First, the facts: Michael Xufu Huang of Beijing is a 22-year-old student at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is pursuing degrees in art history and marketing and is an active brother in the Zeta Psi fraternity. He’s also a co-founder of the nonprofit private art museum M WOODS, located in Beijing’s flowering (and rapidly gentrifying) factory complex-cum-creative center 798 Art District. Since its inception in 2014, M Woods has hosted exhibitions featuring a mix of Chinese and international artists, from giants like Ai Weiwei and Tracey Emin to up-and-comers like Petra Cortrightand Yu Hongli. It’s a self-consciously hip and dynamic museum that reflects the continually evolving Chinese art market, which Huang himself may exemplify. He's young, hungry, luxury-obsessed, and unstoppable.
A collector from age 16, Huang is in good company with the other founders of M Woods, Wanwan Lei and her husband LinHan. Before the museum, Lei modeled for the Chinese painter Liu Ye and ran her own roving exhibition platform in addition to being an active collector and fashion icon. Han made waves in 2013 when, at the ripe old age of 26, he made his first-ever art purchase: a million-dollar Zeng Fanzhi mask painting, selected right off the cover of Sotheby’s 40th anniversary day-sale catalogue. The three have been on a collecting frenzy ever since, and M WOODS (financed by Han with the help of his investor parents) is the early result of their thirst for art and knack for both acquisition and presentation.
In person, Huang is soft-spoken, amiable, and impeccably clothed. A fashion trendsetter like Lei, he has worked as a stylist and regularly turns heads with his distinctive, edgy ensembles that he broadcasts through his popular Instagram feed (where he's invariably seen posing with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Gucci savior Alessandro Michele, or other cultural luminaries). He's also disarmingly earnest, still very much the ambitious college junior—albeit one who is on the New Museum’s International Leadership Council, hobnobs with other precocious collectors like Tiffany Zabludowicz at exclusive art events around the world, and regularly flies off to Beijing or London to close deals and hunt for new talent.
In this interview with Dylan Kerr, conducted in Artspace’s New York office during one of Huang’s weekly trip to the city, the collector opens up about the pros and cons of his young age, his confidence in the lasting impact of Post-Internet art, and his plans to make M WOODS “the MoMA of China.”
Let’s start with the story of M WOODS. How does a 22-year-old find himself co-founding a contemporary art institution?
I’m really good friends with the other founders, and they thought I would bring something new to the museum. My age is younger, so my perspective is younger. They tend to collect works that have been around for longer, moving more and more into sacred or spiritual topics. The current show is really what they’re looking at right now, people like Raoul De Keyser or Giorgio Griffa, all these artists who have passed away and very much deal with spirituality. They like Old Master paintings a lot—they went to TEFAF this year.
What do you bring to the table?
For me, I’m more into what’s happening right now and the artists that are growing with me. Since I’m younger than the other co-founders, I grew up in the computer age. I’m very much into the Post-Internet movement—that’s my focus.
Do you ever find your age to be a liability?
There are pros and cons. In the art world and the business world, I think being young isn’t an advantage, because people think you’re not legit and don’t know anything. When you go to an art fair, no one talks to you because you’re young—they think you’re not going to buy anything.
After you get over that, though, more and more people know you and it becomes an advantage. People see you doing good stuff when you’re young and say you have potential. I feel like everything is about finding your niche—people start to come to you.
How do you see yourselves fitting into China’s museum ecosystem?
I don’t think there is much of an ecosystem in China. The scene is still developing. When you come to New York, you must go see the MoMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the Met, but in Beijing it’s not established yet. When people go to Beijing, they don’t think, “Oh, I have to go check out the museums.” It’s developing, though, and there are definitely more museums now. Our image is the easiest to identify because we’re very young and distinctive.
What’s your vision for M WOODS going forward?
We want to be the MoMA of China—that’s the most straightforward goal. It’s getting better and better, because I think the government policies are becoming more friendly towards nonprofit museums.
