Budi Tek, 65, Dies; His Fortune Built a Vast Trove of Asian Art

Budi Tek, a Chinese-Indonesian billionaire who in the 2000s emerged almost overnight as one of the world’s leading art collectors, and who later founded one of China’s largest private museums, died on March 18 in Hong Kong. He was 65.

His family said in a statement that the cause was pancreatic cancer.

Mr. Tek’s enthusiasm, matched with his deeply held commitment to sharing his portfolio with the public, helped create an institutional infrastructure for East Asian contemporary art, a field that had almost no visibility outside the region when he began collecting but that today ranks as one of the world’s most exciting.

His collection includes work by globally renowned Chinese artists like Ai Weiwei, Zhang Xiaogang and the team of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, as well as that of European artists like Anselm Kiefer of Germany, Alberto Giacometti of Switzerland and Maurizio Cattelan of Italy. Both Art & Auction magazine and ARTNews regularly included him on their lists of the world’s top buyers.

Mr. Tek came to art relatively late in life, after making his fortune in poultry processing. Already a small-time collector of traditional Indonesian handicrafts, he took up contemporary work in 2004 at the suggestion of a friend.

He began with 20th-century Indonesian painters, but soon turned his focus to Chinese artists, and especially work from the early 1980s through the late ’90s, a period of cultural efflorescence after the death of Mao Zedong.

“His collection was at least one of two or three major collections of contemporary Chinese art around the world,” said Hung Wu, a professor of art at the University of Chicago and an adviser to Mr. Tek.

Mr. Tek also specialized in what he called mega-art: One of his favorite pieces, Adel Abdessemed’s “Telle Mere, Tel Fils” (“Like Mother, Like Son”), consists of three full-scale airplanes extended and intertwined.

Mr. Tek’s Yuz Museum in Shanghai. Occupying part of an old airfield, it provides 97,000 square feet of exhibition space. Credit…Top, Qilai Shen for The New York Times; bottom, Yue WU for The New York Times

Mr. Tek’s emergence as a major collector coincided with a new phase in East Asian art. In many countries, governments did little to support contemporary artists, and galleries, art fairs and educational venues were few. But over the following decade, hundreds of institutions began to emerge in places like Jakarta, Shanghai and Singapore, a reflection of both the quality of the art being made in the region and the emergence of culturally attuned, deep-pocketed collectors like Mr. Tek.

Unlike many of those collectors, however, he always insisted that he had a civic obligation to display his art. After a few years showing his pieces in a Jakarta cafe, in 2007 he opened the Yuz Museum nearby, making admission free of charge.

Even that wasn’t enough. As his collection of works from China grew, he zeroed in on an emerging art district in Shanghai, along the Huangpo River, for an even larger venue. He settled on a portion of an old airfield, and in 2014 opened his second Yuz Museum. (He later closed the Jakarta location.)

At nearly 97,000 square feet, the Yuz is one of the largest art museums in China, with vast open rooms where he can show his mega-art — the main hall, built from a former hangar, offers 32,300 square feet of exhibition space. A work by Mr. Cattelan, a live olive tree growing out of a cube called “Untitled,” greets visitors at the entrance.

The Yuz was just one of hundreds of museums to open in China over the last decade, a corollary of sorts to the country’s rapid and some say unsustainable real estate boom. But unlike many of those institutions, which operate mostly as exhibition space for traveling shows (and these days are often empty), the Yuz is always full, being built on Mr. Tek’s immense personal collection. It has also leveraged his connections with other collectors and institutions around the world to mount frequent blockbuster exhibitions, including solo shows of work by Andy Warhol and Giacometti.

Mr. Tek aspired to see the Yuz become a Chinese analog to American museums like the Frick, the Guggenheim and the Getty, public-facing institutions built on the strength of a single person’s vast personal holdings, and which remain culturally relevant long after their founders’ deaths.

He announced a partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2018, which would create a joint-venture foundation to oversee the bulk of his collection while giving the Yuz access to that American museum’s extensive holdings.

He also lobbied for changes in Chinese law that would allow him to convert the Yuz from a privately owned venture to an independently run nonprofit.

“To make a statement to the world that we are a serious museum, we want to do very exciting programs,” Mr. Tek told The New York Times in 2015. “Museums are not for ants, birds — they’re for people to come, as many people as you can.”

Budiardjo Tek was born on Oct. 27, 1957, in Jakarta, Indonesia, and raised in Singapore. He studied in Singapore and in the United States, and returned to Indonesia in 1984 to join his family’s poultry business, Sierad Produce.

He turned what was already a successful operation into a regional powerhouse, providing farmers with equipment and fertilizer, then processing and selling their products to East Asia’s rapidly expanding fast-food sector. He sold his stake in the company in 2015.

His survivors include his wife, Michelle Tek, and his daughter, Justine Alexandria.

Mr. Tek was diagnosed with advanced-stage pancreatic cancer just days before the Giacometti show opened in 2015.

The news gave an added impetus to his efforts to put the Yuz on a sustainable, independent footing and to elevate it to world-class status.

“My life is going to be ending — everybody’s life is ending — but the artworks will have a much longer life span than us, because they recorded history,” he told ARTNews in 2019. “It’s very special for me to be the keeper of this history.”

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