With a background in modeling and a passion for both art and fashion, the founder of new Beijing museum M WOODS Wanwan Lei is at the vanguard of a wave of twenty-something Chinese art collectors making their mark on the art world.
Frequently found gracing the pages and covers of lifestyle and fashion magazines, Lei has been making her mark on both China’s fashion and art worlds. She recently appeared on the cover of the March 2016 art edition of the Chinese-language Tatler, which featured her with husband and M WOODS co-founder Lin Han on the cover. Her “it girl” status has racked up a massive social media following, with 112,000 followers on her fashion- and art-filled Instagram account.
Lei and Lin, both 28, opened M WOODS in 2014 after Lin bought his first piece in 2013—a Zeng Fanzhi painting purchased at a Sotheby’s auction for US$1 million. The head of a PR firm that works with luxury brands, Lin continued to pursue his newfound art focus and has scooped up more than 300 works since then.
Located in Beijing’s 798 Art District, the museum features a mix of international and Chinese art that hails in large part from the couple’s new collection, as well as a stylish art-focused design shop next door called M Goods. Its latest exhibit, “All Means Are Sacred,” features an eclectic mix of works by artists including Ouyang Chun, Raoul De Keyser, Olafur Eliasson, Charles Harlan, Giorgio Morandi, and Guido van der Werve, as well as Indian Tantric drawings, a Northern Renaissance painting by a follower of Hieronymous Bosch, and ancient Chinese stone carvings.
Jing Daily recently caught up with Lei in Beijing to learn more about her experience opening a new museum in China, her thoughts on the tastes of younger Chinese collectors, and her views on connections between the worlds of art and fashion.
M WOODS has been open since October 2014. Is running a museum what you expected?
When we decided to found the museum, we were aware of what enormous responsibilities were involved, so we were ready to work as hard as we do. However, one thing which has surprised us is how many conversations we have with visitors everyday, which expand our understanding of the work in our collection. We are learning a lot from our audience.
What inspired you to open a museum?
We have both been lucky enough to travel and see what museums can do for cities and their communities, and want to foster the same sense of education, outreach, and pure excitement in Beijing, that exists in museums around the world. We acknowledge that it’s a privilege to collect and we see artists as teachers. Their lessons are best shared rather than kept in private—art is activated by dialogue and discussion.
Your recent exhibition has many pieces from Europe—are you more focused on collecting Chinese or international art at the moment?
We really do our best not to distinguish between Chinese or international artists. The current exhibition is a good representation of our thinking at the moment—there are works by Chinese, European, American, and Indian artists, made across 1,500 years. They are united in the artists’ commitment to going beyond themselves, or expressing universal concerns.
Do you think there are any differences in taste between what younger Chinese art collectors prefer to buy and what the older generation likes?
Not necessarily. There are obvious environmental and political differences in the way kids are being brought up today compared to how generations before which can affect taste, but what we’re interested in at M WOODS is a clarity of thought, which can be detected throughout time—from cave drawings and manuscripts through to modern painting and post-internet art.
In addition to art, you have a background in modeling and fashion. Do you see any similarities between the art and fashion worlds?
Yes of course. Artists and designers are all articulating their feelings about the world we live in. Fashion, like art, can be political, can be spiritual, and can make an individual really think about their physical presence in the world. It’s inevitable that they cross over.
What criteria do you use for selecting pieces?
When we’re looking at art, we are looking for a purity or directness in the artist’s thinking. Most of the works in the collection have a quality that comes through not the head or the hand but through the soul. They are pieces of poetry.
Why did you decide to base M WOODS in Beijing?
Beijing is home for both of us, our family and our lives are here. It just so happens to be an extremely energizing period in Beijing, as the city has developed—physically and technologically—so rapidly. We love the pace of the city, at once very relaxed and hyperactive. It’s such an interesting backdrop for looking at art.
Do you feel that there are more young art collectors in China than elsewhere?
There are more people in China than elsewhere, which must affect the number of collectors!