The Exhibitionists

Shanghai’s West Bund during the 2013 Biennial of Architecture and Contemporary Art. Courtesy of Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects.

In the entryway of the Yuz Museum, a 100,000-square-foot former airplane hangar in Shanghai retrofitted to display the artworks that the Indonesian-Chinese poultry tycoon Budi Tek cannot seem to stop collecting, stands a version of the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s Untitled, 2000*.* The piece, which is supposed to be a live olive tree planted in Italian earth, became tangled in bureaucratic red tape because China has strict regulations on the import of plants. The Yuz staff scoured the country for a local specimen and managed to find three olive trees, but Cattelan rejected them all on the basis that they had not been grown in Italy. However, cultural endeavors don’t need a lot of time to flourish organically in China, where the current economic boom has generated hundreds of museums, both state run and privately operated. So on view at the Yuz is a dead, fumigated trunk of an Italian tree with pasted-on leaves. Eventually, it will be replaced by a sapling, brought over from Italy and cultivated on the Yuz grounds.

In the meantime, the Yuz, which opened last year, will not lack for attractions. Next year it will present an Alberto Giacometti exhibition, as well as a show curated by Jeffrey Deitch; KAWS is on the lineup for 2017; a blockbuster Picasso show is being discussed. And, right now, visitors can experience Random International’s massively popular Rain Room, which in 2013 drew hordes to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Beijing might be China’s current art capital, but Shanghai, with its concentration of international wealth, seems poised to eclipse it. This is especially true in the West Bund Cultural Corridor, a swath of Shanghai riverfront where billionaire collectors are erecting increasingly larger art spaces within walking—and ego-measuring—distance of one another. In addition to Tek’s Yuz, there is the 33,000-square-foot Long Museum, opened last year by husband and wife Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei. The karaoke-nightclub king Qiao Zhibing’s Oil Tank Art Center, a contemporary venue housed in five disused oil tanks, is in the works. Its neighbor is a $2.4 billion cultural center and movie studio in development by DreamWorks, called the Shanghai DreamCenter. And soon enough there will be the West Bund Art & Culture Pilot Zone, a complex with studio space for blue-chip artists like Ding Yi and top galleries like ShanghART. It’s as if the local government, which has been supporting this cultural initiative through a developer called the Shanghai West Bund Development Group Co. Ltd, were trying to cram the High Line, the Thames, and the Left Bank into a few square miles. Indeed, the moniker was meant to evoke Paris’s Rive Gauche.

At the moment, though, most cab drivers don’t even know where the West Bund is. The area occupies the waterfront of the Xuhui district, which is not, in fact, west but, rather, south of the famous Bund. Rumor has it that during the 2010 Shanghai Expo, held, in part, across the river in the Pudong business district, the Xuhui leadership in attendance gazed back over the water and resolved to create something equally splashy.

There is a ways to go. When I was there in June, I saw only one restaurant open for business on the West Bund riverfront, a tapas bar on a stretch of boardwalk. (A few others have opened since then.) But there are dozens of newly built luxury condos with gilt-edge mansard roofs, their monolithic entrance markers announcing the arrival of a metropolitan oasis: Shanghai Bay, Venezia Shanghai Riverside Garden…take your pick. In Shanghai, if you can brand it, you can build it.

On the afternoon I visited the Yuz, I met Tek in the lobby cafe, which had just opened that week. Since retiring from the chicken business, Tek, who is in his 50s, has become an art world fixture: In the past few months, he had been to Los Angeles, Venice, Paris, Beijing, London, Hong Kong, and New York (twice) to see and buy art. According to Tek, it’s not difficult to run a museum. “In fact, it’s very easy,” he said. “But to run a very good museum is not very easy.” The Yuz is not his only art space. In 2008, he built a museum in Jakarta, Indonesia, but plans to shut it down in order to develop a massive “art park” in Bali that will more easily accommodate the large-scale works he favors. He has named this new venture Budi Desa, which translates from the Indonesian as “Budi village.” Whether there will be an audience to populate it remains to be seen. In Shanghai, museum attendance hasn’t quite blossomed: The Yuz gets roughly 400 visitors on the weekends.

Fortunately, the Yuz will not have to pay rent on its decommissioned hangar for 30 years, courtesy of the West Bund Group, which some refer to simply as “the government.” “We should give praise to the government,” Tek said dutifully. I asked him what he thought of the other museums in the neighborhood, whose collections are not as sensational. “Everyone is saying their own museum is the best; so am I. So, we are the best.”

