Cover William and Lavina Lim in their loft-style space in Wong Chuk Hang, with some of the 90 artworks they have donated to M+ (Photo: Mike Pickles for Tatler Hong Kong)

William and Lavina Lim spent more than a decade building the world’s largest private collection of art from Hong Kong—now they’re sharing it with the world

In 2003, as the Sars epidemic plunged Hong Kong into a deep depression, William and Lavina Lim found respite in contemporary art. Back then, the Lims were occasional collectors of Chinese antiques, but they became fascinated with young artists’ responses to the times. Over the next few years, they bought hundreds of paintings, sculptures and installations.

Now, as another virus has turned the world upside down, the Lims are giving much of that art away. “We always felt that these works should belong to a museum and that they should be seen by the public,” says William, who is the founder of CL3 Architects and also an artist. Lavina is an interior designer who gravitated towards corporate projects and has extensive experience in the finance sector. “Now felt like the right time.”

The Lims are donating 90 pieces from their holdings, which they call the Living Collection, to M+, the contemporary art and design museum scheduled to open in late 2021 at the West Kowloon Cultural District. Measuring in at nearly 700,000 sq ft, the Herzog & de Meuron-designed M+ will be one of the largest art museums in the world and is already being compared to London’s Tate Modern and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “I really hope M+ will be a place to put children and the general public in closer touch with art,” says William. “I love it when you’re in a museum that feels welcoming and not intimidating, when people are sitting on the ground, people are sketching, people are talking about art. That’s what we hope M+ will be.”

See also: Art Collectors William And Lavina Lim Donate Nearly 100 Artworks To M+ In Hong Kong

Doryun Chong, chief curator of M+, is delighted at the Lims’ donation. “The Living Collection is widely regarded as the most significant private collection of contemporary Hong Kong art, and this donation includes works by 26 Hong Kong artists from the last two decades, more than 20 of whom are now represented in the M+ Collections for the first time,” says Chong. “The donation of these works supports M+’s ambition to transform Hong Kong’s cultural landscape.”

When the Lims began collecting, international interest in art from mainland China was booming, with museums and collectors clamouring to buy pieces by the country’s leading artists. But the couple was dismayed that this enthusiasm did not extend to artists from Hong Kong. “We felt Hong Kong artists needed support,” says William.

In the years since, while the Lims have been avidly collecting, Hong Kong’s star has risen. In 2008, the annual Art HK fair was launched, which brought international collectors, curators and critics to the city. In 2013, that fair was rebranded as Art Basel in Hong Kong, giving it an even greater international profile. The following year, construction began on M+. Today, there is a buzzing local art scene, with a handful of galleries supporting local talents. And internationally, Hong Kong art has never been in greater demand: artists such as Samson Young, Lee Kit and Tsang Kin-wah, all of whom were supported by the Lims in the early stages of their careers, have had their work exhibited at leading global museums.

See also: 10 Must-See Art Exhibitions In Hong Kong In February 2021

The Lims’ collection documents Hong Kong’s transformation from an artistic backwater to a global art hub, but their collecting also led this change. Some of the city’s biggest stars got their break thanks to the Lims: they were early collectors of pieces by gongbi ink painter Wilson Shieh, and they bought graphite drawings by Ho Sin-tung at a university exhibition before she had even graduated. The couple also advocated for Hong Kong art through their work with institutions. Both are long-term patrons of Asia Art Archive, which documents art history in the region, and Para Site, Hong Kong’s oldest contemporary art centre. William is also on Tate’s Asia-Pacific acquisition committee, advising the British museum on what to buy from the region. 

William has given countless talks about collecting and, in 2014, German publisher Hatje Cantz published a coffee table book, The No Colors, documenting the Living Collection. All of these activities have played a major role in putting Hong Kong art on the international stage, with the Lims in effect serving as ambassadors for the city as they went on to meet and acquire works by artists abroad.

“I think there is a dialogue between art from Hong Kong and art from the rest of the world,” says William. The couple’s donation to M+ includes pieces by South Korean installation artist Lee Bul, American conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner and Spanish bamboo sculptor Laurent Martin ‘Lo’, whose work is inspired by Hong Kong’s traditional junk boats. “Even with the international artists, sometimes there is a Hong Kong link,” says William.

Ultimately, the Lims most enjoy building friendships through art. “We love visiting artists’ studios, talking to them about their views and how they come up with their artworks,” says Lavina.

Before M+ picked them up, the 90 donated works were installed in a sprawling exhibition space in a former industrial building in Wong Chuk Hang, where the couple regularly invited art lovers to tour the Living Collection. The Lims decorated the space to look like a loft apartment and hosted open-house sessions, often for students, who they always advised to get up close and personal with the pieces. “Art is something to live with and not something to put on a pedestal,” says Lavina. “We actually don’t feel that our artworks need to be very pristine or that you need to wear gloves to handle them. It’s just part of normal daily life.”

