Budi Tek’s philosophy epitomises, perhaps more than most, the contemporary concept of what art is and how, in the last century, art has become indelibly interwoven with every aspect of our consciousness, and developed its own socio-political dynamic.
Art14 provided an entirely appropriate setting for our meeting, not least because the fair hosts a summit for museum owners – even so, in terms of acquisition power and collection size, Tek is stratospheric.
The man himself has an engaging smile and his face becomes particularly animated when he talks about his second private museum Yuz Museum Shanghai, which has since been inaugurated in May 2014.
I ask him about Art14 and what he thinks of this relatively new fair, now in its second year. He remarks on the fact that it’s refreshing to see a number of galleries that don’t fit the stereotype – galleries he’s never seen before.
His very presence at the fair is, of course, a huge endorsement of it because Tek has, in a relatively short space of time (by the yardstick of the art world anyway) established himself as a force to be reckoned with.
His very first statement on the subject of acquiring art sets him apart and summarises both his strategy and his ambition.
‘I am a museum man and need to buy serious works.’
I ask him to qualify ‘serious art’ and he invites me to visit his collection which will be housed in the new museum, converted from old aircraft hangars by the Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto. Tek names just some of the artists he collects – Anselm Kiefer, Maurizio Cattelan, Ai Weiwei, Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun, Adel Abdessemed– and explains that he buys primarily conceptual art and large installations.
Making new acquisitions is a fairly complex procedure, he says – he follows his own instinct but also has a buying committee that acts in an advisory capacity. Generally speaking, he does not buy works that are displayed at art fairs, whether Art14 or Basel. If he likes a particular artist, the gallery would reserve the more serious and larger works for him because, he says, ‘one must always buy the best’.
Will installations be relevant 20 years from now, I ask him?
‘3-4 dimensional installations are a relatively young art form, with Marcel Duchamp creating the blueprint for future conceptual art works in the early to mid-20th century. The art form has since gained in importance and momentum because collectors and academics/scholars alike are no longer satisfied with the two-dimensional message delivered by more traditional art forms.
‘Installations carry a social, political or even scientific/ anthropological message as opposed to the 2-dimensional/ visual one – they are exciting in that they compel the viewer to think and deduce rather than simply observe and enjoy the inherent skill of the artist.
‘Works that represent a social and/or political commentary have come to define contemporary culture, in fact. Budi Tek cites Maurizio Cattelan’s The Tree of Life work – an olive tree growing out of a large, minimalist cube of earth – as a case in point.
‘A number of artists have created cubes, he says, but Cattelan has made a real breakthrough – a living thing and a very poignant symbol of both the occupied territory and of the people striving to break ‘out of the box’, as much an ideological/socio-political constraint as a physical one.’
‘This’, he says, ‘is what strikes and touches me.’
It goes without saying that The Tree of Life will be taking a place of pride in Tek’s Yuz Museum Shanghai. It also goes without saying that Tek has become not just an influential but also an inspirational figure among contemporary art collectors of stature. He has taken a stand on the wider issue of what is worth collecting, a topic that is more often than not the white elephant in art’s proverbial room.
‘Many Chinese collectors only collect traditional Chinese works because they feel that contemporary works and artists haven’t had the time to age and to prove themselves in terms of future value.
‘My position is that as a contemporary society we have a duty to encourage contemporary art else we will not be contributing and/or bequeathing any traditional art to the future.
‘Obviously, I have an appreciation for both traditional fine art and for the wisdom of our ancestors but these have scant relevance to contemporary society.
‘Fine art, in particular, represents a safe investment, with beautiful historical works that can be displayed on one’s walls like currency.
‘By way of elaborating on ‘relevance’, I would like to give the example of an important Indian collector of Old Masters. Even though I appreciate his collection visually, I only begin to understand it when he tells the story of a particular work – when there is a message that’s relevant to me that makes me think about it.
‘That is what I find exciting, but I also collect historical works – for example, I buy important paintings that tell the story of Chinese culture. One of my acquisition strategies in this respect is to create a thread following the history of art all the way to today.
‘Today’s artists have a long way to go and we, as collectors, are exploring an uncharted territory/ breaking new frontiers, because we have no way of knowing whether their works will remain important and relevant in the future. A contemporary collector needs to always push the boundary, all the while understanding and accepting that a percentage, perhaps even a high percentage, of what he collects will almost certainly end up being just decoration items.
‘One needs both wisdom and a strategy to collect. It requires a lot of study and travel and of course it takes time.
‘As I cannot buy the full canon of Western art – it already belongs to the big museums – I have developed a dot buying strategy, i.e. acquiring established contemporary artists. Contemporary art has no national boundaries and so I buy both Asian and Western artists’ works.
‘I love interacting with artists because it gives me an artistic way of understanding and engaging with the work when I collect it.
‘While in London I met with Isaac Julien and have invited him to have an exhibition in Shanghai with Yang Fudong. This would be expensive to stage but would have a very special significance to the Chinese public.’
I ask him about the spike in numbers of privately owned art museums in Asia, and China in particular. There are, he says, 3 different types of owners.
‘The first type of museum stems from a private collection. Tek’s own collection was eventually housed in a small museum in Jakarta, open to the public 7 days a week. It got bigger and bigger, hosting a number of exhibitions.’
When the collection outgrew the Jakarta space, he was faced with a conundrum – open an art centre, a warehouse, a museum? He opted for the latter because a museum allows the serious collector to invite academics, curators and critics of considerable standing, and get involved in art-related events, such as his Bali Conversations, now in its 6th year.
He refers to the discussion as a ‘relaxed, closed door conversation’ between peers, some 30-40 of them: collectors, curators and critics, focusing on contemporary art in Asia. The last two years, the focus has shifted on to private museums, which brings our own conversations to the next type of establishment.
‘This type of project is managed on behalf of real estate developers who have many works housed in large buildings. Although the works do not constitute a collection, the result is ‘cultural and joyful’, says Tek, and has the added benefit of pleasing local government.
‘The last and least relevant type of private museum is merely created as a means to a vainglorious end – to establish its owner as a cultured individual.’
I steer the conversation back to him and this is what he tells me:
Although born in Indonesia, Tek is 100% Chinese, married to a Shanghainese.
He lives between Jakarta and Shanghai where he says he will eventually retire. When I express surprise at the word ‘retire’, he is quick to point out that to retire is not to stop working altogether – it merely signifies a change. Collecting, says Budi Tek, is in his nature.
He started collecting hard wood while still in Indonesia – mostly large reclaimed timber that got discarded – and hired carpenters to cut it so he could store it away. He bought 100 containers of red gum tree wood from Australia, some of which he is now using to renovate his Bali villa designed by none other than Ai Weiwei – the villa will have a staggering 10 000 m2 of wood in it.
He still keeps the first work he ever bought, even though he no longer considers it of importance. In fact, a lot of his early acquisitions are no longer relevant to his collection, so he gifts them to friends or donates to charity institutions.
In fact, Tek is already making a subtle transition from being an art collector extraordinaire to a global philanthropist.
His unfettered enthusiasm, cheerful disposition and worldly vision allow him to straddle the two worlds – art and philanthropy – with elegance and conviction.
Photography by Miles Holder