Remembering Myriam Ullens, art collector, and philanthropist, who launched the first contemporary art museum in China

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Myriam Ullens, a noted supporter and champion of Chinese contemporary art, began her career by building a pastry business and then, through her marriage to the Belgian billionaire Guy Ullens, became an art collector, fashion entrepreneur and philanthropist.

Her life came to a violent end when she was fatally shot 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 beside his wife in their car when she was shot, and was also injured in the leg. Nicolas Ullens, a former Belgian intelligence officer, said he killed his stepmother because he feared she would fritter away the family fortune. He has been charged with murder.

Myriam Ullens supported her husband in a pioneering project to build the first contemporary art museum in China, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, which opened in Beijing in 2007. The couple also established a school and 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 fashion label for high-end travel and leisure wear, Maison Ullens, with shops in Paris, New York and Aspen. “They were a couple who each supported the other’s passions,” says Jérôme Neutres, the 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, soon after he had sold his family’s sugar-refining business, Tiense Suikerraffinaderij, for about $1 billion.

A mother of two young children, she was seeking backers to expand the pastry business that she had started in her own kitchen and which was taking over her house. “There were cakes everywhere,” she said in a television interview. “Even on the stairs.” In need of new premises, she contacted Ullens as a potential backer. “It was love at first sight! For the first time in my life,” she said in a 2014 interview with Madame Figaro. “He is a visionary, he is always so far ahead of the others.”

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

Guy Ullens began collecting art in the 1960s, choosing to concentrate on undiscovered areas. He turned to Chinese art in the 1990s, “when no one was paying attention” to it, Neutres says. “Artists had been released, but were working for the state which had emancipated them, and they found themselves with no clients,” Ullens said in an interview with the Asian Art Newspaper in 2018. “We were the ones who happened to support them and we started to amass paintings. We were driven by sheer enthusiasm!”

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art became the centre 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,” Guy Ullens said. “At some point my wife, who temporarily had to carry on with the project by herself as I was recovering from surgery, told me she could not go on,” he said. Myriam was still receiving treatment for breast cancer at this stage. “She suggested we stop, but I begged her to reconsider. Ultimately, by 2007, we had succeeded in opening the museum.”

The couple sold UCCA in 2017, but remained on the council of the foundation. It has since thrived and expanded. Philip Tinari, its present director, says that one of its legacies was to inspire dozens more private museums, set up by Chinese collectors. While Guy was the driving force behind the art collecting, Myriam was “very precise in her taste and her standards,” Tinari said. “She was focused on making UCCA a welcoming place—hospitality, branding and marketing were her special areas.”

If Guy Ullens was the primary energy behind UCCA, it was Myriam who first became involved in caring for children in Nepal. She took over a orphanage there in the early 1990s and renamed it Happy Home, according to Som Paneru, who became the manager in 1996. About 100 children, many taken off the streets and from jails, grew up in Happy Home and were educated in private schools before it closed in 2014.

“She was very kind-hearted and she could not bear to see children suffering,” Paneru says. “Whenever Mimi came there was a festival – she would shower them with love, pamper them, and take them shopping at Benetton.”

After 2000, Guy accompanied her on visits to Nepal and together they set up the Ullens School—the first school in the country to offer an international baccalaureate programme. It was initially set up to educate the orphanage children, many of whom have gone on to become business professionals, civil servants or teachers, Paneru says. “It was life-transforming for them. Otherwise these kids had no future, no hope,” he says. Though it is now a well-established educational institution, a fifth of the pupils are from under-privileged backgrounds and have scholarships, according to Paneru.

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

Shocked at the lack of non-medical care for cancer patients, she set up the Mimi Foundation in 2004 to provide centres of well-being in hospitals, employing psychologists, masseuses, beauticians and hairdressers. “We give them back their dignity,” she said in a 2014 advertisement for the charity. “They need some sunshine in their lives.”

Myriam Ullens held a gala dinner auction at Sotheby’s during Frieze Week, in London in 2013, which raised over £1.35 million for her foundation. Among the prizes was 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 art connections and the goodwill she had amassed and use it for a good cause,” says Tinari, who was present at the event.

The initiative for the fashion company Maison Ullens also came jointly, Myriam said in a French television interview. She arrived dressing in a tracksuit for a flight with Guy, who said “Frankly, you don’t look very sexy like that,” she said. “So I responded by saying – right, I am going to launch my own fashion brand.” The brand, which aspires to unite elegance with travel comfort, includes Melania Trump, Christine Lagarde and Catherine Deneuve among its customers.

Myriam frequently 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 into. “When you are rich, you have as many problems as when you are poor,” she said in the television interview. “The problems are just different.”

Myriam Ullens’s death was a shocking end to full and varied life. She even wrote a novel, Distant Starless Nights, which is described on Amazon as “a captivating tale about one woman’s search for love across decades and continents.” It is possible her writing never quite reached the level of her baking – which she continued after giving up her pastry company. “I had the chance to try some cakes once,” Neutres says. “She was a remarkable chef.”

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

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