Home Arts In memory of Myriam Ullens, art collector and philanthropist, who launched the first museum of contemporary art in China

In memory of Myriam Ullens, art collector and philanthropist, who launched the first museum of contemporary art in China

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Myriam Ullens, a fervent supporter and champion of contemporary Chinese art, began her career by founding a baking company and then, through her marriage to Belgian billionaire Guy Ullens, became an art collector, fashion entrepreneur and philanthropist.

Her life came to a violent end when she was shot dead by her stepson Nicolas Ullens at her family home in Ohain, a village in the province of Walloon Brabant in central Belgium. Guy Ullens, 88, was sitting next to his wife in their car when she was shot and also suffered a leg injury. Nicolas Ullens, a former Belgian intelligence officer, said he killed his stepmother because he feared she was wasting the family fortune. He was charged with murder.

Myriam Ullens supported her husband in a pioneering project to build the first museum of contemporary art in China, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, which opened in Beijing in 2007. The couple also created a school and an educational foundation in Nepal. After surviving breast cancer, Myriam, who went by the name Mimi, created the Mimi Foundation to offer support to cancer victims. In 2011, she created a high-end travel and leisure clothing brand, Maison Ullens, with boutiques in Paris, New York and Aspen. “It was a couple who supported each other’s passions,” says Jérôme Neutres, chief curator of the Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation.

She was born Myriam Lechien, in Cologne, the daughter of a Belgian army officer. She met Guy Ullens, her third husband, in the early 1990s shortly after he sold the family sugar refining business, Tiense Suikerraffinaderij, for around $1 billion.

A mother of two young children, she was looking for donors to develop the pastry business she had started in her own kitchen and which was taking over her house. “There were cakes everywhere,” she said in a TV interview. “Even on the stairs.” Needing new premises, she approached Ullens as a potential funder. “It was love at first sight! For the first time in my life,” she said in a 2014 interview with Madame Figaro. “He’s a visionary, he’s always so far ahead of the rest.”

After Guy divorced his first wife, they married in 1999. Myriam gave up her baking business and Guy, whose company had acquired Weight Watchers for $735 million that year, went out of business in 2000 so that both of them could concentrate on their philanthropic projects. In the early years of their marriage, this involved frequent trips to China.

Guy Ullens began collecting art in the 1960s, choosing to focus on undiscovered areas. He turned to Chinese art in the 1990s, “when no one was paying attention to it,” says Neutres. “The artists had been freed, but were working for the state that had freed them, and they found themselves without clients,” Ullens said in an interview with the Asian Art Journal in 2018. “We supported them and started collecting paintings. We were driven by pure enthusiasm!

The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art has become the center of the Chinese contemporary art world at its location in Beijing’s 798 Art Zone, a former military-industrial complex. Nevertheless, setting it up was “very demanding”, said Guy Ullens. “At one point my wife, who had to temporarily continue the project on her own while I was recovering from surgery, told me she couldn’t continue,” he said. Myriam was still receiving treatment for breast cancer at this stage. “She suggested we quit, but I begged her to reconsider. Finally, in 2007, we managed to open the museum.

The couple sold UCCA in 2017, but remained on the board of the foundation. It has since flourished and grown. Philip Tinari, its current director, says one of its legacies was to inspire dozens of other private museums, created by Chinese collectors. While Guy was the driving force behind the art collection, Myriam was “very precise in her tastes and standards,” Tinari said. “She focused on transforming UCCA into a welcoming place – hospitality, branding and marketing were her focus areas.”

If Guy Ullens was the driving force behind UCCA, it was Myriam who first got involved in caring for children in Nepal. She took over an orphanage there in the early 1990s and renamed it Happy Home, according to Som Paneru, who became the director in 1996. About 100 children, many removed from the streets and prisons, grew up in Happy Home and were educated in private schools before it closed in 2014.

“She had a lot of kindness and she couldn’t bear to see children suffer,” Paneru says. “Every time Mimi came there was a festival – she showered them with love, pampered them and took them shopping at Benetton.”

After 2000, Guy accompanied her on visits to Nepal and together they established Ullens School, the first school in the country to offer an International Baccalaureate program. It was initially created to educate the children of the orphanage, many of whom became business professionals, civil servants or teachers, explains Paneru. “It transformed their lives. Otherwise, these children had no future, no hope,” he says. Although it is now an established educational institution, one-fifth of students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and benefit from scholarships, according to Paneru.

Myriam Ullens hosted an auction gala dinner at Sotheby’s during Frieze Week, London in 2013, which raised over £1.35million for her medical foundation

Myriam Ullens underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer after the discovery of an aggressive tumor in 2003. In 2008, she was declared innocent of it: “I will always remember New Year’s Day that year”, said she said in the interview with Madame Figaro. “I burned my medical records. My hair, my eyelashes, my eyebrows began to grow back and life slowly returned.

Shocked by the lack of non-medical care for cancer patients, in 2004 she created the Mimi Foundation to provide wellness centers in hospitals, employing psychologists, masseuses, beauticians and hairdressers. “We’re giving them back their dignity,” she said in a 2014 ad for the charity. “They need sunshine in their lives.”

Myriam Ullens hosted an auction gala dinner at Sotheby’s during Frieze Week, London in 2013, which raised over £1.35million for her foundation. Among the prizes were two weeks on Guy Ullens’ yacht, The red dragon, and a portrait by Yan Pei-Ming of King Charles III – then Prince Charles. The winning bidders were invited to a private dinner at Windsor Castle with Prince Charles. “We really saw her take her artistic connections and the goodwill she had accumulated and use it for a good cause,” said Tinari, who was present at the event.

The initiative from fashion company Maison Ullens also came together, Myriam said in an interview with French television. She arrived dressed in a tracksuit for a flight with Guy, who said “Honestly, you don’t look very sexy like that,” she said. “So I responded by saying – okay, I’m going to start my own fashion label.” The brand, which aspires to combine elegance and travel comfort, counts among its clients Melania Trump, Christine Lagarde and Catherine Deneuve.

Myriam has often said that Bill and Melinda Gates were her role models. Those who knew her describe her as humble, down-to-earth and low-key despite the wealth she married. “When you’re rich you have just as many problems as when you’re poor,” she said in the TV interview. “The issues are just different.”

Myriam Ullens’ death was a shocking end to a full and varied life. She even wrote a novel, Distant starless nights, which is described on Amazon as “a gripping tale of one woman’s search for love across decades and continents.” It’s possible that her writing never reached the level of her baking—which she pursued after giving up her baking business. “I had the chance to try cakes once,” says Neutres. “She was a remarkable leader.”

Myriam Lechien, born in Cologne on September 23, 1952; married first Roger Lemaire (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Christian de Moffarts (marriage dissolved), 1999 Guy Ullens of Schooten Whettnal; died in Ohain, Belgium, on March 29, 2023.

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