Sep 05 2017

Legacies: Profile of Budi Tek

by Chloe Chu

Portrait of BUDI TEK. Courtesy Yuz Museum, Shanghai.

On August 13, friends and family of Chinese-Indonesian entrepreneur, art collector and philanthropist Budi Tek descended in cheerful droves upon the glass foyer of Tek’s Sou Fujimoto-designed Yuz Museum in Shanghai. Together, they celebrated his new title as Officer of the Legion of Honor. Conferred by the president of the French Republic primarily to the nation’s own citizens, the award honored Tek’s role as an exceptional interlocutor “in advancing the cultural communication and cooperation between [China and France] as well as his contributions to the development of human society and mankind welfares,” the French consul general would cite in the relatively unfussed bestowal ceremony that evening before pinning the red-ribboned medal to Tek’s suit pocket, putting him in the ranks of Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first post-handover chief executive, and Chen Zhu, molecular biologist and Chinese politician.

Part of what contributed to the French government’s recognition of the philanthropist was Tek’s sponsorship of the “Zeng Fanzhi Solo Exhibition,” one of the artist’s most major surveys that Europe has seen, presented at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2013. When asked by ArtAsiaPacific about why he had decided to support the exhibition, Tek explained that it came down to a personal promise he had made to Zeng when he first acquired the artist’s work. Similarly, his donation of Ding Yi’s Appearance of Crosses 94-11 (1994) to the Centre Pompidou was a “snapchat decision,” to borrow Tek’s term, sparked by his conversation with the Pompidou’s director, Bernard Blistène. Tek reasserted that despite the steel and glass at the revamped airplane hangar, Yuz is not driven by cogs and wheels; instead, its operations are sometimes based on serendipity, and bear undoubtedly human faces—his, mostly. Indeed, Tek was the one to have breathed life into the museum in the first place, and his hand can be seen in every aspect, from the choice of Sou Fujimoto as architect because the simple aesthetics suited his tastes, to its collection of over 1,500 works—including large and notoriously difficult installations to display and maintain—by Xu Bing, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Adel Abdessemed, Camille Henrot and Maurizio Cattelan, which he amassed over the last ten years because no one else did—a logic conceived without the input of any advisors.

Tek’s zealous personality led to Yuz Museum’s presentation of the most comprehensive Giacometti retrospective ever held, which also happened to be the first officially recognized cultural-exchange exhibition orchestrated by Tek. In his speech at the award ceremony, Tek rhetorically asked, “If you can do great, why do just okay?” This sentiment explains the 250 works that commandeered the museum’s entire site during the Giacometti event, escalated from what was supposed to be a modest display of 50 to 100 exhibits. It was a challenge not just for the Yuz museum team, at the time just three months old, but also for Paris-based curator Catherine Grenier, as well as the museum’s hardware, requiring a complete upgrade for all 60 doors. Nevertheless, Tek thought this was a worthy investment for the confidence that it gave his team in being able to handle presentations of such scale and weight, and for the fact that he was setting new and important precedents.

Installation view of ZENG FANZHI’s “Zeng Fanzhi Solo Exhibition” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2013. Courtesy Zeng Fanzhi Studio.

The recognition of his trailblazing spirit in the Officer of the Legion of Honor award had come at a fitting albeit complicated time. After initially trumping doctor’s predictions that he would not live for more than six months with pancreatic cancer, which he was diagnosed with almost two years ago, he was hit again with hard news recently: the cancer was back. Tek describes his current state as being at the “crossroads between life and death.” It is difficult to imagine the mental space one occupies when preparing for one’s own passing. For the owner of a museum and a significant body of artworks—the most important contemporary Chinese collection behind Uli Sigg’s, by Tek’s own estimation—that arrangement must involve substantive deliberation. This time around, Tek has undergone surgery, but has decided to forego chemotherapy, relying instead on traditional Chinese medicine, a robust routine of exercise and a controlled diet, and is devoting his strength to ensuring the longevity of Yuz Museum and its works—a feat, which, when you are as involved as Tek, also requires learning to let go.


DING YIAppearance of Crosses 94-11, 1994, chalk and charcoal on canvas, 140 × 160 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

For the museum, this means potentially changing ownership. Though it is currently not-for-profit, it is owned by a limited company. Going forward, Tek imagines that the institution will run on private and corporate sponsorship, and will be owned by a foundation and governed by a board instead—a vision which pits him against the lack of supportive infrastructure around philanthropy in China. Tek is also willing to explore the alternative avenue of housing some works in another institution’s permanent collection, as long as he has naming rights. The other non-negotiable condition he stipulated to his wife, who is custodian of the collection, is that it must remain in mainland China, “so the heritage stays here.”

Confronted by his own sickness, Tek is not shy about speaking of how pressing the notion of leaving his mark has become: “I asked my friends if they remember their grandfathers’ names. Most of them don’t,” he told me. While at first this would seem to contradict the effects of making a private museum public property, this was Tek’s goal—to build something that will be carried on by others and be greater than him. It is a point of pride for Tek that although the museum was established at a time when he thought the Chinese public was not yet ready, it now proves to be a well-utilized resource, attracting thousands of visitors a month, which the museum plans on further developing with 80 to 90 education programs slated for 2017.

Perhaps nothing speaks of humanity like the desire to live on through the greater collective’s memories. While Tek is no exception to this, he has constructed a tremendous legacy—a narrative for the future—and despite the quickly shifting sands in his world and beyond, he holds fast to the museum and art in general as being “a bright light in a dark corner of the world.” Here’s to the light—may it shine on.

BUDI TEK and ALEX CRUAU, Consul General of France in Shanghai, at the bestowal ceremony for Tek’s Officer of the Legion of Honor award, Shanghai, 2017. Courtesy Yuz Museum, Shanghai. 

Chloe Chu is ArtAsiaPacific’s associate editor.

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