Economics China

Is China ready to recover?

Despite state subsidies and heavy promotion, not everyone is feeling the benefit

SHANGHAI. The Chinese art market, ravaged by the collapse in prices that saw the disappearance of scores of galleries in the first months of this year, has witnessed the first tentative signs of recovery, underwritten by significant regional government investment in both Shanghai and Beijing.

In June, Shanghai’s Eastlink gallery—one of the country’s longest surviving contemporary galleries—opened a new 700 sq. m space in Beijing. The Chinese capital and other regions will also receive huge investments to stimulate “creative industries”—an umbrella term which includes the arts. Under this programme, said Dong Menyang, director of the Art Beijing fair, “the Beijing government has also set aside Rmb1bn ($146m) to promote cultural industry development.”

In Shanghai, the smaller art scene has survived the crisis in slightly better shape than Beijing, partly because of the effect of multi-billion dollar investments ahead of next year’s Shanghai World Expo, when the city expects 70 million visitors in a six-month period. Among the galleries which have moved in, anticipating a boost in business, are Magda Danysz of Paris, which took over the running of the rebranded 18Gallery on Shanghai’s Bund district in late June, and Hangzhou’s White Manor gallery, which released tens of thousands of rare butterflies from China’s Yunnan province in the centre of Shanghai as part of its opening show by artist Song Tang.

Eastlink’s new Beijing gallery is in Beijing’s Euro Plaza shopping mall, in the Shunyi district, rather than in the gallery zones 798 or Caochangdi. “It’s a kind of experiment to reach the community outside the art circle,” said gallery owner Li Liang. “Local people were very surprised.”

While the Chinese art market may be going through tough times, Mr Li said it was nothing like the situation ten years ago. “In Shanghai when we started, it was much more difficult than now. I compare the situation with ten years ago, not last year when this bubble burst.”

Eastlink has worked with about 30% of China’s active contemporary artists in the past decade, including Ai Weiwei, He Sen and Ji Dachun, according to Mr Li. In 2000 it presented “Fuck Off”, now considered a seminal show in China’s nascent contemporary art scene. “I want Eastlink to be something more than a commercial gallery—commercial work supporting uncommercial activity,” he said. “To be radical, different things are relevant at different times. For instance, abstract painting was radical during the Cultural Revolution; people should try to do something a bit ahead of time.”

Recovery is by no means general in the art market, however. In Beijing’s troubled 798 art district, artists have been on protracted rent-strike against high studio fees, according to founding artist Huang Rui, who is no longer a resident. The area has also suffered a spate of break-ins, with galleries losing computers and suffering smashed windows.

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