WeChat is often considered the most powerful app in mainland China, where WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, and other forms of communication are not available. Often used as the country’s main search engine and news source, it’s also an essential app for millions in China’s diaspora.
A lesser-known, though equally important, area of influence for WeChat users is the art world.
Even before the pandemic thrust the typically technology-averse traditional art market into the disruptive world of online viewing rooms, Clubhouse, and NFTs, art dealers in the region were using WeChat as their main communication tool to connect with clients in China.
International galleries like Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, Perrotin, and Blum & Poe have been using it to reach their clients. So too have local and regional galleries, like Capsule Shanghai, Pearl Lam Galleries, de Sarthe, and more. For these galleries, WeChat helps reach Chinese collectors, specifically those based outside major cities like Shanghai and Beijing.
Dealers said the app was especially useful in tapping millennial and Gen Z art collectors in Asia, who helped keep the art market buoyant during the pandemic with their deep pockets and high value purchases.
One of the specific benefits of WeChat is the availability of information in Mandarin. Felicia Chen, a Taiwan-based director with Blum & Poe, told ARTnews that having gallery materials available online in the native language of Chinese collectors is essential to driving engagement and building relationships.
“We started our WeChat account in May 2018 to establish an online presence specific to China,” she said. “Since the platform is the primary way for mainland Chinese audiences to access and share information, this was the first step to engaging with them without a physical space in the region.”
Leo Xu, a senior director at David Zwirner gallery in Hong Kong, agreed, saying that the app “is especially important as there is not as much Chinese language information on our artists; we are very committed to creating that content to share their stories and artworks on WeChat.”
Most galleries tend to use their WeChat account as a newsletter for their followers, announcing projects and sending them updates on exhibitions, as well as directing them to their official website and email.
For the Swiss mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth, the app serves as a more than just a Chinese mini-website and information hub for their exhibitions and events in Asia and beyond. According to Lihsin Tsai, a senior director based in Hong Kong, “In addition to the article posts, we also have very strong video content and active livestream activities in collaboration with an influential media platform Yi Tiao in mainland China.”
For the blue-chip gallery’s exhibitions in Hong Kong, art fairs in Asia, and artists’ projects in Asia, their WeChat account would host livestream guided tours or online conversation with the artists, to engage wider audiences. This year, they livestreamed guided tours of gallery shows featuring works by the likes of Annie Leibovitz and William Kentridge, garnering 14,000 views and 13,900 views, respectively.
Other major galleries, like Capsule Shanghai and David Zwirner, utilize WeChat’s mini programs, which are essentially apps within apps that can facilitate e-commerce, virtual tours, live chats with business representatives, and more. According to Xu, it is “essential for the gallery to have a strong presence on WeChat beyond simply a Chinese translated mirror to their main website.”
In the case of Zwirner gallery, their Oscar Murillo mini program presentation, launched this past April, resonated with Chinese viewers, with artworks on paper and paintings selling for between $45,000 and $350,000.
Xu observed that the WeChat mini programs also allowed the gallery “to engage with younger generations of collectors, such as those interested in fashion and luxury collectibles or street art who are gaining curiosity for contemporary art as well.” A recent one focused on the cartoonist R. Crumb, for example, marked an attempt to reach fans of cartoon and punk subcultures in the ’60s and ’70s, which was part of the underground comic scene influenced by the artist.
The app’s reach is a major draw for galleries in the region. Enrico Polato, founder of Capsule Shanghai, the renowned gallery in the city’s central Xuhui District, estimated that 90 percent of clients the gallery regularly communicates with on WeChat are from mainland China, and 10 percent from other regions, mostly ones in Asia. “We currently have over 17,000 followers on our official account. During the past three years followers have increased with on average 50 percent per year,” he said.
Tsai shared that even though Hauser & Wirth’s key target via WeChat were Mandarin-speaking audiences in mainland China, “over the recent years, we can see more and more users joined from other sub-regions in Asia, as well as many international/Western users with global visions.”
“Statistically, when we look at the demography of users’ languages, 83 percent of our audiences are simplified Chinese users, 7 percent are traditional Chinese, and 10 percent English,” she added.
On the other hand, a representative for Pearl Lam Galleries noted that the amount of views on WeChat is believed to be decreasing in recent years, a sure sign that the all-in-one app “may need to become more innovative in terms of its user experience.“
As with most social media platforms, one of the key purposes of WeChat usage is the ability to learn data-driven information about followers’ preferences. When users register a personal WeChat account, they are required to provide their personal information such as gender, age, and region. By following WeChat official website using their personal WeChat account, the backend of the website will provide the user’s information data to the operator, such as gender, age and regional distribution. However, the data is not precise to each follower’s personal information, as the backend of the WeChat official website will only show a data interval.
According to Julia Li, director at De Sarthe, a mainstay Hong Kong gallery, “Our WeChat backend shows that 80 percent of our current followers are between the ages of 18 and 35. This proves that our audience is a very young group. So we will be more aware of the preferences of young people in our marketing approaches.”
She did note that WeChat does not help to analyze followers’ responses to artists and artworks—it simply showed the number of views and likes below each WeChat post. Nonetheless, such information gives dealers an immediate way to understand which artists or styles are getting attention, or what works are being overlooked. That data can help the galleries plot future programming.
Outside the art world, WeChat has been scrutinized as a potential tool of social control, propaganda, surveillance, and intimidation. Recently, WeChat made headlines when it banned users who shared images of a rare pro-democracy protest in Beijing. However, dealers interviewed by ARTnews did not seem concerned about these developments. Elena Soboleva, global head of online sales at David Zwirner, said, “With all technology, it is always up to each individual to choose their level of information sharing and the best thing to do is be informed and aware for all apps.”