A Palace of European Art — in Taiwan!

Artist’s impression of the completed building

While in Taiwan last week, I visited a major company, Chimei Corporation, in the provincial city of Tainan.  (Chi Mei is two words in Chinese, translated as “Unique Beauty”, but it is best pronounced “Chim” as in chimney, and “Ay” as in day).  Chimei is a huge business, employing 130,000 people, with a turnover of US$18 billion (that’s Billion with a B, not million).  Yet huge as it is, I am ashamed to confess that I’d never heard of it until we took the High Speed Train down from Taipei to Tainan, to visit them.

Chimei is a major player in digital displays and flat screen technology, with a significant global share in supplying displays for televisions, computers and lap-tops, and mobile phones.  While we would recognise the brand-names of the television or computer companies, we may not know the names of suppliers of major components.  So far as I know, only Intel has managed to make a household name from a component.

Too may of us in the West seem to think of Taiwan as a source of simple, low-value manufactures, rather as we used to think of Hong Kong.  But that view is way out of date.  Taiwan is a thriving modern economy, in many ways comparable to Korea (even the hills reminded me of Korea).  And it has a key focus on hi-tech, research-based, cutting edge products.  I rather wish that we in the UK were more like that.

In addition to its main display business, Chimei is a diversified conglomerate with a food business, a hospital, and petro-chemical products.  It also has a serious approach to Corporate Social Responsibility, and one manifestation of this is its museum.  The founder of Chimei Corporation Mr. Shi Shu-Ho played the violin, and had an interest in collecting fine antique instruments.  The company’s museum now has a collection of around 800 violins, violas and cellos, some dating back to the sixteenth century, and including several by Stradivari and other famous makers.  I visited the violin store room, like a library, but with violins filed on edge instead of books, to find Mr. Shi, now a very elderly gentleman, and two younger musicians playing as a trio.

These instruments are not merely museum pieces.  Chimei arranges to lend out historic instruments to up-coming Taiwanese musicians — instruments of a quality they could not possibly otherwise afford.  Chimei also operates an orchestra, specialising in Western orchestral music, and DVDs of the orchestra were playing (on Chimei screens) during the dinner we had with them.

But the interest in Western art extends beyond music.  The company museum has a huge collection of Western art and sculpture including paintings by El Greco, Corot, Utrillo, Delaroche, Bouguereau, Gotch, Picasso, and sculptures by Rodin, Dégas and Dali.  And it doesn’t stop there.  They have an excellent selection of ancient Egyptian, Indian and Arabic artefacts; of arms and armour; of natural history exhibits; as well as a remarkable collection of other musical instruments and early mechanical musical instruments.

The existing space available is insufficient for the collection, so they are building a veritable palace to house the exhibits, and spending $1 billion (again, Billion with a B) on the project.  This is no pipe-dream.  We visited the site, and the building is well advanced.  The great circular lake and fountain, and the bridge providing access, are complete and only await the sculpture (see artist’s impression above).  The style is European classical.  The scale is simply mind-blowing.  And the objective is to bring European art and culture to the people of Taiwan — and to the growing numbers of tourists who visit the country each year.

I understand that eventually the whole museum and collection will pass to the state.  This is a gesture on a grand scale, and it was a privilege to visit it.  I believe that here in the UK, David Cameron will today be launching a White Paper on charitable giving, with an emphasis on company donations to the common good.  The Chimei Museum sets an excellent example of corporate sponsorship of the arts.

The new Palace Museum is due to open in 2014, and I hope very much that I shall be able to see it.  Meantime, if you’re planning to visit Taiwan, be sure to go to Tainan City.

With the Chief Executive of Chimei Corporation, at the museum site

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