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August 20, 2009

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City art expands to new horizons

IT has taken Song Yunqiang 14 years to squeeze his J Gallery into a 100-square-meter area in Jin Jiang Hotel Shanghai to "attract more potential buyers."

"But the limited space really hindered the further development of the gallery," says Song, the gallery owner.

So J Gallery moved to a new and bigger space on Tianlin Road in Xuhui District in a creative industry center early this month.

The 2,000-square-meter new venue, almost 20 times bigger than its old place, seems to "free" everything - from the warehouse to the exhibition space and art styles.

"Different from the original realistic art style, we are now focusing more on abstract and expressionism," Song says. "Because of the abundant space here, we are now starting to collect artworks. Soon we will have our own collection."

Nowadays it is rare to find a gallery inside or near a hotel in downtown Shanghai, although it used to be a common sight.

The reason is that some gallery owners have realized that the limited space can no longer fulfill their big dreams in art.

It used to be a smart move to first open a small gallery in a hotel or in its neighborhood about a decade ago. At that time, there were not many local buyers.

Some five-star hotels became the first choice because of their special location. There is opportunity for both: The gallery needs potential Western buyers and the hotel wants to improve its "artistic status."

Like J Gallery, ShanghART and Yibo galleries have also adopted the same practice in recent years.

In 1999, ShanghART moved out from the Portman Ritz-Carlton hotel because "the space was too limited." Then it nestled down in a 100-square-meter narrow space adjacent to Park 97 in Fuxing Park.

However, it didn't last long.

In 2005, ShanghART joined M50, the city's first and most famous art hub which houses a cluster of galleries, artist studios and design workshops.

"Of course, it has pros and cons," says Helen Zhu, a staff member at ShanghART.

"We now have a total of 1,000 square meters, perfect for exhibitions and storage."

Then the "crazy" ideas from the artists are able to come true.

For example, Xu Zhen, one of the most daring and pioneering contemporary artists in China, will build a 6-meter-by-8-meter swimming pool filled with glue for his solo show next month at ShanghART.

"Just imagine, this would be totally impossible to implement at our old site. Now, it's no problem," Zhu says. "But of course, transport is not so convenient."

ShanghART has opened another new venue at 796 Huaihai Road, a luxury complex with Vacheron Constantin and Alfred Dunhill.

"Leaving our location and expanding space in other areas in the city reveals the maturity and confidence of a gallery," says Chen Yan, owner of Yibo Gallery. "Actually the prosperity of the art scene is in dramatic contrast to that a decade ago."

Yibo Gallery used to be in a two-story building opposite the Jin Mao Tower in Pudong, a location that was envied by many of his peers.

"We had no choice, because of the city's reconstruction plan," says Chen. "What a perfect location it used to be."

Last year, Chen left the 300-square-meter space where she had stayed for 10 years and headed to northeastern Shanghai's Yangpu District.

"Of course, we now have bigger space, about 1,500 square meters in total," Chen says. "Actually it is not as far as I expected, but this is a matter of the psychological distance."

Chen reveals that the business has not been affected by their move.

"Normally a gallery has a certain number of fixed collectors who have trust in the gallery," Chen says. "The only difference is that fewer visitors come to our new place. When we were opposite the Jin Mao Tower, every day artists, collectors and our friends would frequent the gallery for a drink or chat for a whole afternoon. So we feel a bit lonely here."

But Chen is quick to add: "Today, geographic advantage is not that important for a mature gallery. What you sell is whatis important."


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