ADRIAN CHENG has a plan to turn his shopping malls into art galleries. He expains why to ZOE LI
MUTEDLY STYLISH, FAST-TALKING and earnest, Adrian Cheng is a highly approachable scion of one of Hong Kong’s largest family-controlled conglomerates.
In his early thirties, the Harvard graduate is the grandson of billionaire tycoon Cheng Yu-tung. Due to his innovative approach to the family business, he’s also a much-talked-about heir apparent.
As executive director and joint general manager of property arm New World Development, as well as executive director of Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group, the entrepreneur brings a youthfulness to the decades-old brands. He recently oversaw the design of an exclusive new line of jewellery for Chow Tai Fook, inspired by Southeast Asia and targeted at younger customers.
Although he wears many hats, Adrian Cheng loves most of all to talk about his own start-up shopping-mall business, K11. A patron of the arts, he came up with a sustainable arts-promotion model in which a shopping mall can also double as an arts exhibition space.
“It’s like a bigger MOMA store. I like art, I’m passionate about art. I also think retail is quite homogeneous in China and Hong Kong. We came up with a new proposition: to create the world’s first ‘art mall’,” says Cheng.
His K11 shopping mall in Shanghai is currently hosting China’s first Monet exhibition, featuring 40 works from the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris. The 60,000 tickets at 100 yuan each have all sold out.
Cheng also started the K11 Art Foundation, through which he can groom contemporary talent through residency and exchange programmes, as well as curate art shows aimed at a more academic audience.
His efforts to promote contemporary Chinese art are beginning to bear fruit. Cheng holds sway over many prestigious arts institutions, including London’s Royal Academy of Arts and Tate Modern, and New York’s The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he helped to realise the hit exhibition Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China. He also held The China Symposium, a series of conversations at New York’s Armory Show, this year.
Have you met much resistance to your ideas of combining art and retail?
For Hong Kong people, I’m a developer. They ask, “Why are you doing all this?” Yes I’m a developer, but I’m also a jeweller and I have a lot of different roles, a lot of different hats, but if you always just pinpoint me as a developer and think developers are evil and are people who just take advantage of others, well then I can’t convince you otherwise. But if you just try a different perspective, think: can there be a possibility that this person is really into art and really wants to support and promote culture and art? Why do I need to do all these things? I’m not an art dealer, I don’t sell art. For the commercial part of things, yes I’m making rents, but that money, or a portion of it, is donated back to the art foundation and will keep on grooming this mission that’s benefitting a lot of people. So it’s a win-win for everyone.
What comes first, art or commerce?
Always art first, because if you don’t have that curatorial programme or experience, the retail wouldn’t even work. If people come to K11 in Kowloon, they love the creativity, the energy and the ambience, and that’s because of the curatorial exhibitions. They don’t only come for the shops – some may – but a lot of people love the ambience and that gathering of an artistic community, then they look at the products, but the products are also design products and that’s also part of that design flair. That’s why it’s always design and art first before the commerce. Those commercial places have the most traffic and are the best platform to do community engagement in art. We put art in a high-traffic space, merging museum and retail together, like building a bigger MOMA store.
Do you struggle with the conflict between art and commerce?
I don’t care, to be honest. I’ve been very persistent. I just do whatever to stick to my vision. Nothing has changed for me in the past four or five years, it’s everyone else around me that’s changed. I just kept doing my own thing. I was growing and I was helping the contemporaryart landscape – that’s what I want, that’s what I’ve always wanted, but I was figuring out how to do it with a sustainable model. Now, actually a lot of people are supporting us and want to collaborate. They finally know I’m really serious.
Would you say that you’re quite headstrong?
Well, yes and no. We do a lot of research. It’s an informed gut feeling and passion, all together. I’m not impulsive.
Tell us one of your first memories about art.
When I was young I received classical training as a tenor. So initially I was into performing arts, not visual arts. Then I went to Japan for culture and art training for one year, doing home stay and all these things. The first time I really started to get into visual arts was in 2006 and 2007, when I was living in Beijing and I got to know all these Chinese artists.
Who were the most influential figures in your life?
My father and my grandfather. The single piece has its lineage, whether it’s contemporary or Impressionism – they have these historical linkages that you can trace across cultures and time.
Why did you choose to show Impressionism in China, and what’s the link to contemporary Chinese art?
We do contemporary emerging Chinese art from Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong. Impressionism has a big influence on current contemporary artists in those areas. Monet, like Picasso, is an artist who’s easily accepted by the public.
How did K11 beat other major art institutions to host the collection?
The organisers from Marmottan like our space – they said it’s “contemporary”. They don’t care if it’s retail or a shopping mall or whatever, it’s a holistic experience where we curate all the shops and the museum together as a whole. I said, “You want people to see Monet? We have one million traffic per month already. This is the most prime location in the whole of Shanghai – what else do you want?” In the end, they chose us.
Which projects on your horizon are you excited about?
This coming May I’m curating a Zhang Enli exhibition. He is not that young, but he’s young at heart. He’s so good, I tell you. He’s doing a very nice site-specific project, a spatial painting. It will be a big installation.
+Prestige Hong Kong