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.
I 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?