best Cultural Landscape in the World” by the New York Times, while Xun was rated as one of China’s top art collectors by the website Artnet.
The epic architectural scale of Sifang is representative of Shanghai’s meteoric rise in the art world, and of the power of the private Chinese art museum. Just 20 years ago, rapid government-led urbanisation left little space for creativity, and the city had few galleries and no art market to speak of. But proving that cultural hubs need not be historic ones, Shanghai’s art scene has dramatically outpaced everyone’s expectations thanks to a number of forwarding-thinking individuals.
When we built this, we wanted a destination in China that brings together the best of today’s international art and architecture
— Lu Xun
“When we built this, we wanted a destination in China that brings together the best of today’s international art and architecture,” explains Xun. “We fell in love immediately with this beautiful and lush site, which is located right next to a national forest park, just away from the city of Nanjing. My father and I thought it would make the perfect blank canvas to develop the land in a way unlike any other in China.”
More than Hong Kong, where the booming art scene is still very internationally focused, Shanghai is where you sense a desire to embed Chinese art in the fabric of society. In a nation still somewhat grappling with what it stands for, art is being used as a foundation for its identity. And as a result, we are witnessing what might be described as an actual cultural revolution, where physical art, more than any other form of creativity, is becoming China’s modern storyteller.
This means that the convergence between the art world and everyday life is far more noticeable in Mainland China than it is in the West or Hong Kong. The Sifang Art Museum has hundreds of visitors a day, some who come to learn about art, buy a print or a coffee-table book, and relax in nature. Others who travel there for conferences, holidays or weekend rentals.
In Shanghai, there is the boxy The Long Museum West Bund, which houses China’s largest private art collection, belonging to Wang Wei and her billionaire former taxi driver husband, Liu Yiqian. The permanent exhibition is a mix of classical antiquities and modern Chinese art but the building itself – a vast industrial complex and a nod to the former coal mine that stood in its place – almost overshadows it.
Then there is the Yuz Museum, owned by the Indonesian-Chinese billionaire Budi Tek. Housed in a glass-roofed, refurbished aeroplane hangar, his collection is particularly famous for its Giacomettis and Warhols. On the afternoon I visit, there was a glittering champagne reception in the museum’s central gallery, and as I left the first couture- and diamond-clad guests were emerging from their chauffeured cars.
Since the launch of Sifang, throughout Shanghai, art and consumerism are overlapping without inhibition – as evidenced by shopping centres such as Adrien Cheng’s K11, a glamorous mix of designer clothes and designer canvases where clients can pick up a Chanel handbag and a painting before lunch. “The point is to build a seamless ecosystem between art and retail,” said Cheng, in an interview with Conde Nast Traveller. “In China, where people love luxury commodities but there isn’t yet a well-established history of museum-going, they can peruse art and their favourite brands in the same place.”
As a result, nearly every new development incorporates a nod to the art world. Xintiandi was once a run-down down residential area in the French Concession but it has now been converted into a glamorous business district filled with bars, restaurants, shops and, of course, art centres. The most notable of which is the Shikumen Open House Museum, which somewhat ironically is built on the grounds where the Communist Party was founded nine decades ago.
Walk inside, and you ask yourself, is it a store? A gallery? A museum? It is hard to know – and that is exactly the point.