China is embracing contemporary art, both officially and unofficially, yet it will most probably take at least another five years before major collectors start to emerge. While the art world likes to pride itself on its global nature, it is important to recall just how parochial the “international” art world really is.
In the “real world”, multinationals build supply chains spanning oceans and continents; Hollywood has to tailor its message to its now mostly non-American audience; Nokia’s largest market for handsets is 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. This is clearly a brake on the development of the art market. It is, however, also becoming more and more difficult for the coterie of galleries in New York and London to discover enough new artists to satisfy collectors’ desire for novelty, something which is putting speculative upward pressure on established artists’ prices.
For most of its existence, ArtBasel has been a continental European fair with an international following. In the 90s, it managed to attract many Americans to Switzerland. Setting up a beachhead in the world’s largest art market was a logical next step, especially when Art Chicago, then the key US fair, was beginning to falter. Miami is also a bridge to the important art market in Latin America, which is still the most developed contemporary art scene outside Europe and the US. 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 the majority 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. Then there are the authoritarian politics. In China and Indonesia, just a decade ago the production of contemporary art was a persecuted activity. 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 major ones, and Korea has about half that number.
However the situation has suddenly begun to shift. The key is China, both in 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, Asians are starting to see themselves as part of an inter-linked area. The new interest in Japanese and Korean galleries on the part of the Chinese is enriching the mix in the region.
The potential for the art market in China might seem initially unpromising. There is not yet the infrastructure of museums, galleries, and collectors that exists in many countries. But it is fast emerging. The last four years has seen massive change in the country. Most crucial has been the government’s new attitude towards contemporary art. Censorship has been more or less lifted, and there has even been official support for participation in the Venice Biennale and for the Shanghai Biennial. 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. Collectors are beginning to emerge.
In the last few years, the wealthy class has not only expanded but suddenly grown to include highly educated people with real professions. Many are already willing to spend serious money. A major piece by Huang Yongping, who lives in Paris and shows with, among others, Barbara Gladstone, sold last month for 1.2 million Yuan ($150,000) to a Shanghai real estate developer. The emergence of major collectors of contemporary art in China will take at least five years, but they will emerge. ArtBasel/Miami Beach has begun a process that not only makes the market richer, but will also make the art world larger and more stable; there will be more choice and it will be less dominated by one homogenous culture.