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September 9, 2009

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How art fairs fare in tough times: Focus on Asia, Chinese fare

THIS is a tough year for the arts and art fairs. Shanghai's two major art fairs opening today are struggling to survive and make money in the economic downturn by reinventing themselves.

With fewer foreign galleries participating, Shanghai Art Fair and ShContemporary have invited more domestic galleries. They are emphasizing Asian art, especially Chinese art, and trying to nurture a new generation of Chinese collectors and a public who appreciates contemporary art.

There's an old Chinese saying that applies here, of course: "When there's no light in the East, there will be light to the West." Interpreting that truism today means it's time to look to the East, which is weathering the downturn better than other regions.

There's behind-the-scenes talk that SHContemporary, which made a big splash when it was launched in 2007, may not be able to continue after this year.

Both fairs run through Sunday, SHContemporary at ShanghaiMart, Shanghai Art Fair at Shanghai Exhibition Center.

Just a few years ago the contemporary Chinese art market was sizzling and few could foresee what's been called the "cold wintertime" caused by the global economic downturn.

In the summer of 2007, the just-launched SHContemporary boasted that it was Asia's biggest and best art fair. Hopes were high that the successful event in Shanghai signaled good times and prosperity.

The opening at Shanghai Exhibition Center was thronged and everyone was chatting excitedly about the bright future.

Shanghai Art Fair, a local event that started in 1996, was another triumph for years. Many major Western art figures - artists, collectors, galleries - made a point of attending, though the show was not well known in the West.

When art fever was at its peak, first-class flights from major Western cities to Shanghai were fully booked as collectors, dealers and gallery owners rushed to the city.

The bubble burst.

"If I said nothing had changed, I'd be lying," says Wang Anwei, spokesman for Shanghai Art Fair. "But we wracked our brains to figure out how to hold a good fair.

"Not enough overseas galleries are coming this year, so we are attracting more domestic galleries," says Wang. Of the 126 participating galleries, 96 are domestic. The fair this year still covers 24,000 square meters at ShanghaiMart.

Last year more than 140 galleries attended the fair and around half were foreign.

The shrinking number of galleries is also a headache for SHContemporary.

The official Website of SHContemporary says 75 galleries are participating, but only 20 of them are from Europe and America. The number of participating galleries last year has almost doubled this year, it says.

Now it aims to promote art from Asia where the economic downturn has not been as severe as in the West.

"We made a big adjustment," says Xiao Ge, spokeswoman for SHContemporary.

Both the Shanghai Art Fair and SHContemporary are struggling to survive, relying mainly on financial power in the East.

"It's time for more people to recognize the value of Chinese traditional culture," says Wang of Shanghai Art Fair. "After all, it is the solid base of any further development of Chinese art."

Unlike the focus in the past, the focus this year in contemporary art is traditional style, whether on rice paper or canvas.

The entire third floor will be devoted to Chinese ceramics.

"Apart from paintings, sculptures and calligraphy, we hope to nurture some Chinese collectors in ceramics," Wang says. "This year the Shanghai Art Fair caters to Chinese collectors."

Likewise, SHContemporary has its "new bold initiatives." These include the Collector's Development Program that aims to engage a new generation of collectors; Discoveries program that explores the question "what is contemporary art?"; The Best Galleries program that invites top Asian and international galleries; Platform, a new section for emerging artists and work produced in the last two years.

Whatever its initiatives and tactics, the basic strategy is the same: buying and selling art.

SHContemporary has had quite a few directors and shifted focus and there are reports in the art community that it will not be held next year.

Pierre Huber and Zhou Tiehai, two "founding fathers" of SHContemporary, quit immediately after the first fair in 2007. Then Lorenzo Rudolf left after the second edition. The future of the new fair director Colin Chinnery remains to be seen.

It's a mission impossible to carry on its previous glamour.

"It's closing will/would be a great loss for the city," laments an art industry insider who declined to be named. "Obviously art dealing is not so healthy in China these days.

"The country has suffered for centuries. Today people are busy buying houses or cars, or the next round of houses and cars. Spiritually, they are not seeking art. For many people, art is just another form of investment. Art merely represents a monetary figure."

It's too early to expect a healthy and mature art market in China, according to most observers.

"It took Western people several centuries to nurture their royal art collectors, connoisseurs and sponsors. How could we achieve the same thing in just several decades?" asks Wang Yuhong, a local artist.

"I do believe there will come a day when many people will buy art with a pious heart." Show highlights Highlights of Shanghai Art Fair:

"Snowy Scene" (2002), Chen Yifei

Oil on canvas (139cm x 100cm) features Tibetan men standing outside on a snowy day.

Chen (1946-2005) was one of China's foremost contemporary artists and entrepreneurs. This work, said to be the best of his Tibet series, is a realistic rendering of detailed facial features, the texture of skin and costume.

Value: Estimated 10 million yuan (US$1.46 million).

"Standing Horse" (1941), Xu Beihong

Ink-wash, 136cm x 68cm

Xu (1895-1953) was a major figure promoting the reform of traditional painting. "Standing Horse" was created while Xu was in Singapore. He represents himself as the standing horse, reflecting his concern about the Battle for the Pacific.

"The Lotus Pond" (2009), Zhang Gongque

Oil, 1.6m x 2m

The 86-year-old master has a background similar to that of Wu Guanzhong and has recently been spotted by the mainstream. His ink-wash and oils represent a reform of traditional painting and a spirit of freedom and power.


Date: September 8, 7pm-10pm (invitation only)

Public days

Date: September 9-12, 10am-8pm; September 13, 10am-5pm

Venue: ShanghaiMart, 99 Xingyi Rd

Admission: 50 yuan

Highlight of SHContemporary

A team of three curators, Mami Kataoka, Anton Vidokle and Wang Jianwei, have created an exhibition that explores the question, What is contemporary art? Twenty-three artists from around the world exhibit their answers.

The same question will be explored in depth over a four-day forum of lectures and panels, Speakers include Hal Foster, Gao Shiming, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Boris Groys and other international experts arranged by Vidokle.


Date: September 9, 5pm-7pm (invitation only)

VIP days

Date: September 10-11, 11am-6pm

Public days

Date: September 12-13, 11am-6pm

Venue: Shanghai Exhibition Center, 1000 Yan'an Rd M.

Admission: 50 yuan


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