Sandra and William Ling’s institute, the quiet force at the service of Brazilian culture

Marc Pottier

Marc Pottier

Curator & Art Advisor
São Paulo, Brazil

Luxury, Calm and Efficiency condense well the engagement toward culture of the Ling Institute created in 1995 by the Ling family in Porto Alegre. The programme of the Art Centre opened in 2014 supported by Sandra and William Ling develops a range of activities, with high cultural added value across all disciplines, with a coherence and consistency that makes it one of the most exciting private Brazilian cultural projects.

A dynamic characterised by transmission

The originality of the Ling Institute Art Centre, which opened in 2014, lies in its synthesis of Sandra’s artistic sensibility, the humanistic confusionism of the Ling family, which translates its privileges into the certainty that they have more ‘duties’ than ‘rights’, and the belief that education – whether economic or cultural – raises the individual and collective level.

Over the past 25 years, the range of activities has expanded to include more and more sharing of world views. Today, the three or four individual exhibitions of contemporary Brazilian art (including Karin Lambrecht (1957-) Mauro Fuke (1961-) and also Nelson Felix, Iole de Freitas, Daniel Senise, Laura Vinci and Walmor Corrêa), the forty or so concerts (all music), the twenty or so invitations to guest authors, the international events, the thirty or so film or short film screenings and the gastronomy show this fertile dynamic of transmission, which is also based on an education programme aimed at children. The Art Centre hosts numerous courses and scholarships (currently 1000, including 392 post-graduate and master’s courses outside) initiated by the Institute in the 1990s.

The importance of changing mentalities

The objective of the Institute is to invest in education to support the training of young Brazilians, through scholarships for postgraduate, master’s and doctoral courses at excellent schools abroad,” says William Ling. The first area of activity was business, with MBA courses. About ten years later, we started offering law scholarships. More recently, we started offering scholarships to selected young journalists from some of the country’s leading newsrooms. We did this because one of the things we think is important in Brazil is to change the mentality, and the journalist plays a key role in this. If they have a good perception of what is happening in the world and what can be changed, and if they know how to transmit values such as individual responsibility in an autonomous way, they will be a key player in fostering this change in society’s attitude.”

A grateful contribution

China (Wenzhou and Shanghai) is the birthplace of the Institute’s founder Sheun Ming Ling and his wife Lydia Wong Ling. Like their ancestors, Sheun and Lydia were influenced by Confucianism and have always had the values of education and reciprocity in mind. With this in mind, they looked for ways to give something back to Brazil, the country that welcomed them in 1951. From specific actions related to health, entrepreneurship and culture, Lydia and Sheun Ming concluded that the greatest contribution they could make to the country’s transformation was to invest in education. Thus, the Ling Institute was born.

A project where everything remains open

The Art Centre is a human-sized organisation with 26 assistants. Nothing is set in stone and every initiative is possible. Thus, the invited artist can choose to use a space other than the exhibition room. The brilliant artist, writer, director, playwright and musician Nuno Ramos (1960) chose to present a programme in the cinema instead of the exhibition room. This could also have been the case with Iole de Freitas (1945-), known for her large dance sculptures, in the outdoor gardens if the pandemic had not put a stop to the project. Another project will start next year, to create a temporary fresco on one of the walls of the Institute based on the artist proposals of the Porto Alegre researcher and curator Luisa Kiefer (1986-) in 2022 and that of the curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Ceará (Fortaleza) Bitu Cassundé in 2023.

Influence is a matter of time

In contrast to the Brazilian mentality, which lives in the permanent urgency of the short term, the Lings give time to time: the commissions are undertaken a long time in advance allow the curators and the artists they commission to have time during their residency, and in particular to become part of the city of Porto Alegre. Refusing any ivory tower, the Institute participates in the development of its city. The Lings are of course involved in the Mercosul Biennial, the Institut Iberê Camargo. The vision is for the moment national with the MASP in São Paulo. There are no plans yet to join foreign museum committees. This quiet strength resembles them well, they are advancing step by step with the modesty and confidence of those who know how to set a course and hold it. There is no hurry, everything comes to those who wait.

A rare gem in the context of a city known for its debates

Porto Alegre has a reputation as the ‘Happy Port’, thanks to one of the largest urban concentrations of birds in the country and the city’s biological reserve. The capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, the Brazilian part close to Argentina, is known for having hosted the first World Forum on Social Issues of the Modern World and since 1997 for its Mercosul Biennial, focused on the promotion of Latin American visual arts. The other important cultural institution is the Iberê Camargo Institute (1914-1994), dedicated to the work of the gaucho painter (a herdsman in the pampas, the term is also used to designate the inhabitants of the state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil), inaugurated in 2008, housed in a very original building designed by the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza Vieira (1933-).

The intelligence of sobriety

The Ling Institute’s new headquarters and art centre took off in 2014 thanks to the minimalist and cinematic architecture of Isay Weinfeld (1952-) after a competition. Sandra and William entrusted the responsibility for the architectural project to their son Anthony, who at the age of 20 was studying architecture. It was he who selected Isay Weinfeld from among 10 architects. This is definitely an unusual family that is used to flawless work. Anthony is also a musician and a gourmet.

