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Frieze launches charm offensive to tempt China, with Fiac not far behind

Frieze welcomes UK’s new visa rules for visitors as event’s co-founder prepares to “increase the dialogue” with Chinese artists and galleries

After the UK government’s recent announcement that it plans to relax visa rules to allow Chinese tourists to enter the country more easily, the organisers of Frieze London have launched a charm offensive to entice Chinese dealers and collectors to the fair this year. During a recent profile-raising mission to Beijing and Shanghai, Matthew Slotover, the fair’s co-founder, led a delegation that met key collectors, curators and dealers.

Not to be outdone, the organisers of the Fiac fair (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain, 23-26 October) in Paris’s Grand Palais also visited China recently in a bid to woo collectors. The French event does not, however, face the same obstacles as UK fairs. It is easier for Chinese nationals to obtain visas for travelling to France (see box).

Untapped potential

Frieze’s efforts appear to be working. The Chinese billionaire and collector Adrian Cheng (right), the founder of the K11 Art Foundation, says that Fiac is his “regular fair”, but he plans to visit Frieze London for the first time this year. Meanwhile, the Chinese-Indonesian collector Budi Tek is due to speak tomorrow as part of the fair’s VIP talks programme.

The art world, like other European business sectors, is keen to tap into the potentially huge Chinese market. But of nearly 100 million international Chinese travellers in 2013, only 196,000 came to the UK; nine times more went to France. The number of Chinese travelling abroad is expected to double by 2020. Wolfgang Arlt, the director of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, told The Economist earlier this year that the world should brace itself for the millions of Chinese visitors keen for “their turn to see the Mona Lisa”.

Officials at Frieze London and Fiac admit that the Chinese presence at their events could be more substantial. “We do work with museum groups in China, with an increased number this year, and we would like to see more Chinese galleries and collectors at the fair,” a spokeswoman for Frieze London says. The Austrian dealer Thaddaeus Ropac says that he saw no Chinese collectors at the fair last year. Meanwhile, Jennifer Flay, the director of Fiac, says: “We are not over-represented in terms of Chinese galleries; it would be good to have more.”

In August, representatives of Frieze organised a press conference and panel discussion, conducted in Mandarin and English, at the Cafa Art Museum in Beijing. High-profile panellists, such as Cao Dan, the executive publisher of The Art Newspaper China, and Wan Jie, the chairman of the Artron Culture Group, focused on “the state of publishing in contemporary arts”.

The real manoeuvring behind the scenes, however, was led by Slotover, who told China Daily that “the trip [is] for us to research more in China… there are always new up-and-coming galleries. We are also looking for new artists for [our] magazines and who could be invited to the fairs. We want to increase the dialogue.” The Frieze delegation visited the villa in northern Beijing of the businessman and collector Zhang Rui, the studio of the artist Zeng Fanzhi and key public and private institutions, such as the Long Museum in Shanghai.

Slotover denied that Frieze is planning to launch a fair in China, but the organisation is making inroads into the Chinese market by opening accounts on Chinese micro-blogging sites such as Sina Weibo. Slotover added that, “in the past, Chinese collectors bought Chinese art… they were not buying international art. It didn’t make much sense to inform them about Frieze because it was a bit early for them.”

There are three Chinese dealers at Frieze London this year. The newcomer Shanghart Gallery (FL, A15), which has branches in Shanghai, Beijing and Singapore, and Beijing-based Vitamin Creative Space (FL, F1) are in the main section, while Leo Xu Projects of Shanghai (FL, H19) is in the Focus section for emerging galleries. Last year, Vitamin Creative Space and Beijing’s Long March Space were the only Chinese galleries at the fair. Meanwhile, Shanghart Gallery and Vitamin Creative Space are the only two Chinese galleries participating in Fiac this year.

French fair looks East

“Besides the well-known collections that acquire works globally, there is also a healthy and large middle-class collecting base in Europe, not to mention the museums and kunsthalles,” says Theresa Liang, the director of Long March Space. She declined to say why the gallery, which took part in Frieze New York in May, will not be at Frieze London or Fiac this year.

Jennifer Flay says that Fiac has “expanded outreach quite considerably in China”. She visits Shanghai and Beijing every year, and hopes to welcome nine Chinese museum directors this year, including Larys Frogier, the director of the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai. Flay adds that the number of VIP guests from China who plan to attend the fair has increased eightfold since 2011.

Philip Dodd, the chairman of the London-based Made In China, which promotes business and cultural crossovers between China and Europe, says: “There is a sea change among Chinese collectors who are seeking to integrate Western art into their collections or build parallel collections [of international contemporary art]. Their growing presence at art fairs is one of the consequences of this development.”

Prestigious public institutions are keen to raise revenue and visitor figures by focusing on Chinese audiences. The Louvre is aggressively targeting Chinese tourists, says a Paris-based dealer who asked to remain anonymous. “Jean-Luc Martinez [the director of the Louvre] says that Chinese audiences are the future, especially if the museum wants to hit a visitor target of ten million tourists,” he says. Earlier this year, the Louvre forecast that it will attract 12 million visitors a year by 2025, a 30% increase on the 9.3 million recorded in 2013. The museum declined to comment.

UK vies with France over visas

It is easier for Chinese nationals to get visas for France than for the UK. “The French consulates deliver individual visas in 48 hours maximum, at no extra cost. The UK consulates have a service that is about as fast, but it’s an extra option that is expensively priced,” says Frédéric Mazenq, the director in China of Atout France, the France Tourism Development Agency.

Mazenq also says that the UK is not part of the Schengen, a network of 26 European countries that have removed internal borders, allowing passport-free movement. The UK insists on a separate visa. “A UK visa gives you access only to the UK, and many Chinese travellers want to visit Europe, not just a single country,” he says.

The UK government is trying to catch up. At the first UK-China Bilateral Investment Conference in London last month, the chancellor, George Osborne, announced plans to refund fees on up to 25,000 visas for Chinese tourists. He also exempted approved tour groups from transit visas, making it easier for Chinese parties to pass through UK airports.

The first UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange is due to launch next year.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Frieze launches charm offensive to tempt China'