China’s economy may be faltering and Hong Kong companies may be pulling out of much trumpeted Joint Ventures, but the markets for contemporary art in Shanghai and Beijing have expanded significantly since the Asian economic crisis of last year.
“Look at all those office buildings. They will all need to be decorated with paintings and sculptures,” says Shi Jiang-bang, formerly of Christie’s, Shanghai, and now owner of the city's first fully fledged art consultancy, Stone Art.
Shi was talking about Pudong, the new financial district of Shanghai, but there is equal potential in the residential new town of Gubei, on the other side of the city. “There is a Pudong broker who has spent $10 million over five years on art at auctions in Hong Kong and Beijing,” he said.
Business is booming in Beijing as well. Brian Wallace of the Red Gate Gallery says the news is of more Western buyers and a spate of new art magazines. Mr Wallace, who has branched out into Soft sculpture, Chinese objets trouvés by the highly promising artist Qing Qing, is confident enough about the future to have negotiated a second gallery space, the Old Beijing Watchtower.
The Courtyard Gallery has bounced back. The gallery has captured a Minority artist, Anivar, from Red Gate and is, once again, at the cutting edge. Karen Smith, the Courtyard Gallery’s former manager, is currently working closely with Philip Dodd of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) towards an exhibition opening at the end of the year, which aims to recreate the essence of contemporary culture in Beijing.
Gubei is home to some of the best galleries in Shanghai. Vast modern spaces like those of Longrun, Hwa and the Bei galleries offer the collector a range of some of the finest Academic Realist oil paintings by artists like Chang Qing, for prices as high as RMB286,000 (£21,000; $35,000). They also offer top end avant-garde work by artists such as Zhou Chun Ya, whose howling green dog, "Green Heigen No.1”, can be bought for RMB65,000 (£4,800; $7,900). An identical work from the same series, “Green Heigen No.2” has been marked up 25% to be sold in Chinese Contemporary in London priced at £6,800. The Elegant Art Gallery is run by two young art aficionados, Ada Zhu and Ma Hao ming, and shows the work of young talents such as Weida Hu, whose body studies in acrylic are priced at around RMB25,000 (£1,900; $3,000).
The centre of Shanghai is also alive with new galleries. The Black Apple, from which the flickering screens of a neighbouring stock market can be seen, offers as much choice and contemporary art excitement as any gallery in Shanghai, but at prices, which undercut ShangArt. The same can be said for Babisong, where prices rarely top RMB8,000 (£600; $970). If one is prepared to take even greater aesthetic risks, Shanghai Stanney can locate a piece of avant-garde contemporary art for as little as RMB2,500 (£190; $300). At this level and at the even lower price regions inhabited by the Yi Ren Gallery (as low as RMB450; £33; $55), the risk outweighs the incentive.
Beijing offers as much as Shanghai, but also art of a different flavour. In addition to the Central Academy of Fine Art gallery, which is a show case for potentially the best Chinese avant-garde art, there are forward-looking spaces such as the two-year-old Tian Fang Gallery. The gallery sells avant-garde oil paintings for about RMB10,000 (£700; $1,200) and has set up an art consultancy with the European collector of Chinese art, Jurgen Ludwig Fischer.
There are new Chinese kids on the block in Shanghai and Beijing and they are offering similar work to that shown by foreign dealers at comparable prices (avant-garde), tamer versions of the same work at extremely high prices (Realist oil painting) or work from a totally different tradition at competitive prices (guohua). The Western dealers may no longer monopolise the so-called Chinese contemporary art scene in China's two greatest cities, but they have kept a tight rein on the channels of distribution. Once the Chinese dealers key into that database, consumer, artist and market will benefit from greater choice and competitive prices.