The Chimera of a Greater China: Analyzing the 2009 Fall Art Fair Season in Mainland China And Taiwan

Greater China
Affordable Art
Reassuring Collectors
James Donald bio

The chimera embodying the crisis of the Asian art market has bared its teeth. Further encouraged by a visibly distressed marketplace, there have been instances where one could feel the electric thrill as someone cried out at signs that the beast was ready to pounce. One potentially disastrous backlash was at 2009’s most critical juncture: the month-long period from late August into September is regarded as one of the busiest and most innovative periods of the year for Asian art dealings, where, on the cusp of the Fall season, Asia's most respected art fairs set the scene for the next epoch.

At a time like this the nervous, almost foreboding, excitement leading up to this month was palpable. The fairs in question are ArtTaipei, ShContemporary, and the Shanghai Art Fair. Each one's temperament and interests are unique and, likewise, they tout their own distinct approach, for it could hardly be missed that the showdown held as much risk as it did potential for lucrative gain.

So, when one by one the fairs of greater China opened their doors to the throngs of art fans, the beast that goes by many names, whether it be ‘recession’, ‘crisis’, ‘downturn’, or ‘woe’, was expected not only to show each fair's mettle, but to determine a champion to put fire back into the hearts of art lovers. But, despite the imaginative bedtime stories the PR representatives at these shows might tell you each time you attend, in the end, it didn't.

There was no champion. The only clear victory within the region occurred for the avant-garde. Winning unilateral support from each of the fairs, the phenomenon was best witnessed in the stark reversal of ShContemporary's theme to promote local discovery, and was visible in Taipei's pre-emptive contemporary art hotel fair, Young Art Taipei International Hotel Art Fair, in May. Alternatively, the more undetermined year-long initiative of ShContemporary's Collector Development Programme (CDP) that seeks to ignite China's burgeoning new wealthy class, although a promising venture, has yet to deliver. My comparative analysis of the three fairs in question will explore both their collaborative and individual conduct and how this period where tensions teetered on the brink of collapse, will influence their future role in Asia.

Greater China

ShContemporary's new Director, Colin Chinnery, puts it bluntly when he says that ever since the resounding snarl of the chimera echoed through the market last year, collectors still caught up in the chase for the next big work will soon “realize that art doesn’t appreciate one hundred times in five years”. While ShContemporary stood out in its adaptation to the humbled market, pushing through its central theme of ‘Discovering Contemporary’, both ArtTaipei and the Shanghai Art Fair stressed the agenda more discreetly with their initiatives on affordable art, investment forums and sponsored promotion of emerging local talent. However, the rigid stratification of the two elders, ArtTaipei and the Shanghai Art Fair, left these measures overtly superficial in execution.

Less adaptive, ArtTaipei is widely acknowledged as the region's most reliable contemporary art fair. This has proven to be a double-edged sword, especially this year when ArtJakarta tried to jerk the red carpet out from under them and to whet the appetites of art lovers by holding their début concurrent with ArtTaipei. ArtTaipei staff will remind you proudly that theirs was one of the only fairs in the region to survive the Asian financial crisis of 1997, albeit with indirect government support, a parallel that few draw between it and the openly state-run Shanghai Art Fair. However, government influence, to a great degree, explains the two fairs' conservatism. The other key factor is age; walking sedately down the rows of booths in Taipei, you could almost expect to hear the frail nostalgic coo “It wasn't always this way”, as if the fair were a creaky old man.

Indeed, in hindsight, the history of Taipei's art tradition is one of the richest in Asia. Yet despite its former pre-eminence, Taipei's art scene continues to grapple with the existential dilemma of finding its own particular market niche. To do this, a resolved display of independent leadership is required to stimulate the community with enough enthusiasm to draw international attention. Founded in 1992 with an initial thirty local galleries, ArtTaipei officially went international in 1995 with a foreign gallery component made up chiefly of art interests from Korea and Japan.

