From Software to Vietnamese Art

Software pioneer turned sports marketer and now art collector, Adrian Jones owns the 2000-strong Witness Collection, the largest private pool of Vietnamese art in the world


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From software to Vietnamese art

One cannot immediately fathom Adrian Jones from his introduction. Programming video games and publishing his first book on video game design at the age of 17, he went on to Cambridge University to study engineering, but we’ll have to assume he wasn’t completely interested in that.

Instead, he licensed an early email program called WinMail to IBM in the early 1990s, and went on to found a sports marketing firm that represented the IOC, FIFA, Formula 1 and UEFA Champions’ League in more than 60 countries — which eventually took him to North Korea to meet with their football club in 2002 after the Korea/Japan World Cup.

And so with those qualifications, Adrian Jones came to Vietnam to speak about art. A guest of aSaigon/CreativeMorning, an independent collective of creators in Saigon, Jones came on behalf of his Witness Collection and as an advisor to the National Art Gallery of Singapore. And, “Why”, you might ask? “Because I was a failed artist,” he quipped during the talk he held on Feb. 18.

Adrian Jones

And Now for the Art

Opening with a slideshow that ran the art history gamut from Titian to Reubens, Giacometti, Warhol, Pollack and Koons, along with prices for art works in the tens and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars, he asked the assembled gathering two questions: “What is art?” and “What makes it valuable?”

And the answers were not the ones one would ordinarily get in an academic setting and certainly not in a gallery.

“Distortion of prices is rampant in the art world,” explained Jones. “Did you know that 80 percent of the Warhols are owned by three wealthy families and they are routinely traded by the auction houses among those families in order to drive up the values of entire collections?”

According to him, the main reasons that people purchase art are “Investment. Safety. Security and money laundering.” Money laundering, primarily prevalent in developing markets like China, he says, because you can move a US$40 million Picasso a lot more easily and safely through an airport than you can a satchel full of cash. Who knew. He knew. And that’s precisely what makes sessions like this valuable — the inside story, not a dissertation on the merits of pyramidal composition.

But Jones was also quick to follow up his dissection of the vagaries of the art world with his personal answer to the question of what makes art valuable. “Valuable art, and hence great art, is work that helps people see objects, other people or ideas in a new and different way”.

And so here was his segue to the Vietnamese people and their interpretation of the last 100 years of the world through very unique eyes. From the colonialism of the French, Imperialism of the Americans, independence, the post-1975 era and now even modernism, the Vietnamese may have been taught European styles by the French but have developed on their own in ceramics, lacquers, the fabric arts and certainly painting — very different from the Chinese and certainly other Asian countries in subject matter. And do they have a story to tell? Adrian Jones certainly thinks so.

In 2009 he founded the Asiarta Foundation with the goal of helping the Vietnamese tell that story to the world — and with a little luck, we’ll get to hear it without the benefit of a Hollywood movie or another book about the war era.