China opens its door wider to foreign artists
Artists make their debuts, with a little help from their dealers
By Melanie Gerlis, Julia Michalska and Lisa Movius. From Art Basel Hong Kong daily edition
Published online: 15 March 2015
Demand for international contemporary art in mainland China is still evolving, as Western dealers at Art Basel in Hong Kong this week are well aware. But a flurry of major museum exhibitions now on in Shanghai and Beijing suggests that institutional appetite is growing, particularly in the country’s new private museums.
The Los Angeles-based artist Mark Bradford has a show at the Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) in Shanghai (until 3 May). New York-based artist Sean Scully is exhibiting at Beijing’s state-run Central Academy of Fine Arts (until 23 April), after the show opened at the Shanghai Himalayas Museum. The latter is now showing work by London-based Michael Craig-Martin (until 31 March). All are the artists’ first solo shows in China.
There is more to come. Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) is planning a retrospective of the South African artist William Kentridge (27 June-30 August) and—at the fair—the Museum of Contemporary Art (Moca) Shanghai is previewing its forthcoming solo show of the Italian artist Oliviero Rainaldi (10 April-24 May) at its stand (P9).
Samuel Kung, the owner of Moca, says: “I feel that Chinese institutions, private and public, and audiences and collectors are very receptive to Western artists, who are keen to come to China, given the power of its art market.” This extends to Asian names as well: Moca’s Yayoi Kusama show last year attracted more than half a million visitors. Kung anticipates such shows will increase in number.
In most cases the artists’ galleries—which have all made visible efforts in Hong Kong to introduce their artists to China’s collectors—have been instrumental in securing the exhibitions. This has included bringing works to this fair, mounting exhibitions in their Hong Kong outposts and building relationships with institutions, as well as organising and providing funds for the museum shows themselves. This also helps fill China’s growing private museums.
The reaction to overseas artists has so far been positive, both in terms of exposure and sales. London-based Timothy Taylor, whose gallery (1B11) is among those that represent Scully, says the artist’s show “generated massive interest” in Shanghai, citing 150-plus reviews. Scully was interviewed this week on China’s leading television station, CCTV.
The dealer Ben Brown says that mainland Chinese collectors bought work by the Brazilian born Vik Muniz “as a direct result” of the Long Museum’s 2014 solo show. But he adds that it is still early days in terms of institutional independence. “The best and probably the only way to get a show off the ground [in China] is to get someone to pay for it.” (His gallery footed some of the bill.) Costs can be particularly prohibitive in a country where, in addition to the usual shipping and insurance charges, there is also a potential customs deposit of around 25% of a show’s insurance cost. Bank guarantees and temporary visas are ways to get around this, but these can still be costly. Philip Tinari, the director of UCCA says that dealers are often the only people with enough liquidity to cover the (albeit-recoverable) charge.
Galleries can be, or rather have to be, very involved when it comes to getting the show on the road. In his catalogue foreword to the Muniz exhibition, Brown thanks the Long Museum for “trusting us to create” the show—though the institution describes itself as the curator, according to a spokeswoman. The Himalayas Museum’s webpage for the Craig-Martin exhibition says that it is organised “in collaboration with Gagosian Gallery and Holtermann Fine Art”.
Philip Dodd, the chairman of the London-based agency Made In China, who has organised the Scully shows, says that, even though commercial galleries are helping an exhibition come to fruition (as they do to a degree elsewhere), China’s prominent museums are not passive partners. “Everybody is knocking on China’s door, and China knows that it is the biggest game in town. [Its museums] are deeply and properly sceptical of people’s intentions and are not after a one-night stand.”
Tinari says that the process has to begin somewhere: “China’s institutional architecture is still bare-boned, so it falls on the shoulders of a few private museums to mount international shows.”
Meanwhile, galleries at this year’s Hong Kong fair are hoping to build on their artists’ exposure in mainland China. Works by Scully are on view at several stands, including Timothy Taylor Gallery, with four new, large-scale pieces, one of which sold on Friday (these generally sell for around $800,000); Ben Brown Fine Arts (3E15), which has brought Forbidden City, 2014, by Muniz, priced at $58,000 (edition of six, two sold by Saturday afternoon); White Cube (1D12), which has brought two works on paper by Bradford (both Untitled, 2006, $125,000 each) and Alan Cristea Gallery (3C23) has a set of four screenprints by Craig-Martin, History, 2001, priced at HK$64,000 ($8,250). Marian Goodman Gallery (1C07) has several pieces by Kentridge ($25,000-$200,000).
Mary Sabbatino of Galerie Lelong (3D08), Scully’s gallery in France, says that he “has universal appeal”. Deeply conceptual works are not the order of the day in China, yet. Cheng Xixing of Shanghai’s Don Gallery (only visiting the fair), says that Western artists appeal to young collectors as an instant way to give a veneer of “internationalism”.
Whether or not these artists’ solo shows in China—experimental and essentially loss leaders for their galleries—will develop into a bigger trend remains to be seen. Tinari says: “Nobody wants a project that is transparent in its motivation. It should be about the public, what is relevant to the life experience of the museum goer, and not just of a potential gallery client.”
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