We met Qiu Xichun and Tang Xin at the company’s head-office near Fuxingmen, Beijing. The differing appearance and manner of these two gives a true impression of the double-life of this extraordinary and an experimental contemporary art space. Taikang has been collecting art since the 1990s; on August 20, it will open “Image/History/Existence: A Celebration of the 15th Anniversary of the Taikang Art Collection.” This will be the first time Taikang have ever shown their art collection to the public.

LEAP: Why has Taikang chosen this particular moment in time to show its collection?

Qiu Xichun: This is the first major exhibition we’ve held since we began collecting contemporary art; up to now we’ve been outsiders. We want to show our collection, to introduce our essential concepts and ideals. Doing it at the National Art Museum of China is a pretty big deal, as in the past we’ve held comparatively low-key exhibitions at Taikang Space. This will be the first time we announce to the public that we have these ideas, and plan to be involved in such things.

LEAP: How is the Taikang Collection arranged and managed?

TANG XIN: The Taikang Collection started quite a while ago, but I’ve been here since 2003. I specialize in contemporary art, and since I took over both the collection and our exhibitions have focused quite specifically on “contemporary” things. But for us the current exhibition is one stage of a wider research process. It has offered a chance to understand how our own collection fits into certain trends and movements in Chinese art history. The collection begins with 1942, the year in which Mao Zedong held the “Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art,” the speeches that defined the path and direction of Chinese culture and art. What we normally refer to as “contemporary” is actually post-1970s, the period after the Cultural Revolution when experimental art practice truly began: experiments in medium, technology, concept. With these classifications in mind, we’ve proceeded to collect works from various periods, which all express various different ideas about art.

QXC: We only collect modern and contemporary work, anything outside of this timeframe would complicate things, wouldn’t fit with our future plan to open an art museum. So we’ve chosen to invest in this way.

LEAP: What did you buy at the Ullens sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong?

QXC: We did a lot of preparation and research for the Ullens auction, but didn’t end up buying that much. We judged every single piece of work based on two factors: the first was aesthetics, and the second on comparisons to other pieces of similar current market value. But things didn’t quite work out, so there’s not much more to say about it.

TX: In the end we bought four pieces, two of which will be featured in this exhibition. Best to wait till the exhibition to see what they are.

LEAP: So Taikang also has plans to open an art museum?

TX: As it stands, we don’t know exactly when we will open an art museum. But over the last four years, first from our space in 798, and now in Caochangdi, we’ve been researching the idea. Over the past few years private art museums have been springing up all over China, we’ve noticed major contrasts between these and similar establishments abroad. Taikang Space currently acts as an observer: we go abroad and assess the standards of various art museums. If it was as simple as buying a building and hanging a sign above the door, then we would have done it a while ago. We want a space that people regard as a true art museum. This doesn’t imply a great army of curators, or a vast, expensive collection; it’s more about people in the field regarding you as professionals who know what they’re doing. Right now we’re still in the planning stages.

LEAP: What about other private art museums, like Minsheng Art Museum? What are your thoughts on them?

TX: I think they’ve got their strong points. They haven’t been around for as long as we have, but have already gone a lot further. They have a museum in Shanghai, soon they’ll have one in Beijing too. They’ve perhaps been a little more populist. However, it must be said that we have a different way of working. First we buy things, and those things then belong to Taikang. Then we begin a separate process of organizing it within the collection. This includes holding exhibitions and collaborating with different institutions. This is quite similar to the way in which a lot of foreign museums operate.

LEAP: How did you decide on your current format of a small gallery space, focusing on young artists? Do you plan to show the work of any of these young artists at the upcoming exhibition?

TX: This question also gets to the unique culture of the company. When enterprises like Taikang want to do something, they need a thorough understanding of what it entails. Over the years, they’ve seen how we operate, and approve. Currently, they play no major part in our affairs or professional decisions. We’re quite lucky in this sense, as it’s often difficult to get this far. In terms of the collection, buying work by young artists is quite a big risk. But then again, which contemporary artists today aren’t young? We’ve gradually become the kind of organization that follows young artists, and thus our exhibition will focus on both the past and the future.

QXC: When Taikang Space first opened, we never officially announced its affiliation to the company. The space is a small enterprise, with little connection to the insurance business or its customers; this is the intention of our chairman, Chen Dongsheng. I think Tang Xin and he share the same ideals, the same belief in the necessity of supporting the arts. Taikang Space has developed quickly over the last two or three years, consistently putting on exhibitions.

LEAP: What’s the link between Taikang Ltd. and China Guardian Auctions Ltd.?

QXC: Guardian Auctions was started by Taikang chairman Chen Dongsheng, it’s an old and prestigious company, and has lots of artworks. Taikang is one of its shareholders, so it’s that much closer. But the two companies are completely independent of each other.

Translated from Chinese / Translation: Dominik Salter Dvorak