Wang Wei, the director of the austere-looking Long Museum, a 25-minute stroll from the Yuz, might beg to differ. Although often discussed in the same breath as her husband, Liu Yiqian, one of the 400 billionaires in China, Wang does not share her title with him. The directorship, she said when we met at the Long, “is a way to show off my charms.” The couple’s interest in museum-building was piqued after the state-run Shanghai Art Museum put on a show of their staggering collection of Cultural Revolution–era paintings (think rosy-cheeked peasants greeting a beatific Mao Zedong) in 2009. Proving that it always helps to have guanxi, or connections, Wang and Liu quickly began work on their first museum, the Long Museum Pudong. It opened three years later, in 2012, and was followed by the Long Museum West Bund, in 2014.

“I personally don’t think Chinese are ready to do museums,” said the Hong Kong–born collector Adrian Cheng, who opted instead to display contemporary art in the Shanghai and Hong Kong branches of the high-end K11 shopping centers he’s opening all over China. (In his view, it’s a more practical way to reach an audience.) He keeps the work in constant rotation and has even staged ambitious exhibitions, like last year’s Monet show, for which he borrowed priceless paintings from Paris’s Musée Marmottan Monet—and hung them in the basement gallery of one of his malls.

When I met Cheng in the 56th-floor lounge of the K11 Office tower, miles from the West Bund, he arrived in a fedora and sweatpants. “This is my new VIP club,” he declared. “It’s extremely exclusive.” Last year, Cheng called K11 an “art mall”; now there are signs on the premises referring to it as “museum retail”; in the future, it will be rebranded as “kunsthalle retail.” “But I’m not saying museums aren’t good,” Cheng added. He smiled. “I’m building one in Beijing.”

With seemingly endless square footage and funds at their disposal, Shanghai’s collectors certainly have the ability to attract top museum talents. But, with the exception of a few international superstars, like the Chicago-based Wu Hung, who oversees the Yuz, the Serpentine Galleries’ Hans Ulrich Obrist, and the Museum of Modern Art’s Klaus Biesenbach (who co-curated a show at the Long), curators hold very little power there. And the museums, for all the glamour of their facades, often lack even the most basic amenities. Rebecca Catching, a Canadian expat who’s lived in Shanghai for more than a decade and who was until recently the director of the sleek new Shanghai Center of Photography in the West Bund, recalled that during her stint as the curator of the Minsheng Art Museum, a bank-controlled museum, they couldn’t afford to turn on the air-conditioning. “People want to be at an international standard, but they don’t realize how much money that costs,” she said. “But I can’t really feel sorry for them. The Long is supporting two museums. Why not have a small space? Do something good.”

In the West Bund, however, more is more. The next collector I meet is Qiao Zhibing, to whom the West Bund Group offered the use of five massive oil tanks that had served the airport hangar where the Yuz is located. A youthful 49, Qiao, who amassed a fortune from high-end karaoke clubs, is a regular on the art-fair circuit, usually in the company of his girlfriend, Lihsin Tsai, who manages his collection. When he’s in Shanghai, Qiao visits his nightclub, Shanghai Night, nearly every evening. He shows his artworks on the walls there, behind thick panes of glass to protect them from rowdy customers. The 100 rooms often entertain as many as 500 guests, and there is a nightly procession of women in bridal gowns and stilettos.

“Qiao is a workaholic,” Tsai told me when I visited the club on a Saturday night. We were led to a VIP room, where we sat on velvet banquettes; our supply of watermelon slices was replenished constantly. Qiao ate about a dozen pieces as he described his new Oil Tank Art Center. “It’s personal, it’s not a serious museum,” he said simply. “We’re not that ambitious.” Outside the room, there were black and white photographs on the wall, by Yang Fudong, of carefully arranged nude women styled as ’20s vamps. There was a painting, by Chen Fei, of a man in a bathrobe offering his penis, in a hot dog bun, to a young girl. (It’s titled Step Father.) The works rotate regularly, save for an Antony Gormley sculpture installed on a banister overlooking the lobby. That piece represented a turning point for Qiao’s collection: It was the first he had acquired by a non-Chinese artist. (This year, he added a gleaming red Sterling Ruby sculpture beneath it.) I asked Qiao why he shows his collection in the karaoke club. “Too many blank walls,” he replied.

A few days later, before an opening at the Long Museum, where Qiao would sit down to dinner with Tek, Wang, and Liu, we visited the site of the Oil Tank Art Center. Construction had yet to begin, and the grounds still bore signage from an architecture biennial that was held there in 2013. No one was around, so Qiao decided to climb one of the tanks. He maneuvered around a shoddy, netted gate and up the nearly 50-foot hull by way of a wraparound ladder. From the top, Qiao surveyed the scene below: Busy freighter traffic on the Huangpu River; a spate of new condos springing up; the boardwalk, with its lone restaurant; the red roof of the Yuz; and, in the distance, the Long.

Qiao declared the view beautiful. It was the first time he’d been up there. He thought it might be a nice setting for private parties someday. But for now, there was only the view. We looked around for a few minutes, and then made the sobering climb down.