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October 1, 2011

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SH Contemporary in uphill battle

ALTHOUGH SH Contemporary lost money at its recently concluded fair, the organizer remains optimistic about the future of the event and the art market in China.

Jasmine Jiang, manager of Bologna Fair Group China, an Italy-based company that organizes SH Contemporary, says the first five years have been difficult and that the company has lost a combined 13.2 million yuan (US$2.06 million) since the 2007 launch of the event.

"This is an incredible amount for any art fair in China," Jiang says. "Although we don't see a good financial return in the near future, we still don't want to give up this project, which is betting on the future of China's contemporary art market."

Despite the financial losses, there are some encouraging signs. This year's event lost 1.8 million yuan, an improvement from the 4.6-million-yuan loss at the inaugural fair in 2007.

Bologna Fair Group says they provide round-trip, first-class air tickets and accommodation in five-star hotels to about 100 VIPs. The accommodation fee amounted to 800,000 yuan this year. Other top art fairs around the world also do this although the number of VIPs will vary from fair to fair.

While it is costly to cover everything, it's done to add glamor and create a buzz in the art world by ensuring some heavyweight collectors, dealers and curators attend.

SH Contemporary, held at the Shanghai Exhibition Center on Yan'an Road M., was at its most glamorous on preview night when VIPs and celebrities, who were usually decked out in the latest designer clothing, walked the red carpet. The international feel of the event is strengthened as conversations took place in Mandarin, English, French, Cantonese and other languages.

To differentiate itself from other art fairs, SH Contemporary cooperates with various museums and galleries for sundry joint shows or solo exhibitions. It also offers cheaper fees to attract Chinese and Asian galleries that have existed for five years or less in order to attract up-and-coming galleries.

SH Contemporary has slowly altered its focus over the years to emphasis Chinese galleries. In 2007, about half of the 140 participating galleries were from other countries. Only 15 of the 90 galleries were from Europe this year.

"It's a good idea to attract more galleries from China," says Zhou Tiehai, executive director of Minsheng Art Museum, "The goal for a fair is to sell artwork. Here, collectors, regardless of where they are from, are interested in art created by Chinese and other Asian artists. Otherwise there is no point for them to come to Shanghai."

Still, the emphasis on Chinese art has generated some negative criticism in the media.

"It is an international art fair, and we want to see variety, especially the masterpieces from the West," says one industry insider who declines to be named. "I clearly remember seeing a painting by Lucian Freud (the grandson of Sigmund Freud) at the first edition of SH Contemporary.

"Top art fairs such as Bassel, FIAC and Frieze are not limited to a particular style of art or geographical area, but they do attract first-class galleries, first-class collectors and dealers from around the world," the source adds. "If SH Contemporary and other art fairs in Asia expand to add more international art, the gap between these fairs and the ones in the West would not be so big."

Meanwhile, another reason SH Contemporary lost money is because it has to pay an annual licensing fee to Shanghai Art Fair.

Good connection

Without the help of Shanghai Art Fair, SH Contemporary might not have even existed. In 2007, a wholly foreign invested art fair was still a "gray area" in China.

"The license approval could have easily been turned down," says another industry insider who declines to be named. "But Shanghai Art Fair has a good connection with the government. So they helped SH Contemporary get the license. It was good for them because they are not competitors."

Shanghai Art Fair has also undoubtedly benefited from the glitz and glamor of SH Contemporary. With the events partially overlapping, many of the big names attending SH Contemporary also make time to visit Shanghai Art Fair, which was held a week later.

Lin Mingjie, a renowned local art critic, says Shanghai Art Fair could learn from SH Contemporary. "If SH Contemporary is the art industry's equivalent of the Louis Vuitton in fashion, then Shanghai Art Fair is a purely domestic brand no one has ever heard of outside China.

"The problem for Shanghai Art Fair is not money, but how to boost its image and influence," Lin adds. "The organizer needs to pay attention to details. For example, the exhibition booths need to be better and they should have proper lighting for the artwork on display, otherwise it looks very amateur compared with other art fairs."

Despite these flaws, Shanghai Art Fair, unlike SH Contemporary, is profitable.

According to Gu Zhihua, director of Shanghai Art Fair, the total amount of art pieces sold at this year's fair exceeded 130 million yuan.

Even though the two events peacefully coexist at present, there does seem to be potential for problems in the future.

Both want to attract the top galleries in China and Asia."We participate in both SH Contemporary and Shanghai Art Fair," says Helen Zhu, a staff member at ShanghART, one of the top galleries in Shanghai. "It's good to promote our contracted artists at both fairs."

Most galleries, however, don't have that luxury and are forced to choose one to attend.

If Shanghai Art Fair decides to spend more money on boosting its image and becomes better managed, SH Contemporary could likely face an even bigger battle to stay afloat.


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