Art Basel in Miami Beach

Art Basel/Miami Beach is the first sign of the art market's shift towards Asia

The art world is entering a period of true globalisation

It is important to recall how parochial the “international” art world still is. In the real world, multinationals build supply chains spanning oceans and continents; Hollywood has increasingly begun to tailor its message to its now mostly non-American audience; Nokia’s largest market for handsets is now in China. The contemporary art market, by contrast, caters to an elite of 200 to 300 collectors, half of whom come from the US and most of the rest from Belgium, Germany and Switzerland.

There is also a problem of supply. It is becoming more and more difficult for a coterie of galleries in New York and London to discover enough new artists, something that is putting speculative upward pressure on established artists’ prices.

For most of its existence, Art Basel has basically been a continental European fair. In the 90s, it managed to attract many Americans and British visitors to Switzerland. The setting up a beachhead in the world’s largest art market was a logical next step.

But there is more to Miami Beach than just nice weather. It is also a bridge to the active and important art markets in Latin America, which has the most developed contemporary art scene in the non-“First World”.

But the potential of Latin America is dwarfed by that of Asia. This region is home to half of the world’s population and already produces most of its wealth—with lots of room for growth.

Until recently, Asia has seriously lagged in contemporary art. There are several reasons for this. Foremost is the fragmentation of any potential market; Asia is integrated economically, but not culturally; many wartime wounds have never properly healed.

Then there were the authoritarian politics. Only Japan has had several generations’ experience of living in an open society with a “culture industry”. In China, Indonesia or Singapore, just a decade ago contemporary art was a persecuted art form. Last but not least, there is a serious lack of collectors in Asia: Japan, the world’s second-largest economy, still only has about a dozen; Korea about three, and that is it for Asia.

However this cultural gridlock has suddenly begun to shift. The key is China, both the emergence (or re-emergence) of China itself, and the catalytic role it is playing in the region. Rather than viewing themselves as post-colonial appendages to Western countries, smaller countries are starting to see themselves as part of Asia. The new interest in Japanese and Korean galleries is creating more variety in the region and giving artists an alternative to going West or remaining parochial. And this is only a dress rehearsal for the coming emergence of China.

The potential for the art market in China might seem initially unpromising. There is not yet the infrastructure of museums, galleries, and collectors, but they are fast emerging. The last four years has also seen massive change in China. The Chinese government’s changed attitude towards contemporary art is the most important factor. Censorship has more or less been lifted, and support given for participation in the Venice Biennale and the idea of holding a Biennial in Shanghai (though the funding for the latter came from elsewhere). The government has dramatically increased funding for the two main art schools in Beijing and Hangzhou. The Central Academy in Beijing now has an art administration programme which is training earnest young would-be curators, gallerists and museum directors.

None of this would mean anything without the vibrant artist scene in all three major centres—Beijing, Shanghai and Canton. Lifestyle and fashion magazines now feature extensive coverage about Chinese and foreign artists; and the national TV channel has a regular programme about contemporary art. There are more and more strong commercial galleries, such as CAAW in Beijing, Shanghart in Shanghai and Vitamin in Canton.

So what about the collectors? In the last few years, the wealthy class has not only expanded but suddenly grown to include highly educated people with varied professions, many of whom have returned from overseas. It will take at least five years for major collectors to emerge. The question is who has the patience to invest time and money in creating that market.

If China does emerge as a major centre of art and the art market, the effects will reach beyond China. Connections will become increasingly lateral rather than hierarchical as China deals more with Asia, and Asia deals increasingly with Africa, India, Latin America, and the Middle East. São Paulo industrialists recently funded an exhibition of Brazilian art in the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Gulf emirate of Sharjah invited Chinese artists such as Chen Lingyang to its “biennial” in 2003. In this brave new world, artists will have more places to exhibit; the market will be huge and stable; there will be more choice, less dominated by one homogeneous culture. And, most importantly, we will have more fun.

The writer is the Asia correspondent for The Art Newspaper

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Art Basel/Miami Beach is just the beginning'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 154 January 2005