Shanghai Night is a karaoke palace like no other—a lavish five-story complex with chandeliers, marble floors, and wood-paneled rooms for private parties. Visitors are astounded by the opulence, as well as by the young hostesses in white dresses who stand in the hallways with numbers pinned to their sides, waiting in hopes that some rich patron might hire them for the night. It seems crazy that such care would go into an establishment devoted to so pedestrian an entertainment as karaoke. But the most surprising aspect of Shanghai Night is its first-class collection of contemporary art: works by Olafur Eliasson, Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, and Damien Hirst are all housed in display cases throughout the nightclub.
Shanghai Night is the brainchild of Chinese collector Qiao Zhibing, who, in just ten years, has made a name for himself as one of the leading buyers of international contemporary art in China. Now, poised to move beyond the nightclub as exhibition venue, the entrepreneur-collector is opening Tank Shanghai, a combination of art museum and recreation facility built from five empty oil tanks standing on the shores of the Huangpu River. Scheduled to debut in December, the complex, designed by Beijing-based OPEN Architecture, measures some 640,000 square feet, with about 100,000 square feet of exhibition space. It will be the new highlight of the art-rich West Bund Cultural Corridor, a government initiative that already includes the Long Museum and the Yuz Museum; Oriental Dreamworks will also soon open its doors there. Qiao estimates the budget for the project at 100 million RMB, or $15 million, most of it culled from his own resources.
“I started out simply wanting to decorate my clubs, but soon I wanted to increase the quality,” says Qiao, speaking with the assistance of a translator while enjoying tea at an upscale Beijing hotel. Casually but fashionably dressed, the 50-year-old collector, accompanied by his ever-present girlfriend, Tsai Lihsin, speaks openly of his ambitions at the beginning of his enterprise. “So many people visited the clubs, and the collection was a way of showing off my taste. It’s like having a dress code to maintain a high quality as part of the atmosphere.”
Qiao sounded almost offhand when discussing his start as a collector, but in truth he was extraordinarily dedicated to his undertaking. Already a successful entertainment mogul, he went back to school to get a master’s degree in arts administration from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. He connected with artists and curators as he visited museums and artists’ studios throughout the world. In 2006, while attending Art Basel in Switzerland together with Beijing curator Pi Li, he discovered the work of Shanghai artist Zhang Enli at Hauser & Wirth’s booth and made his first serious purchase. Over the next three years, he acquired works by Chinese artists of his own generation, such as Liu Wei and Xu Zhen, both of whom were already beginning to gain international followings with shows at Lehmann Maupin and James Cohan Gallery, respectively.
At the time, it was still rare for a Chinese collector to acquire works from galleries rather than auction houses and rarer still for one to frequent international art fairs. Qiao made his first purchase of a work by an international artist in 2009, when he bought an Antony Gormley sculpture from Continua Gallery in Beijing. “I was looking for sculptures with an immediate emotional impact,” he recalled. Soon after, he began approaching Western art dealers, who were sometimes less than accommodating with this unknown entrepreneur from China. “They would ask questions like, ‘Can you name a few contemporary artists?’ just to see if I knew what I was doing,” Qiao said. Now those same dealers welcome him with open arms and invite him to their homes. Qiao told me that on a recent trip, he went to dinner at David Zwirner’s home, and the dealer’s wife presented him with a bottle of fine Chinese rice wine. “She ran around New York for a day and found the last bottle, just to give it to me,” he said.
When asked how he won over hard-nosed New York dealers, Qiao explained, “My passion touched them. This is also about your taste. If you pick the good-quality works, this would be very helpful. But it is also about long-term persistence. If you go there every year and buy frequently, they will know you are serious.”
As Zwirner himself put it, “I have had many good times together with Qiao Zhibing and Lihsin over the past year, from visits to Shanghai and Hong Kong, as well as hosting them in New York and at Art Basel. I love their youthful energy and entrepreneurial spirit, and I admire their enthusiasm and commitment to collecting.”
Qiao enjoys meeting the artists whose work he collects and often insists on visiting them in their studios before he commits to a purchase. On one such visit, Damien Hirst enlisted Qiao’s help in making a spin painting, allowing him to pour the paints into the machine. Today that work hangs prominently at Shanghai Night. Sometimes artists come to him to see the club for themselves. New York dealer Sean Kelly recalled the night Marina Abramović channeled Marlene Dietrich and posed for a selfie with Tsai Lihsin, directing every detail of the snapshot so that the result would be worthy of being called a work of art. Qiao admitted that, at the beginning, more than a few artists were hesitant to have their works displayed in a nightclub. But now that the venue is famous, he says, with museum directors from the Pompidou to the Serpentine Gallery showing up regularly, artists compete to get into the collection.
“If someone said, ‘I’m going to put my collection in a night club in New York,’ everyone would be aghast,” Kelly said. “But somehow in China, the mere fact that someone like Qiao Zhibing is collecting in such a sophisticated way is an important statement, and the fact that he is exposing it to such a plural audience is actually quite a wonderful thing.”
Shanghai Night may even have turned a number of casual observers into collectors. “Normally, people have the impression that collecting art is like entering very deep water, so they are prudent at the beginning,” Qiao explained. “But I make it look so simple to get good works, they want to join in.” He told the story of one of his friends from Sichuan who had already been friends with a number of artists and curators for several years but hesitated to begin collecting. Then he went to Qiao’s nightclub, and that very night began making phone calls to put works on hold. “It was a life-changing experience,” Qiao recalled.
He is certain that Tank Shanghai will bring his collection to a whole new level. “Up to now,” he said, “I’ve thought of my purchases as a matter of individual taste, but today I am thinking for an institution.” The tank complex, formerly an airport facility, will have five oil tanks turned into multilevel exhibition spaces as well as parkland, restaurants, and bars, a marina by the river, and a heliport. He is already inviting artists to visit the site and propose commissioned projects. Olafur Eliasson, Danh Vo, Theaster Gates, Martin Creed, Anish Kapoor, and Abramović have come to look things over. “First of all, we respect the artists’ own choices,” said Tsai, who is a partner on the project. “We really wouldn’t intervene with their creation except if it is beyond our limits.” One such project—an installation proposed by Kapoor conjoining the roofs of two tanks—proved impractical.
“Contemporary art has opened my mind in ways that have influenced every aspect of my life,” said Qiao. “Many of my friends collect wine or cars, but I have sacrificed all recreational activities for contemporary art.” And it looks as if he will be able to pass his devotion on to the next generation, too. His daughter, who is 20 and studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, often voices her opinion on his selections. By the time she graduates, Tank Shanghai will have opened, and perhaps, as often happens in China, the founder’s child will become the museum’s first curator or director.
Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 128 under the title “From Palace to Tank.”