Related News

Home » Feature

Jade trader to patron of art

SAMUEL Kung, a Hong Kong jeweler with family roots in Shanghai, has invested millions of yuan to establish and run the city's Museum of Contemporary Art which encourages public appreciation of modern art and provides a free venue for talented mainland artists to display their work. Yang Zhenqi talks to a patron who deals in the finer things of life.

Tucked away in the corner of the well-wooded People's Park, the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) is recognized as the city's first independent and non-profit gallery promoting modern fine art to the public.

Although MoCA is not as internationally renowned as its close neighbor, the Shanghai Art Museum, it has never failed to impress art lovers with a host of acclaimed exhibitions such as "Italy Made In Art,?"Salvatore Ferragamo Evolving Legend 1928-2008?and "Material Link ?A Dialogue Between Greek and Chinese Artists.?

The three-story building is acclaimed by many as an outstanding artwork in its own right with its translucent fa?¢ade and a roof deck that offers a panoramic view of the city's skyline.

MoCA was founded in 2005 by Samuel Kung, a Hong Kong jewelry designer and dealer who has spent millions of yuan to build and continue operating the museum.

I met Kung, a genteel, softly-spoken Shanghai native in his 50s, on a wintry weekend evening at the opening of one of MoCA's recent exhibitions, "Couples In Contemporary Art.?He talked about his humble start in life and later success in Hong Kong, as well as the genesis of his brainchild museum.

?..Sometimes, magic does happen. And for me, I just knew there was a strong bond between us. I felt kind of destined.?

Born into an ordinary family in the mid 1950s, Kung moved to Hong Kong with his parents at an early age. For some years they lived near a neighbor who was a jade dealer and it was where Fung got his initiation into the jewelry trade.

"I almost fell in love with this rare and precious stone at first sight. That might sound a bit weird for many but, you know, sometimes, magic does happen. And for me, I just knew there was a strong bond between us. I felt kind of destined,?Kung reminisced.

Driven by this strong interest, Kung, eventually decided in his late 20s to take the plunge of quitting the bank job he'd had for years and entering the adventurous jade trade. He started his new career as an apprentice jewelry designer.

He learned the entire jade processing business, from selecting unpolished stones to cutting and waxing, and eventually mastered the intricate and difficult jade trade from A to Z.

Despite his uncanny ability to turn a raw stone into an exquisite jewelry piece, Kung learned that more could be done to further develop the business and created his own brand.

"Most local designers (in Hong Kong) at that time tended to create conventional pieces, simply because of a popular mindset ?jade is something very Chinese,?Kung said.

"So its patterns and designs were kept within the very same tradition, whether they were desired by the public or not. But from a customer's perspective, they might think your collection is old-fashioned and will welcome new ideas and designs in your work,?Kung explained.

Having mastered how to design jade pieces to appeal to a mass market, Kung outsourced himself to work for big international brands.

His business subsequently thrived over the ensuing 30 years. Kung now has jewelry workshops and outlets in Hong Kong and Chinese mainland.

But it was not all smooth sailing. Kung's judgement in selecting valuable stones had been unerringly accurate until he bought a stone that lead to a significant loss.

"I once wagered an enormous amount on an unpolished stone that turned out to be far less valuable than I expected,?he said.

Kung attributed this one-time loss to a period of rashness and overconfidence. "Sometimes your experience is not enough to make things happen and the secret of success lies in luck.?

And it was this sort of luck, Kung said, that he pushed in setting up the city's very first private contemporary art museum a couple of years ago.

Covering a total area of 1,800 square meters, the venue was an obsolete greenhouse inside People's Park. It remained largely unknown until a thorough facelift of the park drew Kung's attention to it.

He thought it would be ideal as a showroom for his jewelry as the location was superb within the strong artistic ambience created by the surrounding cultural icons, including Shanghai Grand Theatre and Shanghai Art Museum.

With the encouragement of his artist friends and support from the district's cultural bureau, Kung spent millions of yuan transforming the venue into its current form.

"MoCA was established to introduce international contemporary art to the public.?

While the city has fostered a myriad of establishments chasing the profits from art business in the past decade, Kung's museum has managed to survive as a non-profit organization from its inception.

"MoCA was established to introduce international contemporary art to the public. Its emphasis is on promoting aspiring indigenous artists to a wider audience by giving a free venue to display their works and express their feelings and ideas,?Kung said.

The museum's latest exhibition, "Couples In Contemporary Art?which will run until mid February, is a good example of his ambitious vision.

"With the further promotion of contemporary art, more and more people are coming to understand the power and appreciate the beauty of artistry, just like myself.?

This first-of-its-kind show involves 15 Chinese married artist couples showcasing their paintings, calligraphic pieces, photographs, sculptures, installations, video and audio works.

"Most of the participants are active players in China's modern art scene,?Kung said.

"Yet they've never been invited before to show their work and talent as a duo. So when our curatorial staff contacted them to ask if they were willing to be involved in this collective, free exhibition, they said 'yes?without hesitation.

"We were all happy to see the final result, just like other exhibitions we've done before,?he said.

Although the result is quite encouraging, there is no real "win-win?situation in terms of running a private and non-profit museum, according to Kung.

The museum is still financially backed by Kung to maintain its normal operation. As for its admission fees ?averaging 20 yuan (US$2.90) per person ?"yes, that could almost cover our monthly electricity bill,?he joked.

Kung eventually admitted that running the museum is an "undertaking?that has cost him over 30 million yuan since it started and, more strikingly, he anticipates that his personal expenditure still continues to grow daily.

So when I asked how the museum could become more self-sufficient and survive in the long term, Kung didn't reject the idea of sponsorship, a common practice, he said, at most international, non-profit art institutes.

"We've always been looking for potential sponsors from home and abroad.

"And we do receive certain donations and help from those enterprises who have been focused on promoting contemporary art in the past few years,?Kung said with gratitude.

"However, the whole sponsorship idea is still new in China,? he added.

Kung is optimistic about the museum's future and the growth of the Chinese contemporary art community in spite of the current global economic downturn.

"With the further promotion of contemporary art, more and more people are coming to understand the power and appreciate the beauty of artistry, just like myself,?Kung concluded.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend