Up until now, China’s art scene has been concentrated in its coastal cities: Beijing, Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen have, for the past 10 years, been the centres of the country’s cultural creativity and its commerce. But the recent economic growth of smaller, inland cities—the so-called “second-tier” cities—has created new pockets of affluence. The nouveaux riches in Chengdu, Hangzhou and Xiamen (see map, p11) are already buying luxury goods, including Western fashion brands. Whether they will become contemporary art collectors is another matter.
In March, with the aim of attracting new buyers, Sotheby’s included Chengdu, the capital of the south-western province of Sichuan, in the preview tour of its spring auctions in Hong Kong. (For the past 15 years, the auction house has organised previews in Beijing and Shanghai.) Kevin Ching, the chief executive of Sotheby’s Asia, says that adding a third mainland city to its preview tour had been a subject of “great debate” for four or five years. “I know a lot of our competitors are thinking about Hangzhou or Xiamen, but we decided on Chengdu because we already knew the people near Shanghai and Beijing well,” he says. “Hangzhou is a stone’s throw away from Shanghai, and we get Hangzhou people there. The only other underexplored area of any interest is western China.”
Ching is encouraged by the fact that there are already shops selling luxury goods and fashion brands to the newly rich residents of Chengdu. “They are all doing really well,” he says. “Chengdu is receptive to high-end luxury, and there is considerable wealth there.”
Fine art was conspicuously absent from Sotheby’s preview in Chengdu, which featured only jewellery and watches. “They proved to be the right categories, because they are closer to consumer or luxury products,” says Ching, who admits that some visitors seemed disappointed by the omission of art.
Wealthy individuals do not become contemporary art collectors overnight; when it opened in 2010, Art Center 7 was the first contemporary art space in Wenzhou. The manufacturing and trading city “still does not have an art market”, says Zhang Mengting, the centre’s director. She says that residents have only become collectors after moving to bigger cities, and predicts that a market will not develop in Wenzhou for another five or ten years.
“Wenzhounese are business people, investors, but when it comes to art, they find it baffling,” she says. “They have money and run factories, but they have no time to understand culture. They will buy an old scholar’s rock but not contemporary art.”
Sichuan boasts a small but respected art scene of its own, particularly around Chongqing’s Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Chen Mo, a critic, curator and professor at the Chengdu Academy of Fine Arts, says: “For contemporary art, compared with Beijing and Shanghai, Sichuan is more healthy and normal, because it is further away from the governmental centre, allowing more creativity.” The cost of living is lower and the pace better suited to art, Chen says, and Sichuan does not have Beijing’s problem of studio demolitions. However, art is sold in Shanghai and Guangzhou because “an artistic area does not necessarily make an art market—it takes development”.
Disparate young art scenes are also blossoming in other second-tier cities. Nanjing, the historic university town which is the capital of the Jiangsu province in eastern China, has a range of institutions, including museums, galleries, studios and a biennial. Zhu Tong, the director of the Sifang Art Museum, which is due to open this autumn, says: “Nanjing was an important city in the 1980s and 1990s, but as Chinese art became more international, the focus shifted to the bigger cities. Now it is becoming more diversified, with bigger ideas and including a range of different places’ cultures. I think the future for Nanjing, and other smaller cities, is very good.”