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Young & Restless: Collector Michael Xufu Huang Has Grown Up Fast in a Changing Art World

Michael Xufu Huang, photographed on June 15, 2017, at the New Museum.

KATHERINE MCMAHON

On first meeting Chinese collector Michael Xufu Huang, one is struck by his fashion sense—colorful, quirky, debonair—and, given his stature in the art world, his youth. At 23, he has just completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and while that might be a fine accomplishment for most people his age, Huang has also surpassed the goal of many a seasoned collector. In 2014, when just 20, he cofounded a museum in Beijing, M WOODS, that has garnered praise for exhibitions of international artists, including a knockout Andy Warhol show devoted to films, photography, and interactive installations, and a survey of sacred art ranging from Giorgio Morandi and Egon Schiele to Indian Tantric drawings and ancient Chinese stone carvings.

This summer, the museum offered a glimpse into Huang’s own collection with “Heart of the Tin Man,” a survey, on view into October, of emerging and established artists influenced by post-internet culture. In contrast to many exhibitions in China that feature artworks primarily by native artists, this one includes only three: aaajiao (the so-named virtual persona of digital artist Xu Wenkai), Liu Wa, and Yangzi. The rest of the artists enlisted—Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Ryan Gander, Yngve Holen, Institute for New Feeling, Austin Lee, Sean Raspet, Pamela Rosenkranz, Amalia Ulman, and Gillian Wearing—come from different parts of the globe and reflect the young collector’s expansive taste and dedication to work that investigates the impact of technology on his millennial generation.

A museumgoer engages with Ryan Gander’s Dominae Illud Opus Populare, 2016.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND M WOODS

“The internet and technology are my passion,” Huang said, noting that online interconnectedness helps explain the international interests he shares with his youthful peers in China. “I think that every generation has something that is prominent—for the Renaissance, there’s religion, and for Impressionism, there’s the invention of the camera. Nowadays, everything is technology and the internet.”

Huang’s interests at a young age caught the attention of the New Museum in New York, on whose International Leadership Council he served for two years before being named the youngest member of the institution’s board of directors. “Everywhere I go in the world, I run into Michael participating in panels and professional art events,” said Lisa Phillips, the New Museum director. “Somehow he [was] able to handle his class work while running a museum in Beijing—it’s phenomenal.” Huang is the museum’s first board member from Asia but, more important, Phillips said, “he represents the millennial generation that really is our core constituency.”

For Huang, the match was natural, given the New Museum’s commitment to digital art initiatives, including the publishing and artist-project hub Rhizome and its Seven on Seven conference, which couples artists with enterprising technological thinkers. And Lauren Cornell, a specialist in the field who recently left the New Museum to direct the curatorial program and museum at Bard College in upstate New York, contributed an essay to the catalogue for the “Heart of the Tin Man” exhibition.

Lu Yang, Delusional Hearse (still), 2015.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND M WOODS

With his knowledge of the newest names in contemporary art and his constant travel, Huang is a singular character but also an exemplary representative of a new generation of Chinese collectors who are more global in their approach to visiting art fairs and diversifying their collections to include international work. Born in Chongqing, in southwest China, in 1994, Huang grew up in Beijing. Neither of his parents—his mother, highly successful in the pharmaceutical industry, and his father, a lawyer specializing in finance—was particularly interested in art, but Huang grew curious early on his own, while a teenager at a boarding school in London.

“The Tate is really where everything started,” he said, “because they have such great retrospective exhibitions for artists.” He recalled one exhibition in particular, a show of beach paintings by Alex Katz presented at Tate St. Ives. “You could see the sea through the windows,” he said, “and I really felt connected with the work. That is where I grew my passion for art.”
Ironically, it was also in London that he first came to appreciate developments in Chinese contemporary art, by way of a visit to “Art of Change: New Directions from China” at the Hayward Gallery in 2012. Though he was aware of such Chinese painters as Zhang Xiaogang and Zeng Fanzhi, the formative show was his first exposure to contemporary installation and performance artists including Chen Zhen, Yingmei Duan, Gu Dexin, Liang Shaoji, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Wang Jianwei, Xu Zhen, and MadeIn Company.

Michael Xufu Huang with Austin Lee’s Falling Cat, 2016.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND M WOODS

Huang’s first acquisition was a lithograph by Color Field artist Helen Frankenthaler, a gift from his parents in 2010 when he was 16 years old. “I was a good boy and I never spent much money,” he said. “My parents never really gave me anything for birthdays or Christmas or holidays, so I asked if I can get this for a birthday present.” The work cost less than $5,000.

His collecting scaled up and took off after he moved to Philadelphia in 2013 to begin his studies in art history at Penn. He threw himself into the gallery scene in nearby New York and started attending fairs like the Armory Show, Independent, and the ADAA Art Show. “The more choice you have, the more you want to spend,” Huang said, noting that he started slowly before developing his current focus on emerging artists. “It excites me that I can grow with them, and I like to help them as I collect them.”