ArtTaipei’s successful première on the international stage was closely followed by the founding of the Shanghai Art Fair in 1996. Seven years ago, China's economy had just begun to draw stares of disbelief from the international community and it was the Shanghai Art Fair that held dominance over the country's burgeoning art industry. Yet despite superficial changes, neither ArtTaipei nor the Shanghai Art Fair were able to successfully bridge the gap between East and West, hosting only token appearances from American and European artists and galleries.

Things changed with the ascendancy of Beijing's Caochangdi and 798 Art Districts. While existing under constant threat of being displaced or simply blotted out by the government, the tenacity of those promoting these districts had inadvertently given them the bad-boy edge that helped push the market past its initial buzz. However, since the inauguration of ShContemporary in 2007, many see Shanghai as reeling back the title of art fair capital of the Middle Kingdom.

ShContemporary was fated for a life of drama. It was founded by Basel Art Fair visionary Lorenzo Rudolf, and Geneva-based gallerist Pierre Huber in 2007, after Rudolf failed to get Basel to expand to China. One year later, Huber was banned from the fair for unsound business dealings and ShContemporary became one of the art fairs to be hit completely unawares by the financial meltdown. The recoil from that knock then led to this year's more domestically focused strategy of management, where Rudolf stepped down as Director of the fair to be replaced by Anglo-Chinese curator and artist Colin Chinnery.

Chinnery was recognized by ShContemporary as capable of putting a spin on ‘contemporary’ in a way Rudolf could not. Partially of Chinese descent, Chinnery arrived in China in the early 1990s and has an understanding of both Chinese contemporary art and international demands. He is young and an artist himself, which makes it no surprise that he champions the avant-garde and underdog status of Chinese art on the world stage. ShContemporary's greatest strength is its ability to tap into the excitement generated by the vibrant state of art going on in China, which has since been compared to the America of the 1970s and early 1980s when there was incredible artistic experimentation.

While young and ambitious, ShContemporary developed a lot of clout in its first two instalments; it presented itself as an event of grandiose proportions, where thinking big is achieving big and, at the height of the economic bubble, it was a dream the international community was ready to believe in. Although the bubble has not taken any substance of that dream, the momentum of popular esteem for the fair has increased over the past two years to give ShContemporary a formidable edge as a leader in the region, albeit a leader that must continue to prove itself.

The Shanghai Art Fair, by comparison, is the safest and by far the most domestically oriented of the three. What its foreign-run adversary, ShContemporary, enjoys in innovation, the Shanghai Art Fair makes up for in security. Be that as it may, there was little to complain of; what was until a year ago a rampant torrent of politically demonstrative mainland art had all but evaporated. 

Affordable Art

Anxieties over the dreary state of the market have provided amicable conditions for the affordable art sector. For the second year now, ArtTaipei has put a strong emphasis on its Affordable Art section, showcasing works priced under US$2,000 and reporting optimistic results. On the other hand, growth is ultimately stymied by daunting participation fees.

A more interesting development preceding the August period occurred in May 2009 at the premiere vernissage of the island's first contemporary art hotel fair, Young Art Taipei International Hotel Art Fair, held at the Sunworld Dynasty Hotel, Taipei. The work being exhibited was diverse, featuring video, sculpture, installation, painting, and multimedia works by artists aged forty five and under. Participating galleries were further encouraged by the affordable fee of NT$65,000 (US$2,000). Prices for the artworks ranged from NT$8,000 to NT$100,000 (US$250 to US$3,000).

Co-organizer and Galerie Grand Siecle owner, Richard Chang, commented on the biased state of the art market mechanism, where most artists under the age of forty five have not had their work sold at auction houses or on the secondary market, leaving their work inexpensive and competitive in the international market.

