NATION’S STAR RISES RAPIDLY ON THE WORLD ART SCENE
Galleries and auction houses change strategies to attract more collectors
Kylie Ying started her art collection with an abstract work from artist Zhang Enli about eight years ago. Since then, the Shanghai businesswoman has visited numerous galleries, art fairs and dealers to acquire contemporary Chinese and Western art.
“When I make a decision to purchase a piece of art, it means I comprehend the artist’s idea and that I believe his or her works make a point about the world we live in,” she said.
Ying’s appreciation for the arts started at a young age, influenced by her mother, who worked at a national art and culture institution. Her marriage to a fellow art lover deepened her artistic passion.
Ying also organizes art fairs in Shanghai and Beijing to connect artists with gallery owners and collectors.
She is just one of a growing number of collectors who are increasing China’s influence on the global art scene.
Like Ying, these Chinese collectors are wealthy, educated and passionate. Their presence at art fairs, galleries and auction houses is helping shift the center of the art universe from London and New York to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Christoph Noe, founder of art advisory company The Ministry of Art, said, “These collectors have a big influence on the (global) art market now.”
“China is the biggest market for many things. It’s the biggest market for mobile phones. It’s the biggest for cars. So why should art be an exception?” Noe said.
According to The Art Market Report 2018, China accounted for 21 percent of the $63.7 billion in global art sales last year.
The annual report, issued in February by Swiss investment bank UBS and international fair Art Basel, said that China — now the world’s No 2 art market, second only to the United States — saw $13.2 billion worth of sales last year.
Clare McAndrew, author of the report, describes China’s rise in the art market as “phenomenal”.
In 2006, China only accounted for 5 percent of international art sales. Four years later, the country overtook the United Kingdom, which had long held second place.
According to the UBS and Art Basel report, China accounted for 33 percent of the $28.5 billion worth of art works sold through public auctions last year.
International art galleries are following the Chinese art money. In the first quarter of this year, two renowned galleries set up their first Asian branches in Hong Kong.
In January, David Zwirner, a US art gallery, opened its doors in H Queen’s, Hong Kong’s gallery complex. It also recruited Leo Xu, a prominent artist and gallery owner in Shanghai, as co-director alongside Jennifer Yum, formerly of Christie’s in New York.
Swiss gallery Hauser & Wirth launched its Hong Kong branch in March and signed up renowned contemporary Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi.
China’s rise on the art scene may appear dramatic, as it has dislodged the UK as the world’s second-biggest art market in less than five years. But Noe, of The Ministry of Art, said that China’s prominent status in the international art community is also tied to its rise in the global economy.
“The art market reflects what is happening in the world,” he said.
China’s rapid economic growth in the past 20 years has captured the world’s attention. Noe said this also sparked people’s interest in other aspects of Chinese society, such as its arts and culture.
This is why in the early 1990s, contemporary Chinese art started to gain international attention. A decade later, Chinese artworks were commanding high prices at global auctions.
Chinese artworks debuted at the Venice Biennale in 1993. For the first time, paintings by several contemporary Chinese artists were included in a prestigious international art expo. Three years later, the Shanghai Art Museum organized the first Shanghai Biennale to position the city as an international art center.
In 2006, avant-garde artist Liu Xiaodong’s New Three Gorges Resettlers sold at a Beijing Poly Auction sale for the equivalent of $2.75 million, a world record for Chinese contemporary art at the time.
UBS-Art Basel report author McAndrew does not believe that China’s slower economic growth rate — no longer in double digits — will rein in Chinese art buyers.
She said the country’s market is now supported by a small group of high net worth individuals who pay staggering prices at auctions, but she believes it is the expanding middle class that will sustain the art market in the long run.
“It’s the upper middle class who hold the key to having a really substantial art market,” she said.
McAndrew cited the US, which has managed to retain its No 1 ranking in the world art market thanks to its broad middle class base. The more affordable artworks priced at less than $1 million each are targeted by middle class buyers.
She said these consumers support other art industry players, as they usually buy from galleries and art fairs.
The Ministry of Art’s Noe said China’s rising influence in the global art market will also raise the level of art appreciation in the country.
“Art collecting is now a form of social interaction, a lifestyle” he said, adding that most of these young and affluent collectors visit art fairs and exhibitions to socialize with their peers.
He said some of China’s top collectors have set up private museums to showcase their collections.
These include Liu, the billionaire investor, who has two museums in Shanghai, and property developer Lu Jun, who established the Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province. Thanks to such museums, the public can view some of the best contemporary Chinese and Western artworks.
Noe also cited the increasing number of galleries, private museums, art fairs and art biennales being held in Shanghai and Beijing, which have transformed the two cities into key art hubs.
The West Bund in Shanghai houses galleries, cafes and some of the country’s top public and private museums, including the Rockbund Art Museum, the Long Museum and the Yuz Museum.
Beijing is renowned for its two major art districts. The 798 Art District and Caochangdi are home to a clutch of galleries, boutiques, cafes and souvenir shops.
But China’s art scene is not only confined to Beijing and Shanghai. Guan Qiang, deputy head of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, said the number of museums across the country has been growing in the past few years.
He said there are now more than 5,000 museums in China. Last year, more than 20,000 exhibitions took place at these museums, with some 900 million visits recorded.
Julia Ip, an art business lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said international galleries and auction houses are changing their marketing strategies to attract more Chinese collectors.
To illustrate how auction houses are setting their sights on the Chinese market, she cited Sotheby’s announcement in April of the auction of Amedeo Modigliani’s Sublime Nude — which was billed as the star of New York’s May auction season.
Ip said the fact that the announcement was made in Hong Kong — with two Sotheby’s executives delivering it in English and Mandarin — shows that the auction house is appealing to top Chinese collectors.
Ip also cited Christie’s decision to launch the auction for David and Peggy Rockefeller’s art collection in Hong Kong in November. She said it was the first time an auction for a US collection had been launched in the city.
Like Sotheby’s, Ip said Christie’s is also marketing to Chinese collectors. Christie’s promoted the Rockefellers’ art collection in Hong Kong by publicizing the family’s philanthropic works in China during the 1890s and early 1900s.
And for a collector such as Ying, the businesswoman from Shanghai, China’s rise as a global art center is a welcome development.
“What I love about (the Chinese art scene) is the fact that it is active, lively and ready to create at any minute,” she said.
The Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, houses some of the best contemporary Chinese and Western artworks.
Clockwise from top: Visitors gather at the Long Museum in Shanghai; an installation art show is staged at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai; visitors admire work at the 798 Art District in Beijing;
A work is displayed at the first exhibition staged at the Sifang Art Musem in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, in 2013.
An installation by Zhan Wang is displayed at a solo exhibition at the Long Museum in Shanghai last year.
Visitors at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai.