One of the most active patrons on the international art scene, art collector Richard Chang is also director of Tira Holdings, an investment firm with interests in media, real estate, hospitality and fashion. Chang sits on the board of New York’s MoMA PS1 and the Whitney Museum, is a patron of London’s Southbank Centre, a trustee of the Royal Academy Trust and a member of Tate’s International Council and the Asia Pacific Acquisitions Committee. He sponsors numerous individual exhibitions and runs his own Domus Collection, focused on a mix of Western and Eastern contemporary art. Chang is resident in New York and Beijing.
How did you start collecting contemporary art?
I started collecting art in the late 1990s. I was looking to fill wall space but I wanted something that was more interesting than just generic commercial art. So I started buying a few small paintings and drawings by Picasso – because it’s, well, Picasso. I was running an Internet company at the time and my COO’s brother was a contemporary painter, so I was introduced to contemporary art more or less this way. I went to his brother’s studio, and these canvases were big and beautiful. They were around two metres wide, in comparisontomy‘tiny’Picassos.So immediately I was drawn to contemporary art, maybe not for all the right reasons. Thankfully his partner was an avid collector and took an interest in showing me around the galleries in Chelsea, and that’s pretty much how it began.
I was collecting emerging artists mostlybasedinNewYork.Fromthere I started buying more and more art by more established artists. You become more confident, so you begin to spend more. Then in the early 2000s my Internet company dealt a lot with Asia, so I was out there quite a bit. I started to spend time in China and looked at Chinese artists. At that time Chinese contemporary art wasn’t established in the way it is today. Those artists were well known to only a small collector base, but the prices had already reached a lofty level.
I was buying a few pieces of art each year, but not in any crazed way. Then in 2006 my collecting started to gain momentum. I became a more determinedcollector.Istartedvisiting art fairs. As I became more entrenched, I became more passionate about collecting, and now I can say I’ve become a bit crazed. First you’re buying art for your personal space, and then you discover it’s no longer about the wall space in the home. You want to show it publicly. So you start thinking about your own public space, and that is how the Domus Collection launched in 2009, with our first public exhibition in Beijing. Then you start thinking about how to support exhibitions in institutions, and so on and so forth.
Eventually it becomes almost a full-time job. I think I spend as much time in the artworld as I do with my business. When you first begin collecting you spend time building relationships with galleries. Your time then shifts to other areas of the art ecosystem. For me it has been museums and institutions. I became a trustee to several museums in New York and London.
MR Does that change how you collect or what you collect?
RC I think you should see as much as you can. That’s why I am constantly on the road, travelling between countries, looking at art in all environments. It’s a constant discovery process, and your tastes develop as you grow. Much is self- taught and learned through direct experience. That said, certain curators have played a role in shaping who I am as a collector. Klaus Biesenbach [chief curator at large at MoMA and director of MoMA PS1 in New York] is a great example. He helps me look at things with a different set of lenses. This way I am able to constantly challenge myself. When I lock into something new, it cements a path that stays with me for a long while. Dealers have also played a key role. If you find a dealer that you’re comfortable with and you have a very honest dialogue, you can really learn a lot. I’ve established many great relationships through this journey. They’re not just people I work with; they’ve become really good friends, like family.
MR So what kinds of things do you look for when you’re buying a work of art?
RC I like to quote Klaus that an artwork needs both truth and beauty. Both elements are very subjective and equally personal. Beauty needs no explanation. Buy for extreme beauty. Truth is the thickening agent in art. Is the artwork true to you as the viewer? Is the artist attempting to seek the truth in his artwork? Is the artist being true to herself? If a work has these two qualities in massive dosages, then you probably have a nice piece for your collection. If one of these components is missing, well then you have either a very decorative piece of art or it’s just plain ugly.
In the early stages of my collecting I used to be partial to paintings. Now I’ve noticed I’m buying a lot of sculptures. My collection has become quite sculpture-oriented. It’s unintentional. Someone said to me one day, ‘You’re buying a lot of sculptures,’ and I replied, ‘You know what? I am.’ Even many of the ‘wall’ pieces I collect, such as works by Matthew Day Jackson, Anselm Kiefer, Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor, are really three-dimensional, so technically sculptures. I think it’s also because I haven’t been too excited by painters recently, and maybe that’s why I’ve been drifting towards sculpture. I’ve also been buying more time-based materials, but the point isIseemtohaveasoftspotfor sculptures. I find that they touch me in ways like none other.
MR How much of it do you have at home?
RC Let’s just round it, OK? Zero. I almost don’t bother collecting with the home in mind. I bought a Tatsuo Miyajima piece called Mega Death (1999). It’s a 50-metre LED display that’s five metres high. You can’t really install that in a home. Even if you had the wall space, the light is blinding. It is a breakthrough to not have to factor in space and place while buying art, but rather to buy simply because it is the piece to get. I think Klaus has had an influence on me since I visited his home. It’s as bare as it gets. Being around art all day, it’s kind of nice to go home and see nothing. It’s very distracting to have to worry about whether something you buy will fit – or worse, will it match the couch?
MR Do you still have the Picassos at home?
RC The Picassos are at home because they fit nicely with the furniture and they’re small.
MR When you started collecting Chinese art, did you find that you were looking for the same things in Chinese art as the art that you were collecting in New York?
RC I try to look at things from a neutral vantage point, but that’s not always easy to do. We are very much conditioned by our surroundings. I spend half of my time between New York and China, so I guess you can say I’m a hybrid of sorts. When I look at any art, I need to understand the context of the artist. When I first started collecting Chinese art, I certainly don’t think I was looking at it from a Chinese viewpoint. I was probably looking at it more from a Western viewpoint because I was collecting mainly New York artists. So I was probably buying the same kind of work that a European collector would be buying.