Although the idea of an international hotel art fair is not unprecedented in other countries, it is certainly a welcome new breakthrough for Taiwan's community of young contemporary artists. The Shanghai Art Fair's solution to the fee issue was to make smaller booths and charge a reduced rate to entice small- to medium-sized galleries. However, judging by the severe disparity between fair fees and hotel fair fees, the success of the hotel fair initiative is almost certain to secure a valuable niche. Economically speaking, the idea of the hotel fair has been seen as the antidote to the destabilizing extremes of glamour fairs like ShContemporary, which, year after year, treads the line between success and utter bankruptcy. “We run a deficit every year,” explains Jiang Bing, Executive Manager of Bologna Fiere Shanghai Exhibition and organizer of ShContemporary. “The deficit in the second year was less than the first year. According to our experience, the third one should make a profit, but when the economic crisis happened last year, we had different opinions about whether the fair should still be held or not.” 

Reassuring Collectors

Despite ShContemporary's claim to be Asia's bridge to the West, in 2009 there was an almost equal amount of international representation between the three fairs. Perhaps of more interest than the hyper-publicized participation from Western galleries was the discreet alliance, or Big Three Agreement, between the Shanghai Art Fair, ArtTaipei, and Seoul’s Korea International Art Fair. This new agreement was drafted in light of the tough economic climate and sought to facilitate the exchange of collectors and galleries between the three cities. Indeed, a visible impact of the agreement was the greater proportion of galleries from Taiwan in Shanghai and vice-versa.

Seen as the biggest resource integration activity in the Asian art world, the agreement may indeed persist well beyond the current economic trough. It is difficult to overlook the lucrative opportunity such a pact makes for the Korea International Art Fair and the Shanghai Art Fair, when it will draw many more Taiwan collectors whose gross sum of art trade accounts for half of the Asian art market share, according to Katy Chien, President of Art and Collection Group in Taipei. However, when it came to discovering untapped collector resources, the most potential has been seen in ShContemporary's answer to reviving what Chinnery calls “a realistic market for high-value art” in the fair's newly launched Collector Development Programme.

The initiative was further inspired by the recent landmark advent when China’s new wealthy class overtook the U.K. with the fourth highest number of millionaires in the world. Indeed, the presence of this emerging class was made more apparent than ever at ShContemporary 2009, which included attending VIP customers from China Minsheng Bank, bringing with them assets totalling more than ten million yuan. The task then becomes a matter of massaging this new generation of domestic collectors. The programme has also collaborated with China's most prestigious art school, the Central Academy of Fine Art, to offer art history courses. Whether immediately successful or not, the programme's development is certain to be a subject of popular scrutiny throughout Asia.

Now, while momentum builds with the onslaught of the major auctions from Sotheby's, we find ourselves looking to the Hong Kong International Art Fair to deal what may be the fatal blow. However, despite the lack of a clean-cut outcome, last year's encounter proved a valuable insight in determining the future potential of each fair. Few could expect another bubble in the near future, and sales figures have already shown kindling optimism. What is not immediately obvious, however, is whether a lesson has been learnt from what has taken place during this period or if the Greater Chinese Art Chimera will simply return in another elaborate form.

This text is a revised version of the article with the same title published in Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Art Volume 9, Number 1, January/February 2010.

James Donald (崔晓虎)is a nomadic freelance curator and art writer, who bases himself in what he calls the "Greater China Region", contributing stories from Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei, while also reaching as far as London, New York, and Melbourne. He has recently been published in a number of art catalogues as well as art magazines such as Frieze, Asian Art News and C-Arts. James is also an aspiring fiction writer and is currently embarking on his first novel which explores the anthropological interaction of art and dreams.


Mon, 1 Feb 2010

Relevant content

AAA Project Space, Archiving Materials
Ideas is AAA's New Online Journal

Ideas is AAA's New Online Journal

Asia Art Archive publishes new essays, interviews, and curated journeys through the research collections

AAA’s newly renovated library and The Collective School exhibition are open by appointment only starting Monday, 3 October. Register here to arrange a visit.