michael xufu huang and the new generation of art collectors

If the young, globalised and digitally-enabled art world had a poster boy, it would be collector, museum co-founder, and student Michael Xufu Huang.

by Jeppe Ugelvig
06 October 2016, 10:28pm

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At the age of 22, the Chinese it-boy Michael Xufu Huang has positioned himself - dressed in vintage Comme des Garçons - as one of the most important names in the young art world, navigating, seemingly seamlessly, between NYC gallery dinners, Gucci fashion shows in Milan, international research trip with the New Museum, and art history classes for his undergraduate degree at University of Pennsylvania. With a knack for entrepreneurship and everything post-internet, Huang is competing to be the ultimate bridge between the art worlds of China and the West.

But then, competing was always an element in Michael's life, he tells me over lunch, at a under-the-radar New York restaurant: he was sent to boarding school at the age of six, undergoing a highly disciplined education with little focus on the aesthetic. "The parents compete on whose kids would take more classes," he explains, as he sips his matcha tea- "my childhood was so tough, but now I'm used to being independent and taking care of myself."

It was when Michael at 14 relocated from Beijing to London that he realised his passion for contemporary art. Accidentally being placed in an art class for his GSCE, he started conducting research trips to Tate Modern. "It was a very special place for me - I started loving going. Everything is destiny!" The breaking point was a trip to the London institution's satellite museum at St Ives, where a retrospective of the glossy American painter Alex Katz felt particularly arresting. "They were showing his beach series - I just remember thinking this looks so good," he reminisces. He would go on to pursue a university degree at University of Pennsylvania, the Ivy League school located on America's East coast.

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Michael - whose parents are not in art - began collecting, rather unusually, at the age of 16, acquiring a lithograph by colour field painter Helen Frankenthaler he found for sale online. "It was during an art class when my teacher walked past me and said 'oh, that's such a good price,'" he explains - eventually, his parents bought it for him as a birthday present. From then on, one piece led to another - and today, Huang is actively building a collection with the large but far from unlimited funds from his parents. "My parents don't care about art at all," he says, without much remorse. "But I'm a very good child, and I don't spend any money usually. As long as I'm not wasting money on club tables, it's fine. They trust me."

Just as art increasingly finds it habitus in the digital, and specifically, on social media, Michael too boasts an impressive digital presence. With 21,400 followers ("and growing - hopefully!" he laughs) on Instagram, his following consists of a mix of art world professionals, young people, and Chinese fans - tracking his every move from gallery openings, to museum dinners and fashion shows. To Michael, however, it's not just a show-off tool of a desirable lifestyle; it's a way to access and position oneself in an industry that is notoriously impenetrable, hierarchal, and self-concerned. "Without social media young collectors would take years to even be treated well by galleries," he states bluntly. "They think, 'oh, you don't look like you have money,' so they don't come to you." This obvious case of ageism is something he has felt on his own body - "I've been rejected - I'll give them my card, and they will never e-mail me, even after having expressed interest in buying a work."

Despite his exceptionality, Michael belongs to an emerging clique of young collectors, who are globalised, educated, connected, and unconcerned with the hegemonic canons of art history. Along with Insta-celebrity Pari Ehsan and the 24-year old, second-generation Zabludowicz collector Tiffany Zabludowicz - whom Michael refers to as his "art world BFF" - Michael is a particularly strong supporter of emerging new media and post-internet practices at the forefront of technological innovation. He is a long-standing supporter of LA-based Amalia Ulman, whose work blurs the distinctions between fact and fiction through the veneer of the digital, and most recently funded her showcase at the DIS-curated Berlin Biennial and London's Arcadia Missa. "I think I just collect the art that echoes with me the most," he reflects on his taste. "I grew up in the digital age, and I really understand that language. Every generation has their drive - religion, war, the invention of photography - it drives society forward. Now, it just has to be the internet. It's the historical area that we're in."

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Having co-founded M-Woods, one of Beijing's most notable and fastest-growing museums for contemporary art, Michael's relationship to art seems more profound than any impulsive shopping spree. "In China, a lot of museums focus on artists who already have a say -mainly older Chinese artists," he points out - "with M Woods, we want to break some boundaries. We bring artist that we believe are good. No museum in China has the same profile as ours." Minoring in marketing, he sees the entrepreneurial as an integral part of any art-related endeavor, for both museums and artists themselves: "It's important. If you're an artist, and if you want to be good in any way, you have to market yourself." Quite appropriately, then, when he secured a large-scale Andy Warhol exhibition at his museum this summer, including many of the pop artist's iconic screen-tests, his durational video pieces, as well as his Silver Clouds, which levitated in his studio-cum-social hub The Factory for several years. "We are a very young, forward-looking museum, so I thought we should do something edgy with him," Michael explains, as he points to the many precursors of new media art in his work. "He was the most contemporary artist of his time."

When asked about the size of his collection, housed permanently at M Woods, he claims conclusively that "he's lost count" - but the number, he ensures me, is certainly in the hundreds. Intersecting art with marketing, he has great plans for the future, both short- and long-term. "I want to be seen and remembered as a person who really believed in post-internet art it from the beginning, and really helped it grow. I want to pave the way for new technology to art - to make it even more post-internet," he concludes.


Text Jeppe Ugelvig
Photography Jumbo Tsui
Photography assistance Primol Xue @ Jumbo Photography
Shoot at Andy Warhol: Contact Exhibition at M WOODS

art collectors
michael xufu huang
m woods