Fairs News Market China

Fast forward: how China’s art world is changing

Artists, collectors and galleries are picking and choosing from the way things are done in the West

VIPs enjoy Tobias Rehberger's bar at the fair, Homeaway, Galerie Urs Meile and neugerriemschneider. Photo by Norm Yip/Max Makson

The opening of the second edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong is a chance to assess just how far Asia’s “art ecosystem”, particularly in greater China, has evolved in the space of just a few years, and how it might develop from here.

The community of artists, galleries, collectors, curators, museums, art fairs and auction houses that forms the art ecosystem is much younger in most of Asia than in the West. China’s contemporary art market only started in the late 1980s, and yet change has come rapidly.

Compare today’s scene with what the critic Barbara Pollack dubbed “the wild, wild East” in the 1990s, when collector-speculators would buy in bulk from willing artists’ studios and the artists themselves unabashedly hopped between dealers: the contrast is sharp.

Playing by the rules

Artists becoming more faithful to their galleries, dealers more committed to nurturing and developing artists’ careers, collectors better at respecting the rules, and China’s museum boom have combined to dramatically change the art landscape in the past few years. As Philip Tinari, the director of Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, says: “The ecosystem is maturing, and now there are galleries that can actually serve artists’ interests, as well as collectors who are willing to play by a more formal set of rules.”

It is frowned upon (but not unknown) in the West for collectors to bypass an artist’s gallery and buy direct. Galleries try to prevent collectors “flipping” works—putting them rapidly into auction after purchase—and may even blacklist collectors who do this.

Colin Chinnery, the artistic director of Wuhan Art Terminus, a contemporary art centre being developed in the capital of Hubei province, defends the artists. “I always thought it was a little unfair to judge them for jumping from gallery to gallery,” he says. “At that time, galleries weren’t really able to look after the artists’ interests.” Pearl Lam, the Hong Kong- and Shanghai-based dealer and collector who runs Pearl Lam Galleries (1D09), agrees. “There was no infrastructure, and local galleries didn’t know how to give international exposure to their artists. But the arrival of Western galleries certainly changed things and set a certain standard,” she says.

What has also changed is the profile of the artists themselves. In the 1980s and 1990s, most Chinese artists could not travel, whereas the younger ones have been able to do so. “They are much better travelled and educated,” Pollack says. The result is a far more professional approach to being an artist and working with galleries. “Artists are beginning to appreciate the value that a gallery can bring to their careers,” says Simon Kirby, who represents Victoria Miro (3D05) in Beijing, while the Hong Kong-based dealer Edouard Malingue, of Edouard Malingue Gallery (1C15), says that the younger generation of artists better understands that a gallery will actively promote their careers through exhibitions, publications and art fairs, leaving them to get on with making art.

Artists and galleries

Many think that the system is still in transition and, as Kirby says, artists will often give exclusivity only for a particular project or series of works. “While I was running Chambers Fine Art in Beijing, we commissioned a remarkable project from Zhao Zhao, in 2011,” he says. “We produced a great catalogue for the piece and—in principle—had exclusivity on the work. It was interesting to watch how two other neighbouring galleries slipstreamed with our show and showed works by Zhao Zhao at the same time.” And, it seems, the artist then sold the work in question privately to a major overseas collector. Kirby sounds a note of warning. “Those who can really help Chinese galleries become more effective are the Chinese artists themselves. Using galleries for publicity and then selling directly from the studio is still commonplace, and it is not really good enough,” he says.

There is little doubt that the arrival of foreign galleries in Hong Kong and on the mainland has had a big impact on professionalising the whole field. Rachel Lehmann of Lehmann Maupin (1C09) says: “A number of these galleries have members on the boards of art fairs and museums, and this is certainly formalising the system.” Theresa Liang of Long March Space (3D09) says: “More and more galleries are playing by the rules, because you have to do so if you want to get into art fairs such as Art Basel in Miami Beach.” According to the curator William Zhao, in Hong Kong, “we are moving towards a more balanced and healthy ecosystem”. Before, he says, the market was dominated by the big auction houses and the art fair, with some big-name overseas galleries, but now small and medium-sized local galleries have opened, providing a counterbalance.

The profile of collectors in the region is also changing. In contrast to the “quick-flip” investors of the past, they seem far more considered today. They travel more: at the Armory Show in New York this March, for example, there were hundreds of visitors from China, drawn partly by its China symposium. Also adding to the scene is the encouraging emergence of younger collectors, some even in their 20s and 30s. An example is Adrian Cheng, the heir to a retail fortune but also very active in the arts field, notably through his non-profit K11 Art Foundation. He is organsing a show by the Chinese artist Zhang Enli at the foundation during the fair (until 13 July). “Collectors such as Cheng are very important, as they influence those around them,” says Leng Lin of Pace gallery (1C07).


The Beijing-based collector and financier Liu Gang says that he bought very little from galleries before 2010—under 5%—whereas this has now grown to 70%. The reason, he says, was the sharp difference in price between the gallery and the studio, which has now stabilised.

“I have established good relations with a couple of galleries, and sometimes they can offer me prices cheaper than the market,” he says. And, as a collector, he appreciates how galleries help him to gain access to major pieces by well-known artists, as well as helping him to find younger, lesser-known names.

One of the main elements in the art system is validation, which in the West comes via museums, curators and major collectors. The situation in China is very different. Validation currently tends to come from the commercial world, a situation that is open to potential abuse.

Meg Maggio of Pékin Fine Arts (1B23) is worried by the excessively dominant role auction houses have in critical evaluation and, like many, fears how it is being manipulated by some artists and galleries.

China’s new museums need to be turned from sometimes opportunistic projects into well-respected institutions with experienced and knowledgeable directors, curators and trustees, as well as considered acquisition policies. And on the mainland, the lack of a structure to allow tax deductions may also prove problematic in sustaining these new structures. Some private museums are thinly disguised selling spaces—obviously not good for critical endorsement.

So how will the art ecosystem in Asia evolve? Some think that it will inevitably tend towards a Western model. Pearl Lam hopes not. “I don’t think the Western model will be good for Asia—we will be colonised all over again,” she says.

Expect the unexpected

For Colin Chinnery, collectors will be the core of the Chinese ecosystem, because of the limited public or philanthropic funding for contemporary Chinese artists, curators and institutions. The financier and collector Frank Yang sees a system developing that is influenced by the West but with its own culture and heritage.

Edouard Malingue, however, thinks that changes will be as radical as they are unexpected. “It’s not just a question of the system,” he says. “The aesthetic criteria are going to change as well. There is going to be an immense wave. Look at how the US supported its artists in the 1950s and look where they are now. I can see the same thing happening here, as the Chinese support their own artists—and it will influence the rest of the world.”

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17 May 14
12:39 CET


Hi Phil does this tally with your China art knowledge?

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