Interview: Philip Tinari, director of UCCA

We chat to the man at the helm of Beijing's biggest art museum

In 2016, the eponymous owners of UCCA, Belgian art collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens, announced that they would be selling the institution. Over its ten-year history in Beijing’s 798 Art District, UCCA has become the most important site for contemporary art in China, invariably showing world-class exhibitions, talks, screenings and public programmes for children and adults alike. UCCA opened in late-2007, as director Philip Tinari says, 'at a very special moment… just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics when there was a lot of excitement in Beijing and outside about what China would mean to the world. There was a real optimism and idealism at that moment, and that still informs a lot of what we do.' Ever since, UCCA has been the locus point that Chinese contemporary art desperately needed, hosting solo presentations of Chinese and international legends like Huang Yong Ping, Song Dong and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as traditional large-scale group shows every four years that have successfully brought together artists at the forefront of their practice to promote key trends in contemporary art.

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The front of the UCCA.

Tinari is quick to point out that all of this has, of course, never been easy. 'At the time the idea of opening in 798 was crazy, since the fate of the whole location was uncertain.' Nonetheless the institution has pushed on 'to make itself more serious and to put contemporary art in front of more people,' which is important to Tinari: 'more and more I realise how important it is to be approachable, to be a place that people can encounter on a whole range of different levels.' Over its history UCCA has done just that, offering a welcoming alternative to antiquated state-run museums that are often more involved with pushing a particular ideology, or as Tinari puts the difference, 'a communal social experience versus a visit to church.' Now UCCA’s counts highbrow academics, fellow artists, tourists and people who know just the bare minimum about art in its broad spectrum of visitors, and to cater to such a varied group is by no means an easy task.

It’s then not surprising that the announcement of the sale of the beloved and respected institution was met with worry. Many felt wondered if this was the beginning of the end for UCCA. The fear was that the new owners could be money-hungry financial backers who would follow dominant trends and want their names to be associated with 'cool' contemporary art, a not totally uncommon occurrence in the Chinese art world.

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A past UCCA exhibition.

When, late in 2017, a group of investors were confirmed as the new owners of the institution the reception was widely positive. Why? Tinari extols the new owners as 'committed patrons of the arts and savvy investors and business people'. Just the combination needed to keep a museum like UCCA going. Now the feeling is that this could be the beginning of a new era for UCCA and Tinari shares in this optimism, mentioning their 'great plans for refurbishments of the complicated space, which will solve issues with the circulation of visitors and mean that we will be much bigger, bolder and more welcoming, offering visitors a much more aesthetically charged and interesting experience.'

As for future exhibition plans, UCCA has 12 exhibitions planned for 2018, plus many for the years beyond also pencilled in. For 2018, Tinari mentioned four upcoming shows in their New Directions series, which are smaller presentations of younger Chinese artists (previously artists such as He Xiangyu and Li Ming have used this opportunity as an important stepping stone in their careers). Tinari also spoke excitedly about two major forthcoming shows. An exhibition, opening in March, for painter and filmmaker Sarah Morris, relevant not least of all because of her renowned video work, Beijing, which she made in the run up to the Beijing Olympics. 'And then as our big summer blockbuster, Xu Bing.' For those who don’t know the incredibly versatile Chinese master then take Tinari’s description of the artist: 'a genius, literally a MacArthur Foundation genius… someone of undisputed cultural significance who has made a singular contribution to the art history of China,' as all the evidence you need to be excited for what looks set to be a seminal show for the institution and the art world in general.

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dorm by UCCASTORE.

UCCA has had an eventful past and is looking forward to an extremely promising future. If Tinari is to be believed, it looks like UCCA will be rapidly continuing its upward trajectory. Moreover, it will be evolving into an institution that will take what it means to be a contemporary art institution in China to the next level.
By Tom Mouna

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