The Wong Chuk Hang space also became a must-see for cultural dignitaries visiting Hong Kong. The late architect Zaha Hadid and Frances Morris, director of London’s Tate Modern, are just two of the big names to have been.

Although they have loved the pieces for years, the Lims are not sad at the thought of handing them over to M+. “I don’t think we’re saying goodbye to them—I think they’re in a better home. It’s like your child marrying into a great family,” says William, laughing. Lavina agrees. “And like when your child marries into a new family, you don’t just leave them alone—we’ll go to M+ and visit them,” she says.

Look at their own sons, both of whom followed in their parents’ footsteps to become designers in Hong Kong. Their eldest, Kevin, is an architect and chef, who runs his own design studio, OpenUU, with his wife, Caroline Chou. Vincent, their younger son, also runs his own studio, Lim + Lu, with his wife, Elaine Lu.

And, the Lims say, the Living Collection will go on living. “We will keep collecting. A new generation of artists is rising up,” says Lavina. “William and I will keep an eye on them and support them.”

Adds William: “That’s why it’s the Living Collection—as long as we’re living and we have the means to support artists, we will.”

See also: 10 Things To Look Forward To In 2021: From Tokyo Olympics To Art Basel Hong Kong

In Focus: A close-up look at some of the pieces heading to M+

The Huge Mountain (2011) by Lam Tung-pang and 54:10: Artist’s table (2011) by William Lim

The Lims have been fans of Hong Kong painter Lam Tung-pang for years. This piece, The Huge Mountain, is one of the largest works in their donation to M+— it’s more than five metres long. “I’ve always liked how his work crosses between  Chinese classical painting and contemporary art,” says William. “We bought this work from Hanart TZ Gallery, I think in 2012. One thing that really struck me was that there was a moon on the top of the mountain. I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought that moon was very beautiful.”

In the couple’s Wong Chuk Hang space, Lam’s painting was exhibited next to a work by William himself. Titled 54:10: Artist’s table, the installation features single-use plastic bottles and other utensils placed on a dining table covered in paintings of those same objects. “I think there’s something philosophically interesting about objects that are made to be discarded,” says William.

Sculpture W2-2 (2010) by Lee Bul

“I went with Asia Art Archive on a tour to South Korea and I saw Lee Bul’s work in a gallery there,” says William. “Unfortunately, that work was huge—it was three metres long and it was very delicate, so it couldn’t be shipped to Hong Kong. Then I saw her work at Lehmann Maupin in New York, where I got this sculpture. To me, it’s very interesting how her practice crosses between art and architecture—her practice involves our profession.”

The couple have since spent time with Lee at exhibitions around the world. “We met her when she had an exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in Hong Kong, we met her in Seoul and again at the Venice Biennale, actually at an M+ event,” says Lavina.

Thin Veiled World—V for Vegetable (2014-15) by Ho Sin-tung

Ho Sin-tung was still a student when the Lims fell in love with her work. “We saw her work in a group show, a university group show,” says William. “I’ve always felt that she has a lot of patience and gives a lot of time to her work—her pieces are always meticulously rendered. This particular piece was part of the Sovereign Art Foundation annual exhibition—I thought it was very beautiful.”

Skating (Ice-crack Glaze) (2006) by Wilson Shieh

“This is one of the first pieces we bought from a Hong Kong artist,” says Lavina, who particularly likes the way Wilson Shieh uses figures that look like cut-out paper dolls in his art. “His work is very local. When we were children, we’d play with paper cut-out dolls and their outfits.”

William adds: “I think we got this work from Grotto Fine Arts. Wilson has a unique way of crossing a very traditional Chinese medium, gongbi painting, with contemporary life—things you see every day in Hong Kong. He has really been very successful at promoting Hong Kong culture to his collectors through his paintings. There’s also a certain humour to his work and, most importantly, his technique is flawless.”

The Lonely Island (2013) by Tang Kwok-hin

A photo of this piece by artist, writer and curator Tang Kowk-hin was used as the cover image for the Lims’ book on their collection, The No Colors. “We bought this at Art Basel, I think from AM Space,” says William.

Tang often uses found everyday objects in his installations. This classroom desk-and-chair set reminded Tang of his early school days, so he paired it with two other objects from his childhood: a compass and a copy of R M Ballantyne’s novel The Lonely Island. The work can be read as a reflection on childhood innocence, authority and the rules that govern society.

“An interesting story about Tang Kwok-hin is that he grew up in Kam Tin Village [a walled village in rural Hong Kong],” says Lavina. “He did not come to Hong Kong Island until he was 18 years old. He never travelled out of that village.”

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