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Ullens Center for Contemporary Art sold to Chinese investors

Leading Beijing museum had been on the market since June 2016

Lisa Movius

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing UCCA

Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) has announced that its parent organisation UCCA Group was sold last week to a group of investors including Jason Nanchu Jiang, the founder of Focus Media, and the education company Future Edutainment.

The museum’s founders Guy and Myriam Ullens announced that the UCCA was up for sale in June 2016, fuelling concerns about the future of what has become one of mainland China’s leading private art institutions since it opened in November 2007. The UCCA Group will also partner with Seven Star Group, owner of the 798 Art District that houses the UCCA, to renovate and expand the museum’s premises.

“Seven Star Group resolutely supports the continued stable development of UCCA, as it becomes a beacon in the great wave of development of contemporary art,” says Wang Yanling, the chief executive of 798 Art District, in a statement.A UCCA spokeswoman declined to specify the terms of the partnership.

The sale allows the UCCA Group to make its UCCA Foundation, currently registered in Hong Kong as a tax-exempt charity, into an independent entity. The group hopes to create an affiliated foundation in Beijing. Philip Tinari, who has directed the UCCA since 2011 and will continue at its helm, is the first member of the UCCA Group’s board of directors to have been announced.

Tinari told the South China Morning Post (SCMP), which broke the news yesterday, that the restructuring will give the museum more independence from its owners. “The old model had worked under Mr Ullens’s generosity but he had set it up in 2007 as a private company. Now that the public-facing activities are run by a charity, we will be able to raise funds more easily and hopefully improve the production quality of our exhibitions and the size of the audience,” Tinari told the Hong Kong newspaper.

Tinari also said that the foundation was first established in Hong Kong due to the territory’s streamlined legal process for non-profit organisations, and the museum is still awaiting official approval to register as a charity in Beijing. “Our mission continues to be a desire to put Chinese art in a global context, to provoke and stimulate a discussion about a vital part of art history,” he added.

The UCCA Group declined to comment about the new buyers’ reasons for acquiring the museum. Focus Media, a digital advertising company best known for installing touchscreen advertisements in Chinese taxis, was delisted from the US stock exchange in a 2013 sale following allegations of fraud by Muddy Waters Research in 2011. The consortium also includes the Shanghai-based private equity group Lunar Capital, the parent company of Future Edutainment, known for its acquisition of brands in sectors of packaged food and children’s clothing.

Along with the museum, the UCCA runs a for-profit design shop and UCCA Studio, offering art classes to children aged two to 11, which help fund the centre. The new owners will continue to pay royalties to the charity from those activities, Tinari told SCMP.

“Mimi and I are very pleased to see that a new group of strong Chinese backers, who share our passion and mission of promoting contemporary Chinese art and international exchanges, will carry forward the initiative we started ten years ago,” says Guy Ullens in a statement. “We are excited to see them take the UCCA to a higher level as a top art institution in the world.”

UCCA’s exhibitions and public events attract around a million visitors per year, and it claims to be the most visited contemporary art centre in China. The museum has staged more than 100 major group exhibitions such as Art Post-Internet and The New Normal, as well as solo shows by Chinese and international artists including Robert Rauschenberg, William Kentridge and Liu Wei. Following its annual charity gala next month, at which works donated by artists such as Qiu Zhijie, Wang Xingwei and Liu Xiaodong will be auctioned in partnership with Christie’s, the UCCA will close for renovation and expansion. The museum will reopen in summer 2018 with a Xu Bing exhibition.