The global art community has been eyeing China as the next great market for more than a decade, but this year’s Shanghai Art Week showed signs of those hopes beginning to become reality. Despite reports of a plateaued Chinese economy and the recent contraction of its auction market—not to mention China’s trade war with the United States, tensions around human rights, and customs obstacles like strict capital controls and an ever-fluctuating value-added tax on luxury goods—five days of art fairs, gallery openings, museum inaugurations, and international collaborations signified a booming market and a thriving cultural scene.
While China fell from second to third place in 2018—it is now the world’s third-largest art market after the U.S. the U.K., according to the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report 2019—the consensus among many in Shanghai last week was that the 21st century still belongs to China. Those with optimistic outlooks just can’t agree on how long it’s going to take: a few months or another couple of years.
Already remarkable was Shanghai Art Week’s similarity in atmosphere to other big global fairs and biennales, even with a language barrier that presents a serious challenge for many visitors aiming to conduct business. The buzz was palpable.
Shanghai’s extraordinary beauty—from the boulevards and buildings of the former French Concession to exhibition halls in light-filled aircraft hangars to the proliferation of cutting-edge contemporary architecture—makes it a rich art world destination and partly explains its replacement of Beijing as the focal point of China’s art market. But the combination of a rapidly growing museum infrastructure and the vitality of two major art fairs has fueled its dynamism. (And tax intricacies have certainly helped as well.)
Shanghai Art Week, a name coined so recently that some involved had not yet heard the term, was kick-started years ago by the opening of two museums established by local collectors—the Long Museum (in 2012) and the Yuz Museum (2014)—as well as the launch of two major fairs, Art021 (2013) and West Bund Art & Design (2014). “Energy had been building up,” said the London-based dealer Pilar Corrias, speaking of China as a whole. Corrias has been traveling to the country for 11 years and, like several of her colleagues, exhibits at both Shanghai fairs. “I noticed it when I showed at the Hong Kong art fair, even before it was bought by Art Basel. I did great business there immediately. Beijing was significant too, especially with the opening of [the first Chinese contemporary art museum] UCCA, and it is still a serious market. But there was a definite shift to Shanghai with the fairs.”
The West Bund Art & Design fair is backed by the government-owned West Bund Group, which has developed a roughly four-square-mile art district that brings art, culture, and technology together along the banks of the Huangpu River. The fair is located at the heart of the development, on Museum Mile (a.k.a. the Cultural Corridor), which is now home to local and international galleries such as Lisson, Edouard Malingue, Perrotin, and Ota Fine Arts, as well as a slew of museums including the Long, Yuz, and the Shanghai Center of Photography. Last week saw the inauguration, in the presence of French President Emmanuel Macron, of the brand-new Centre Pompidou x West Bund Museum, designed by British architect David Chipperfield and conceived to show work from the Paris institution’s collection and to foster artistic exchange.
Museums have opened in Shanghai of late at the rate of one or two per year—the next one is the Pudong Museum of Art, expected to open in 2021 with a design by Jean Nouvel and an arrangement with Tate in London to lend major works from its collection. A new design fair was also launched in the cultural quarter this year: Unique Design Shanghai at Tank Art Park, a stunning collection of abandoned aviation fuel tanks converted by Beijing studio Open Architects for collector Qiao Zhibing.
This new cultural landscape has coincided with changes in the Chinese collector base, which started out largely acquiring Chinese contemporary art 10 years ago and has moved into the global contemporary market over the past few years. Millennials now make up 39 percent of Chinese collectors, according to the Art Basel/UBS report, and they are buying internationally, according to London and New York dealer Timothy Taylor, who has exhibited at West Bund since the fair’s inception. “Five years ago, it looked like the Western art world would expand into China,” he said. “But the opposite has happened. The Chinese have expanded: hundreds of millions of them are traveling, going to look at things all over the world. They’re curious and some are interested in buying. The market is already here—they don’t need us to bring it.” He called the opening of West Bund “the best opening day of a fair I’ve had for years.”
Like Corrias, Taylor has been coming to China for many years and said that success is all about building relationships—an approach to business with a specific Chinese word to describe it: guanxi. “You are supported here for your commitment to the community,” he said. “The Chinese want to put a name to a face—that’s how you develop trust. I have put on shows all over the country. I brought 100 Sean Scully works and showed in five cities. Each region had such different characteristics, but they lapped up the art everywhere we went.”
Among the works that Taylor sold were Frank Auerbach’s Reclining Head of Julia (2006) for more than $700,000, two Armen Eloyan paintings for $100,000, and an Eddie Martinez sculpture for over $100,000. Taylor also collaborated this year with the owner of the Yuz Museum, Budi Tek, on the exhibition of two monumental paintings by Martinez that Tek commissioned. And Tek’s Yuz Foundation is also engaged in a collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Qatar Museums in Doha, which aims to share “art and ideas among the three cities.”
But the internationalism of contemporary Shanghai is clearly at odds with China’s tendency toward censorship. Four works did not pass muster with Chinese officials at the Centre Pompidou x West Bund Museum, and the president of the French contemporary behemoth, Serge Lasvignes, responded with some diplomacy in the press. “We need to learn why works are deemed inappropriate,” he said. He was equally philosophical as we walked through the inaugural exhibition of major works from the Pompidou collection, “The Shape of Time.” “The dialogue can be difficult,” he said. “But it’s worth it. We want to build trust.”
Lasvignes told me that he hopes the Pompidou will result in a “museum effect” that can grant recognition and value to an artist when the market may not. ‘When we showed Cy Twombly in Paris in 2016, the value of his work doubled between the announcement of the exhibition and its opening,” he said. Alongside hosting three semi-permanent shows from the Pompidou collection, each lasting 18 months, the new museum aims to be a springboard for young Chinese artists in a designated space called Gallery Zero: “They can say they’ve exhibited at the Pompidou,” Lasvignes said. “This adds value to their work. We don’t want the market to make all the rules; museums are a way of regulating the market. If you let the market run things, it makes mistakes and everything becomes homogenous.”
At Art021, in the sprawling Shanghai Exhibition Centre in the French Concession, White Cube sold nine pieces from its solo presentation of works by Eddie Peake on the first day. It seemed unlikely that local authorities would be thrilled by Peake’s playful canvases, which take their psychedelic aesthetic from a transgressive club scene and reference identity, complex sexuality, and myriad socio-political issues.
Galleries at both fairs are required to submit all works for approval, but dealers and institutions seemed resigned to grapple with censorship. While it may be hard to guess what might change from day to day, to say nothing of year to year, “many predict that China’s dominance will come sooner rather than later,” said Jonathan Crockett, the deputy chairman for Asia at Phillips auction house.
Certain Western galleries are betting on it. “This is our first time in Shanghai and we came with a mission,” said Toby Clarke, director of the London-based Vigo Gallery, which exhibited at Art021. “We came to sell to museums.”
Clarke sold all but two works from his solo presentation of London artist Daniel Crews-Chubb—“one to the Long Museum, one to a big local collector, one to an L.A.-based collector, and one to the co-owners of Art021, Kelly Ying and David Chau.” Speaking of success for Crews-Chubb elsewhere, Clarke said, “We have nailed New York and London, so China is the next step.”
The artist himself agreed. Joining us in the booth, he added, “Exposure to this market is what young artists dream of.”