Thoughts from the Shanghai Millenium

Greetings from Shanghai, where my party of journalists seem to be the guinea pigs for a new hotel here. Everything is new here, but then that’s the case all over Shanghai.

IMG_0072.JPGI came from the Singapore biennial and saw the Shanghai biennial yesterday. It’s an interesting contrast between the two. Singapore’s cultural scene is very much driven by funds from the state and local corporations (two sectors which in Singapore are functionally a single entity). The biennial was held in the former city hall courts and a military camp. We had an early-morning meeting with the National Arts Council leaders, who trumpeted their budget and exchange programs and showed us a slick video, talking about the arts using an ABC theory – “Art for Art’s Sake, Art for Business’s sake, Art for Community’s Sake.” Talking to locals, the reality is that most Singapore artists live on (often-generous) state grants. So it’s much like an extreme version of Holland in that sense – working the system is a key skill for artists, while galleries are minor players.

Except that as democracies go, Holland and Singapore could not be more different. Supposedly, Singaporean customs officials have the right to demand a drug test when you enter the country and you can get busted for having drug traces in your hair.) When I asked the NAC guys what efforts they were making to grow the private-sector scene there, by encouraging galleries and collectors, their response was a bunch of circumlocution and the ABCs again. Frankly, I’m not sure it’s in their interest for the artists there to be able to stand on their own two feet financially.

Shanghai is radically elsewise. Based on second-hand reports, I expected a hyper-active market-driven scene, yet frankly it’s even more commercial than I expected. Artists with no track record are demanding $20,000 per painting and refusing to work in exclusive ways with galleries. I visited the former factory complex which houses Shangarts and Eastlink (two of the best Shanghai spaces) yesterday, and there were dozens of artist studios there as well, all of them looking more like the Indonesian batik galleries of Yogjakarta than like actual work spaces. Which pretty much confirms for me the rumors that China’s artists do much of their business from their studios, dealing directly to clients who seek them out. No wonder so many Western galleries are getting tired of trying to represent them. On the other hand, many recent art-school graduates are wealthier than anyone working at the Ministry of Culture, so the absence of state money for ConArt (the Shanghai biennial ran out of money and had to cancel several projects) does not really matter.

On balance, I think China’s situation is better, but it’s really not stable at all. Because as much as today’s Western dealers may be pushing things price-wise, they also know what happened to Cucchi, Schnabel, etc post 80s boom, so there’s a moderating influence. And the reality is that much of the Chinese market now is driven by Western speculation. Which means that it’s totally dependent on the continuous influx of new collectors for those speculators to sell to. I was dubious about this, and am even more so, having seen it up close. Ian, I’d love your thoughts on this as seen from Beijing. Andras: Any thoughts on the state vs. private sector impact on arts scenes?

7 thoughts on “Thoughts from the Shanghai Millenium”

  1. Greetings from Stockholm:

    Thanks for that vivid account. It reminds me of those communications theories in which they say that nations that start later in modernizing their infrastructure actually jump over whole stages of development. So maybe the arts in China can go straight from state oppression to a full-fledged free market, without ever having to deal with the nuisance of galleries as other intermediaries.

    One point about state subsidies. I was meeting with the president and some colleagues of his at Konstfack, the largest art and design school here (I am here to moderate a conference panel on cultural innovation). It is a sparkling, impressive facility in the former Ericsson factory — a Marimekko utopia. We got to talking about subsidies, and needless to say, Swedish artists are subsidized up to the hilt. I asked my dinner companions the requisite question, namely, can they name any internationally successful Swedish artists? There was a very long pause indeed before they came out with some names, few of which I recognized. The conversation quickly turned elsewhere.

  2. Yep. As implied by Marc in his intro: the skills required to manage government funding applications are not the same skills required to produce wonderful work. And if you subsidize artists of low quality through govt funding you remove potential buyers (through unfair competition) from good artists not subsidised, who then exit the market.

    So the system that currently exists in China, IMHO, is better. Though perhaps not ideal.

    Three thoughts;-

    1. Same problem exists with subsidising industries or companies.

    2. Even where a good argument exists for govt support (nascent market, few buyers), the people used to choose who gets subsidy / cheap studio space / whatever are almost always the wrong people.

    3. Supply and Demand. Both Shanghai and Beijing suffer from an excess of dollars over sense; and an excess of dollars over quality work to buy. Beijing is a little better a) because there is less silly money around (lots, but less) and b) there are more good artists in Beijing (bold statement from someone who has been here a month but seems to be the accepted view amongst better qualified commentators than me).

