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February 8, 2011

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Affordable art lures few Chinese fans

THRIFTY Chinese don't stint on nianhuo, or New Year's stuffs for the Spring Festival, but not many buy arts and crafts for their homes. Spreading art for the new year is a challenge, reports Wang Jie.

Affordable pottery teapots, ceramic jewelry, oil paintings and ink-wash are on sale at the Zendai Art Museum in an effort to popularize yishu nianhuo, or art goodies for New Year.

Most price tags are just a few hundred yuan at Zendai Art S-Supermarket inside the Zendai Art Museum, but cheaper art isn't luring buyers.

"The idea of yishu nianhuo is appealing but the art here is disappointing," says Wang Feiran, a white-collar professional in his 30s. "I don't see the link between these things and Spring Festival."

Because of his heavy workload, he seldom visits galleries or museums but the festive atmosphere of the season inspired him to buy some attractive artworks to decorate his apartment.

"I am tired of buying those IKEA things that I see in friends' homes - I need something that is special yet affordable," he says.

Affordable art is not a new concept, it's been tried in Shanghai and it still has a long way to go before catching on.

Several years ago, an "affordable art festival" was held in the M50 contemporary art hub and included limited edition prints, sculpture and photos.

"There were many visitors, but few buyers," says Helen Zhu who attended the festival. "Affordability and willingness to buy are two totally different things," she says.

Art, even affordable art, isn't part of most ordinary people's lives in China.

"Affordable art is really mature in the West," says Zhang Qin, vice director of Shanghai Art Museum. "It is traditional for middle-class people to purchase art as part of a chic lifestyle in the West. They might purchase a reproduction of a famous designer's chair to decorate their home. Art expense is a fixed part of the budget for each family," he says.

Early in 1999, the first Affordable Art Festival (AAF) was held in London and none of the works cost more than 3,000 pounds at the time (US$4,756 today).

Today that festival counts around 120 participating galleries and attracts around 23,000 people a year, according to the organizer. One in four visitors will purchase a piece of art, they say.

These days the economy in the UK is likely to change that.

Practical spending

"Chinese people prefer to spend money on necessities. We are more practical in our spending," says local art critic Wang Lin. "For example, if one gets an annual bonus for 5,000 yuan (US$760), art is certainly not on the priority list. A big logo handbag, a gold necklace, an appliance or digital equipment would be considered."

Zhao Ming, a teacher in his early 30s agrees. "My parents are very tight-fisted. If they knew I spent even several thousand yuan on a piece of art, they would think something is wrong with me."

That was true before the global financial crisis hit and now that China has recovered, art is still not on most people's wish list. The soaring price of housing and the consumer price index mean there are other priorities.

Investing in art is only popular with business "crocodiles."

Local artist Wang Yuhong says the idea of yishu nianhuo is appealing. "It might focus on ordinary people's interest and nurture it," she says. "The problem is how to spread this idea to the public and spark their interest."

She pulls out an illustrated calendar, with a painting for each month - an item that is seldom found these days.

"I remember I had different calendars when I was a little girl," she says, "so I decided to make special calendars and printing my works on them."

Many of her friends are surprised and delighted to receive such a unique New Year's gift from her, she says.

Wang now works with Leo Rox, a French furniture company, to produce limited edition replicas of her paintings on aluminum boards.

"My original canvases sell for around 10,000 yuan, which is too much for some real art lovers," Wang says. "The limited editions are priced at only 3,000-4,000 yuan, but the visual effect is surprising, very subtle with layers of hues and texture."

Selling the idea of affordable art requires more innovative ideas, she says.

"How to convince people to pay for their passion in art is not easy," she says. "It involves many factors, including art education, media reporting, good buying channels and above all, quality art that is affordable."

Zendai Art S-Supermarket

Open: 10:30am-6:30pm

Address: 2/F, Bldg 28, 199 Fangdian Rd, Pudong


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