Today, Huang’s collection totals approximately 150 works by, as he is quick to point out, mainly young or emerging artists rather than established blue-chip names. He is a major fan of Amalia Ulman, who shows with the James Fuentes gallery and has created a kind of Cindy Sherman–inspired performance practice on Instagram, and of Yuji Agematsu, a recently ascendant New York–based artist who makes miniature sculptures from debris he finds on the street. Among his favorite young Chinese artists are Yan Xing, whose recent solo show, “Dangerous Afternoon,” mixed conceptual art with an erotically charged backstory at Kunsthalle Basel, and Song Ta, an installation artist whose pseudoscientific surveys have critiqued Chinese society in such settings as the gallery Beijing Commune.

Unlike Chinese collectors who favor formidable shops with established names, Huang frequents adventurous galleries like JTT on the Lower East Side in New York, Société in Berlin, and Arcadia Missa in London. Jasmin Tsou of JTT met Huang when he was just a sophomore in college and found him easy to engage. “He would come and talk to me for long periods of time,” she said. “He was clearly very educated, so it was easy to fall into talking in depth. He always had a finger on the pulse in terms of relating things in my gallery to other pieces he had seen in different countries.” Among his acquisitions, Tsou said, was a photograph by Anna-Sophie Berger as well as work by Diane Simpson and Glen Fogel.

Installation view of Amalia Ulman’s Excellences & Perfections, 2014, at M WOODS.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND M WOODS

“At the beginning, it was hard because people don’t necessarily take you seriously,” Huang said. “But when you start to have a name and are more known, people will respect you.” Extra respect can be earned in certain quarters when, like Huang, a collector makes a name not by spending a fortune at auctions but rather by supporting young post-internet artists whose work can be brainy, ephemeral, and challenging to maintain.

Moving from student housing in Philadelphia to an apartment in Gramercy Park in New York, Huang has not yet made a home that serves as a showplace for his collection. Fortunately, he has a museum to do that for him. M WOODS was established in the 798 Art District of Beijing with two partners, the collector couple Wanwan Lei and Lin Han, both also under 30.

“We all thought it would be beneficial to have three founders—they say the triangle is the most stable structure,” said Lei, who met Huang when he was still a teenager in New York. She had worked as an intern at David Zwirner gallery and graduated from the arts administration program at Columbia University before staging pop-up exhibitions around the city. For his part, Lin is a second-generation millionaire son of financial-investor parents who runs a public relations firm serving such luxury brands as BMW, Mini Cooper, and TAG Heuer.

Unlike Huang, the couple is based in Beijing, and their collection comprises more than 300 artworks, ranging from Old Masters and ancient Buddhist statues to works by Chinese artists and recent purchases of works by painter Cristof Yvoré and photographer Dirk Braeckman. “Michael’s ideas are different than ours but never in opposition,” Lei said. “I think we learn a lot from each other, and it’s been helpful to have eyes in New York, to report back and promote M WOODS.”

The exterior of M WOODS in Beijing.

COURTESY M WOODS

Since its opening three years ago, the institution has filled a new role in Beijing, a city with many galleries but a dearth of contemporary art museums, especially ones with the kind of rigorous educational programs that M WOODS provides. The museum presents gallery talks and film series to accompany shows, as well as free days for children, students, and working artists. “We decided to do the museum because we felt there is a need in China,” said Huang. “I wouldn’t be where I am right now without the museums in London.” While galleries have their place, he said, museums fulfill an educational function lacking in the marketplace—and a primary goal of M WOODS is to educate its audience. “Eighty percent of our audience is young people,” he said. “They are the future of the Chinese art world.”

After the “Heart of the Tin Man” show, the museum is planning two upcoming exhibitions: a total environment by young Chinese artist Lu Yang, who makes 3-D animations that blur distinctions between neuroscience and spirituality, and a retrospective of works by California artist Paul McCarthy.

The wide range is evidence of education but a unique vision too. “I don’t know why he was in school—he could do what he was going to do without school,” said Kenneth Goldsmith, the conceptual poet and artist who taught Huang in three university courses, including one notoriously named “Wasting Time on the Internet.” “Michael was buzzing around the world being Michael, but when he dropped into class, his insights were amazing. He would just come in and sprinkle fairy dust everywhere. Everyone would be under the spell of Michael’s fabulousness.” That fabulousness has a modest side as well. “I once ran into him on the $8 bus from New York,” Goldsmith recalled, noting that it was Huang’s style not to need a limousine to get him where he needed to go.

With his youth intact and his future wide open, Huang said he plans to continue dividing his time between New York and Beijing. He may find himself working in venture capital, he said—there are start-ups he wants to explore. But he would prefer to avoid a corporate environment. “Since I am young, I can afford to make mistakes,” he said. “I want to try things out for myself first.”

Asked about the source of his confidence, he said, “I think it comes from the art world. When I was young, I was shy. But now that people don’t think of me as just a kid, they respect what I do.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 94 under the title “Young & Restless.”

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