    General observation: Beijing as the centre of politics and tertiary education in the country, has more artists and more to write / paint / sculpt / whatever about. So the supply side is strong in both quantity and relative quality, and supply and demand should be in better balance. But the prices have still risen ten fold in three years; i.e. from $100 to $1000 for recent graduates, and from $1,000 to $10,000+ to people with galleries behind them. And I am obviously NOT talking about people with any history. They are now $50,000++.

    As with our previous discussion about global pricing cycles, the question is simply: WHEN the blowout? And how much does it catch?

  3. I don’t disagree with the theory. The problem is still that the people the “state” chooses to make funding decisions can end up funding even worse rubbish than private collectors.

    But this raises a different discussion: accepting that neither states nor individuals will necessarily buy good work, does it matter whether there is funding or are buyers at all? Sure some big constructs need funders to pay for materials, but then big isn’t either necessary, or necessarily good. The modern ‘truth’ is that Art is now a supply side phenomenon; it results from a confluence of a need to communicate and a talented ability to communicate. Who needs a buyer? Or at least who needs an overpaying or subsidising buyer?

    Paint to order portraits are of course at the other end of the scale. Without the commission there is no portrait. But that “Art” (even at its Old Master heights) has little to do with modern concepts of Art anyway.

    Forgive me. I am straying from my point; which is that I see very little argument for badly directed state funding in an Art market already awash with money; informed or otherwise. I only see the need in times of depression (shortage of buyers, need for cultural stimulus at a time when the market is failing.)

    Trouble is, like most government institutions, it is difficult to turn these things off and on (like English Heritage in the UK listing and funding the restoration of ugly buildings because there is nothing good left to preserve and they need to justify their salaries).

    Am I ranting here? %-) I have certainly strayed. Forgive me.

  4. Display (Museums, Kunsthalle et al) is where I think public money should stay, when it comes to contemporary works. Support the showing and promoting of new work but stay away from the buying until reputations are established. And then, over time, build up a limited number of public collections of recogniseably (time tested) wonderful works. But this current penchant for speculating like collectors on brand new names is a tad overenthusiastic use of public funds and likely to be no more successful than your average venture capitalist (10% success). It also is one of the drivers of the overpricing of the current market as overfunded arts institutions try to outbid each other, and private collectors, to fund ever thinner, competing collections.

    Too much public (and new private) money supporting too many institutions, doing too much buying, resulting in too many mediocre collections rather than a few great ones.

    I, of course, accept that every now and then an able public sector Arts protagonist will commission, or support the commissioning of, something wonderful that can uplift the spirits of a community, if not a Nation. Or perhaps buy a work that is unrecognised in its time but proves to be worthy of his/her support over time.

    But I think such good deeds are swamped by less admirable actions today. We have too many institutions with too much money chasing too few good works and the result is the price inflation of good and less good works and the mad rush by even public institutions for unproven names in unproven markets.

    THIS, I do not think is healthy.

  5. Hooray for the Third Way. It is only appropriate that I send three cheers for hybrid arts economies from the hotbed of social democracy.

    The reality is that, except for great boom moments such as the one currently going on in China, the whole dilemma of state vs. market really only exists in its relatively pure form in a handful of countries. Usually big ones, with a lot of wealth. In small rich countries, like Sweden, because of the lack of economies of scale, it would be very hard to argue for a pure market model. There simply aren’t enough collectors. If I were an enlightened despot, I would create some kind of rainy-day tax fund on gallery and auction sales in order to help artists survive at ebb times in the market. Or I would somehow impose a tax on other culture sectors that benefit from art trickle down. (I don’t think that would make me a very popular enlightened despot.) Phew, we have found our way to a big topic.

  6. I agree that total state support is a recipe for disaster, but I would never assume that the market identifies the best art. The market favours discrete commodities that are easy to hang in homes and don’t require electricity (like painting). Does that make it a superior medium for ideas?

    I say a combination of arms-length state funding through residencies/public-sponsorship/state-funded-museum-support and the market is the best environment in which to foster the most vibrant and diverse artistic output.

  7. Do not forget that the kunsthalle system all over Europe is public funded. They may not be collecting, but their exhibitions and commissions are essential to the financial support of artists and the overall mental health of the art world. Non-democracies pose different problems, obviously. But that doesn’t mean we should all become laissez-faire global libertarians.

Leave a Reply