MR Part of the collection’s purpose is to create an exchange between Western art and Chinese art. How does that work?
RC Absolutely. I started my collection with New York artists, and then as I got to know China I realised there was a lot of good art developing around the four key art centres: Guangzhou, Hangzhou/Shanghai, Chengdu and Beijing. I also met a number of equally passionate and committed collectors in China. But I observed, at least back then, that there was this personal firewall to shield the familiar from the unfamiliar. I didn’t know if we were just hesitant or simply too proud and arrogant to embrace the artworld from either side. I was convinced it was just a matter of time before these walls started to break down. This became personal, and I was always up for a challenge. I thought I could try to make a difference, however slight, by attempting to bring the two sides one step closer. People talk about bridging, but they never do it in any meaningful way. So I thought, let’s try to bridge this by first becoming equally involved in Asia and the West. I discovered Asia to be quite fragmented as well, so I slowly worked my way through the art communities in China, Korea, Japan, etc. Even Greater China can be broken into distinct communities, comprising the Mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan. I’ve built many friendships over the years with collectors, artists, galleries and curators. If I were having a conversation with a Western gallery, I would be interested in sharing things about the art community in China. With Chinese collectors I often chat about the great shows exhibiting in the West. There’s also the institutional side that is undergoing changes in this dynamic world. The institutional model as we know it, from museums to private spaces, is still in the infancy stages in Asia. And all of that is going to change. Every region will have their unique model, and it’ll be interesting to see how we can learn from one another and then fine-tune it to accommodate the local requirements. It’s truly fascinating to witness the breakneck speed with which the world is evolving. There’s a lot of cultural dialogue now. You look at the Tate with their diverse regional acquisition committees – from the Americas to Asia to Africa and the Middle East.
The goal being for the Tate to not only collect in a focused way regionally but to become an active member of the developing global art community in order to better understand the current trends. As a member of the Tate’s Asia Pacific Acquisitions Committee, I gifted an installation work by a super-smart Hong Kong artist, Pak Sheung Chuen, that was recently included in the Liverpool Biennial. Through the Domus Collection, I try to organise exhibitions that create a dialogue between Asian and Western artists. Matthew Day Jackson was in our collection show several years ago in Beijing. I believe it was the first time he was shown there. Matthew was kind enough to give us an amazing vitrine piece. He was on the phone with us at 3am because we were trying to work out the transformer issue. The electrical current wasn’t compatible. It was a learning process, everything was new to everyone. The artwork was new, even the electrical was new. We just made it happen. So yes, it was just bits and pieces, that’s how I want to try to bridge it.
MR Has it been something that’s gotten easier over time?
RC No, nothing gets easier. The more involved you get, the more you realise there’s so much more work to do. I think right now it’s just on the cusp, it really is. However, things are surely improving and at a greater momentum. On the art fair side I think Art Hong Kong, having become such a dynamic international art fair, is a great service to the art community in Asia. Art Basel’s new interest in Art Hong Kong was a major stamp of approval. I think that made a huge difference. Then there will be others, you know. I think on the institution side, we should see more things happening there.
MR How does the collection work? You’ve got the space in Beijing...
RC We call it an office because it’s open to the public by appointment only unless we have an ongoing exhibition. Eventually the goal is to either have a well-planned space that’s open year round, with curated exhibitions drawn from the collection, or support a public institution so the collection could play a meaningful role. It’s very in-vogue to be opening private museums these days... Some collectors, having adopted that model in the early stages, have done a nice job and it served a purpose by meeting a genuine public need.
Today many new collectors, particularly in Asia, are jumping on the bandwagon without really thinking about what is entailed in running a private institution. I’m afraid many will simply languish as a vanity project with a few trophies on display but serve little value to the public. So I’m not so sure which model will be best for the future. Also, when you have your own space you’re on your own. Your name is all over that building. Nobody is going to help you. If you support a public institution, it’s a team effort, and you’re doing something meaningful for society.
MR What made you want to engage with art on a public level in the first place?
RC I’m very public to begin with, I’m quite extroverted, and I just felt like I could do more. In the beginning collecting is purely just to fill up your walls. Then it became this huge learning curve, and it became enriching. Then once you’re enriched, now you want to have a voice. So then you start doing something public, and when you’re doing something publicly with your collection, then you want to be influential, so you start working with institutions, you start supporting exhibitions. If I was a very quiet, private individual, then yes, maybe I’d be very happy just buying and hanging or buying and storing. But that’s not my calling. I’ve just got to do it in a bigger way. And I’ve got a long way to go.
MR Do you think getting involved in art has changed the way you approach your businesses?
RC No, it has not yet.
MR Are you quite careful to keep them separate?
RC Currently there isn’t an overlap between my business and collecting. I run my family office with investments in media, real estate and fashion. And I should point out in a cheeky way that all of our investments have been for the long term! I’m not in the business of dealing art. However, I have found some dealers to be amazing collectors. Is this fair? I suppose I don’t take an issue so long as we all exercise a bit of good judgement and common sense. For me, being involved in the art community, whether via collecting or supporting, has improved my life in many other ways. It has changed the way I see the world. I’ve learned a lot from artists. I don’t think I ever will need – and I mean this honestly – I don’t think I’ll ever need a shrink. Living with people in the artworld has put me in touch with humanity, and this is priceless. I think that’s the one thing I’ve really gained personally from art. It’s become almost like a religion in away.
This article was first published in the May 2013 issue.