FOR ART’S SAKE

A wealthy pa­tron is putting phi­lan­thropy first, open­ing Hangzhou’s first non-profit for­eign art mu­seum 收藏家吴静将中国首个欧洲艺术馆开在了杭州,这里每一件展品背后,都有一个千回百转的故事

The World of Chinese - - Gallery - TEXT AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY LU DAN (陆丹)

Wu Jing dreams of a day when “Euro­pean off­spring travel to China for a glance at their an­ces­tor’s an­tiques.” For the French-chi­nese phi­lan­thropist and art col­lec­tor, “some­day in the fu­ture,” the ex­pen­sive, time-con­sum­ing pil­grim­ages taken by gen­er­a­tions of Chi­nese art-lovers to Europe will be “re­versed.”

A cer­ti­fied an­tiques horol­o­gist, known to fel­low con­nois­seurs as the “Queen of White Mar­ble” for her ex­ten­sive French mar­ble sculp­ture col­lec­tion, Wu seems an un­likely fig­ure for such pa­tri­otic ideas. Raised in Italy, and hail­ing from a Wen­zhou fam­ily that made its for­tune in the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try, Wu trained in watch-restora­tion and auc­tions off her Euro­pean art and an­tiques col­lec­tion each year in Hangzhou to sup­port var­i­ous char­i­ties.

In 2017, she took on a new role: di­rec­tor of the Hangzhou Euro­pean Art Mu­seum, a new free venue for art ed­u­ca­tion in a city known for its lit­er­ary and aes­thetic roots. It took only a year to as­sem­ble the non­profit mu­seum in the base­ment of the Hangzhou Li­brary, which has of­fered gratis ac­com­mo­da­tion for the next three years. The Septem­ber open­ing cer­e­mony in 2007 was at­tended by di­rec­tors of the Lou­vre, the Rodin Mu­seum, and the Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art.

As di­rec­tor, Wu is of­ten per­son­ally on hand dur­ing the mu­seum’s vis­it­ing hours to of­fer com­men­tary on each of the 75 ex­hibits, dis­played across 11 halls. “I wish I could tell…all the sto­ries be­hind these pieces,” says Wu. The ma­jor­ity of ex­hibits come from Wu’s own col­lec­tion, ac­quired at auc­tions around the world. “These sculp­tures are not just stand­ing there, they have their own sto­ries.”

One tale con­cerns her pur­chase of A Veiled Woman, sculpted by G. Croff Mi­lano in 1853, a rare ex­am­ple of non-prof­i­teer­ing in the art world. As Wu tells it, she spot­ted and im­me­di­ately fell in love with the valu­able work, known as “the Mona Lisa of sculp­ture,” at the Bi­en­nale des An­ti­quaires, but was un­sure of how she could af­ford it. When she told the owner of her plans to es­tab­lish a non-profit mu­seum for Chi­nese un­able to travel abroad, he dug out the orig­i­nal re­ceipt from the 1970s and of­fered her the same price. “I fi­nally found one who doesn’t treat [art] as spec­u­la­tion, but loves it from the bot­tom of her heart,” he re­port­edly told her: “You are the one.”

It wasn’t un­til 1996, when an­tique col­lec­tor Ma Weidu es­tab­lished the Guanfu Mu­seum, that the first pri­vate mu­seum opened in China. Since then, nu­mer­ous pri­vate col­lec­tors have opened mu­se­ums of vary­ing sizes and themes, from the Great Wall to Lei Feng to the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion. Some charge en­try fees; oth­ers open by ap­point­ment only. Even so, the man­age­ment costs can be tax­ing. In the US, wealthy pa­trons can pro­vide en­dow­ments to as­sist with the costs, but most mu­se­ums need a prof­itable busi­ness model or a fi­nan­cially independent founder.

A 2015 State Coun­cil Reg­u­la­tions on Mu­se­ums, en­cour­ag­ing en­ter­prises, in­sti­tu­tions, pub­lic or­ga­ni­za­tions, and cit­i­zens to es­tab­lish mu­se­ums “in ac­cor­dance with law,” is ex­pected to help mat­ters. Wu’s mu­seum, which was de­signed with help from the Lou­vre, will still op­er­ate at a loss, de­spite its “price­less” col­lec­tion.

The 3.4-me­ter-high An­dromeda (1883) by Pier­reAlphonse Bo­gaerts, cur­rently the tallest bronze vase in the world, is an­other sto­ried ac­qui­si­tion of the Euro­pean Art Mu­seum. Though it has re­ceived of­fers from the J. Paul Getty Mu­seum in Los An­ge­les, which holds the next high­est vase, of up to 35 mil­lion dol­lars, Wu has re­fused to sell: “I must keep it, and tell the world: the tallest bronze vase in the world is now in Hangzhou.”

In­creas­ing Hangzhou’s artis­tic rep­u­ta­tion, ac­cord­ing to Wu, is like “a busi­ness card.” Com­pared to the strict safety checks and en­clo­sures of large state-run mu­se­ums in China, Wu’s man­age­ment style is loose and wel­com­ing; most of the works haven’t been put be­hind pro­tec­tive glass. “I wanted more art stu­dents com­ing to my mu­seum, ob­serv­ing the sculp­tures and draw­ing them on sketch books,” she ex­plains. “If there is a glass dome, the light will re­flect and dis­tance the stu­dents.”

One stu­dent re­cently re­turned from four years abroad told TWOC the mu­seum “looks nearly the same as ones I vis­ited in Europe. Most of us don’t know much about Euro­pean art, es­pe­cially the Re­nais­sance. But now, even a child may quickly get a rough idea of what it is.” The mu­seum gives Chi­nese stu­dents the chance to view orig­i­nals in­stead of sketch­ing from plas­ter mod­els. When a pro­fes­sor from the China Academy of Art vis­ited, he was shocked to see a white mar­ble statue of David, ex­claim­ing, “It’s the first time I’ve got­ten to see the real thing!”

Chi­nese law once for­bade rare for­eign relics with “his­toric and artis­tic value” from be­ing taken out of the coun­try, but Wu in­tends to con­tinue even af­ter her lease ex­pires at Hangzhou Li­brary. She has re­cently been au­tho­rized to es­tab­lish an of­fi­cial branch of the Rodin Mu­seum in Hangzhou, the first of its kind, and with vis­i­tors dis­cov­er­ing her an­tiq­ui­ties for the first time, Wu seems to be de­liv­er­ing on her prom­ise: At this mu­seum, ev­ery­one, no mat­ter who or how wealthy, can en­joy Euro­pean art to the full.

An­to­nio Bor­tone’s Mary and Her Lit­tle Lamb (1870), a carved mar­ble statue col­lected by the Hangzhou Euro­pean Art Mu­seum

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