China’s current president is very much into cultural events, which helps these initiatives. When he came to the U.S. to visit, he played basketball with high-schoolers, and his wife taught them singing. In his office, he wanted contemporary art rather than old Chinese paintings. I think he realizes that this is an important element in moving from a developing country to a developed country. Culture is the most fundamental part of that transition.
What’s the state of contemporary art in China today? How are museums, collectors, artists, and galleries changing with the times?
In terms of M WOODS, we constantly break our record of how many people visit every day. Seeing art is starting to become a hobby for people, and they’re getting our membership card and coming all year. I think every museum serves a different function now, and there are more and more museums. Before there were reports that said there were so many private museums in China, but there were actually only a handful that actively do public programs, maybe less than 10. Now, in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, there’s a good balance of spaces, and everyone is doing really good shows. I think the system is definitely forming.
I think that many young Chinese artists are great. They’re really strong, and they work in an international way. Chinese collectors are also definitely looking into international art more. That’s why I feel that our program keeps getting stronger. We do a lot of group shows, which are really comprehensive conversations. You can see a lot of good art from the best artists all at once, instead of just solo shows. We have a mix of big Western artists as well as younger ones, and a lot of people come to us to see that.
What’s your family like? How did you get interested in art at such a young age?
My parents are not in the art world, but they are very supportive of my endeavors. I became interested in art from the British secondary education and spending weekends at the Tate. I’ve been collecting since I was 16. Back then, I wasn’t really collecting—it was like one piece a year—but when I went to the U.S., I started to buy more things.
What kinds of art do you personally collect?
I buy a lot of emerging and Post-Internet artists. I feel like the one who’s most talked about in my collection recently is Amalia Ulman. I’m probably the collector who has the most of her Instagram pieces from her “Perfection and Excellence” series. The series is great, and she's very intelligent. I think she knows how to continue this project. She’s not like some artists who do one really good project and stop, and there isn’t going to be a market for it.
What is it about Post-Internet art that attracts you?
Looking at it from an art-historical perspective, I feel like every important generation of art is associated with what was happening in that era. Photography was so important for the beginning of contemporary art, for instance, because it allowed for all kinds of new image formations.
Now, I feel like the Internet is that thing. It’s the medium that’s going to change everything. It’s already changed our lives, and I feel like it’s going to change the focus of art as well. I think Post-Internet art is the most direct response to these changes. I also really connect with it personally, because I live with all of this technology.
Post-Internet art is something certain writers and commentators love to hate—what do you say to would-be detractors?
I feel like people sometimes write things to get attention, not because of what they actually think. I think people definitely realize Post-Internet art is going to be here for a long time, but if you shit on something people are definitely going to click on it more. I know so many really good curators who are focusing on it—even Hans Ulrich is into Post-Internet art. He’s lived for so long and has seen so many movements that I think he definitely has the eye to spot the next big thing.
Turning to slightly more personal topics, what are you studying at Penn?
I’m doing art history and marketing.
Do you think of these topics as helping you in your work at M WOODS?
Yeah. I feel marketing is more common-sense, but it’s good to make that common sense very clear in an academic way. I feel it’s a good balance—I have the art, I have the commercial stuff. Art history majors do a bit of everything, but I definitely take more contemporary and postwar classes.
How do you balance your student life with that of a globetrotting art world figure?
I feel I really had my time at Penn freshman year and the beginning of sophomore year. I was in a frat, I went to all the parties. Now I am much more focused on the museum and my activities in the art world. I don’t go back to Beijing every week—that would be crazy—but I come to New York pretty much every weekend because there’s so much going on and there’s a lot of things I’m involved with here. I probably go back to China five times a year, and I’ll be there most of the summer. I also have to go to London and other places in Europe sometimes—it depends.
Can you tell me more about your fraternity? What drew you to Greek life?
At Penn, Greek life is very important if you want to meet people, which I love to do. A fraternity is a very good place to link with people who are similar to you.
What are some of the other projects you’re working on?
I’m involved with the New Museum, so I go to a lot of their events. I’m talking to people about other things, but I can’t say anything about it yet. I’m working on projects now because I’m graduating in a year and a half. I want to have other things on my plate when I get out.