If Adrian Cheng could have his way, China would be just as adept at manufacturing art and culture as it is with practically every other good imaginable, from Nike trainers to G.I. Joe action figures to iPhones. That’s because the Hong Kong entrepreneur wants to radically democratize culture on Mainland China, making it accessible to the masses in their retail outings with his K11 brand. Founded in 2008, Cheng’s art-commerce platform is comprised of shopping malls infused with exhibitions, a foundation, artist residencies, educational programming and more. “We can basically create a gallery within a high-traffic space,” says Cheng. “So people can come to eat, and at the same time be exposed to and appreciate art.”
In many ways, K11 is like the Rodeo Drive of Shanghai with a hint of Pinacoteca Agnelli, the Renzo Piano-designed gallery that houses masterpieces from the private collection of Giovanni and Marella Agnelli atop Turin’s Lingotto racetrack-turned-mall complex. Practically every luxury label has a retail space at k11—from Burberry to Chloé. At one entrance sits a Dolce & Gabbana, and next to it is a Bally. One wouldn’t immediately realize that on one of its lower floors is an art space that showcased the first Claude Monet exhibition in China in 2014, as well as shows featuring Salvador Dalí, American pop-surrealist Gary Baseman, Finnish artist Kaarina Kaikkonen and rising French-Algerian artist Neïl Beloufa.
“My family doesn’t do art stuff,” says the billionaire Cheng. But he’s always been interested in art. In his adolescence, Cheng trained as a tenor and visited the few art exhibitions that were mounted in Hong Kong, but it wasn’t until he studied in Kyoto that his passion blossomed. “There I gained a deeper understanding of the specificities of Japanese art and culture, its different strands, its development, craftsmanship and the cutting-edge work of contemporary creatives—and how its scene compared to China’s, which at the time was comparatively disjointed.”
A scion of one of China’s most prominent business families, Cheng serves as the executive vice chairman of New World Development. He’s also the executive director of Chow Tai Fook, the real estate/retail/jewelry empire that was once headed up by his late grandfather Cheng Yu-Tung, a jeweler turned entrepreneur who was Hong Kong’s third-richest billionaire at the time of his death last September. Five months prior, Cheng partnered with an Italian investment fund and they purchased a 90 percent stake in Roberto Cavalli.
“When people think about hacking, it’s always negative connotations,” says Cheng, who refers to himself as a hacker of sorts, because in a way, he hacked the traditional retail model of a shopping mall by installing an art institution inside it. With the 2015 opening of the Aïshti Foundation, Tony Salamé’s private museum in his Beirut luxury mall, the model now seems quite prescient. “It’s basically a disruption of the space itself.”
To further disrupt the retail environment, K11 tapped curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist to curate a group show, fittingly titled “Hack Space,” at the Shanghai space last fall. Featuring a mix of both Western artists, like Simon Denny, and Chinese artists like Xu Qu, Cao Fei and Zhai Liang, the show included a desk and banner by Denny that read “Hack Space As Open Source Development Company” in both English and Chinese, Cui’s oil paintings of Chinese construction sites, Xu’s blue and gold rendition of the cover of the classic Chinese religious text, the “I Ching.”
Now, the entrepreneur has plans to build more K11 art spaces across China, in cities like Guangzhou, Beijing, Wuhan, Ningbo, Tianjin and Shenyang, over the next few years. Thanks to Cheng, young Chinese artists are having the opportunity to further their careers because of residencies in China and partnerships between institutions like Paris’ Palais de Tokyo, the New Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“They really want to express themselves and empower them with a voice, and position themselves in the world without any boundaries,” says Cheng. “The model of what a museum is kind of blurry, it could be a kunsthalle, an art space, a private museum, all combined together. My point is that China is interesting, you can create anything. Look at K11.”