The uncluttered building is reminiscent of the commission given by Dominique de Ménil (1908-1997) for her museum in Houston (Texas), where the French-American collector asked the Italian architect Renzo Piano (1937-) to make a large museum that looks small. The Ling’s approach to sobriety is the same, as is their desire to do the right thing without ostentation, even if the proposed setting is the best one can find. Instead of building a house by the sea, they preferred to think of a place for everyone.

An institute with a subtle and integrated ‘home’ feel

Nothing here is intended to intimidate, but on the contrary to attract. The 3,200 m2 of space are spacious without being gigantic, allowing for extremely pleasant circulation between the classrooms and meeting rooms, the exhibition hall, the auditorium, the restaurant and the administrative area. The light is carefully studied and the numerous openings allow the discovery of a garden designed by Sandra which surrounds the building, making nature omnipresent and isolating the Institute in a pleasant way. It is also an extension of their house, next to the Institute, designed by the architect Aurelio Martinez Flores (1929-2015), who is said to have been born an architect and was a teacher of Isay Weinfeld and the other great Brazilian architect Marcio Kogan.

A collection inspired by Brazil for Brazilian talent

The works that hang on the walls of the corridors and some of the exhibition rooms come from the private collection of Sandra and William, such as Mira Schendel, Nelson Felix, Vik Muniz, Frida Baranek, Ivan Serpa, Karin Lambrecht, Cristina Canale, Walmor Corrêa, Leonilson and Hugo França. It is difficult to list them all, but the common thread links Brazilian artists above all.

When asked about her dreams, Sandra confides that she would like to have more works by the artists already in the collection. Always the family spirit! This is probably also why the idea for the Art Centre was born at the dinner following the opening of the Mira Schendel (1919-1988) exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 2013.

The peaceful tranquillity of the Institute’s courtyard garden

Sandra Ling (1957-) is a self-taught landscape designer, artist and poet. The success of the institute’s garden is so convincing that today, Isay Weinfeld invites her for her projects. Here again, it is difficult to break the ice of a certain shyness and family discretion that is a trademark. She is reluctant to show you her works, among others, delicate compositions of subtly open-worked leaves whose shadows are treated with light touches of watercolour. Leaves? probably because she likes the seasons when they are marked with their own sensuality and exoticism. This quietude is well felt in the Institute’s courtyard garden.


Although the Lings have invested generously in their Institute and do not hesitate to put their hand in their pocket, the Institute has an economic model that allows it to balance its accounts and ensure its sustainability. If they do not call on sponsors, courses are paid for and the rooms are regularly rented out for external events. The projects play with tax-deduction laws. After the architectural project, Anthony has a discreet presence in the project. The focus is now on his cousin Stephanie, daughter of Wilson, the youngest in the family, who is studying at the Rhode Island School of Design… With or without the family at the helm, the project will remain upright and sustainable.

Family spirit

William Ling (1957-) is the second generation of the family, a family that has cleverly diversified its activities. Starting with soybean oil, William and two of his three siblings have a business that ranges from packaging, fertilisers, hospital equipment and petrochemicals. Today, they are on the Board of Directors of the Petropar Group, and in parallel, they run a series of initiatives to train people and support social and cultural activities. “If we have the conditions, the resources and the time, why not do something to change the society we are part of?

Involved in causes involving entrepreneurship and leadership from an early age, William Ling was the founder and first president of the Institute of Business Studies (IEE). He also helped create the Porto Alegre chapter of the Young Presidents Organisation (YPO), an entity he once chaired nationally. He also participates in the Governance Council of the Millennium Institute, a non-profit organisation that promotes core values for the prosperity and human development of society. “Our role will only be complete when the next generation can master all these actions we have created. That is sustainability,” he comments.

Giving back what we receive

Every person or company in the company plays a role. Petropar, for example, is an industry, and one of our activities is to manufacture plastic packaging and serve customers with quality products. The purpose of the company is not philanthropy, it’s the opposite. It’s about generating benefits for society through economic value management. But as long as we have the time, the resources, the ideas and the ability to mobilise partners, why not do it? With the Ling Institute, we are entering another domain, which is the responsibility of each of us as individuals. Moreover, this work is guided by the values that my parents brought from China. The first is reciprocity. By Confucianism, we must give back what we receive, no matter from whom and to whom. My parents came here without many resources, they were well received in Santa Rosa and Porto Alegre, they worked and inserted themselves in the society of Rio Grande do Sul. There has always been a great desire to give back to Brazil in some way. The other issue is the importance of education, which is something very strong in the oriental culture,” says William.

Ling in Chinese means forest

Ling in Chinese means forest. The latter can be seen as a dangerous place because it is uncivilised, where one can meet wild animals and men, even supernatural beings, but one can also meet hermits. It symbolises the world before civilisation, the link with the “other world”. We also know today how essential the forest is to the balance of the world and its life-giving breath.

With their Institute and Art Centre, the Lings have built a solid framework, a space for reflection and harmonious marriages with different cultural disciplines to think intelligently about the world. Sandra, William and their family are planting the seeds of knowledge. Let us wish long life to this project, which is indispensable in the turbulence of today’s world.


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