I won’t bother to list all the prejudices I bring to my selection except to say that I’ve favored galleries and institutions with active exhibition programs over the stupendous but staid personal vaults of the mega-rich, places you can only visit once or twice without seeing the same stuff (I'm looking at you, Yuz Museum).
Located just up the road from arts district M50, M97 is a solid spot for photography. Works include foreigners documenting China, such as Michael Wolf and Nadav Kander, Chinese photographers shooting remote places using traditional techniques, such as Luo Dan and Lu Yanpeng, and more experimental artists like Wang Ningde and Jiang Pengyi. Last year M97 expanded to a project space on Yueyang Lu that shares a courtyard with James Cohan Gallery, a gallery that would also be on this list if my editor weren’t such a sociopath. Photography fans should also seek out Beaugeste, the Tianzifang gallery that specializes in news and documentary photography.
Art Labor has perhaps the most distinctive viewpoint of any gallery in the city. Vancouverite Martin Kemble is often ahead of the curve, helping kickstart the careers of talents such as ink brush painter Ying Yefu and mad scientist Lu Yang. He has also brought excellent artists to China who have never shown here before, including oracle Douglas Coupland. Also worth checking out is Ren Space, which is still newish, and remains somewhat of an unknown quantity. They exhibited Lu Yang's brilliant Kimokawa Cancer Babies last year.
Mall or no mall, the chi K11 Art Center is an excellent institution. It’s only been around since summer 2013, but K11 has showed some fine and surprising shit, including an animated drummer Feng Mengbo created using a 1982 vector drawing console with a built-in cathode ray screen.
The exhibitions often have a more populist bent, which sometimes bugs art nerds. It’s similar to MoCA Shanghai in this regard, another contender for this list, whose phenomenally popular 2014 Yayoi Kusama show caused an outbreak of polka dot pox all over the city. Another coulda woulda shoulda is V Art Centre, which often veers just a little too far in the other direction — it’s shows are spontaneous and energetic but sometimes lack resonance outside the local art clique.
Leo Xu shows buzzed artists such as Cheng Ran, Chen Wei, Gabriel Lester, Aaajiao and Michael Lin on three floors of a steeply staired lane house. Some of the city’s best opening parties take place here, just a short walk from from Shanghai’s hedonism ground zero, the intersection of Fuxing Xi Lu and Yongfu Lu.
Although Leo Xu Projects is the only Chinese-led gallery on this list, others that warrant a mention include Vanguard Gallery, Gallery 55 and Around Space.
Magda Danysz has had several large solo shows for established Chinese artists including Photoshop shanshui technician Yang Yongliang, urban camouflage operative Liu Bolin, and photographer slash wardrobe designer Maleonn. Her greatest contribution here, however, has been introducing foreign street artists to the city, with major pieces by JR, VHILS and others appearing in public around Shanghai.
Danysz also unleashed a dozen street artists including Futura, Jonone and Poesia on a former Zegna store at the end of 2014.
ShanghART is the city’s leading gallery both by reputation and chronology. Director Lorenz Helbling got in first, selling work in Shanghai since 1996, and has helped build the careers of many of the city’s best artists. This is the place to see Zhou Tiehai, Ding Yi, Yang Fudong, Zhang Ding, Birdhead, Sun Xun and Xu Zhen, among others. ShanghART’s success is so total that it doesn’t need to build conversation — the fact that they’re showing an artist is itself a marker of success — which can make some of their choices seem remote. Equally slick galleries unlucky not to make this list include Pearl Lam Fine Arts and Shanghai Gallery of Art, both of which are quick to spot market opportunities but whose viewpoints are less apparent.
Just north of Suzhou Creek, OCAT launched with an impressive Yang Fudong solo show in 2012 and has maintained the same high production standards ever since. The art center, which is well-funded by a real estate group, focuses on new media work. To this end, it helped establish the Pierre Huber Art Prize, for artists who know their way around an on/off switch. OCAT’s dual emphases on up and coming artists and new media work means they inhabit a fairly narrow niche, and sometimes get stuck showing the same artists. The ramped Minsheng 21st Century Art Museum, Shanghai’s Guggenheim, is also providing a platform for new media art, but the production quality is lower, at least for now, and the curation often leaves out necessary context. Minsheng’s Red Town space — which shows absolutely everything, including new media art — remains a better bet.
What began as “a gallery without a space” quickly established itself on the second floor of the 1929 Shanghai Bank Union Building, a grand old dame still clinging to a scepter of dilapidated majesty just around the corner from the Rockbund Art Museum. BANK is the most consistently surprising gallery in Shanghai, hosting such strange events as last year’s Chen Tianzhuo bacchanal, featuring butt plugs, torn up goat meat and butoh dancing, and a boozy inflatable Audi smash by Michael Lin and Rania Ho.
Other young galleries with great energy include M50’s Aike Dellarco, whose artists include Lee Kit and Jiang Pengyi, and Xujiahui’s Arario Gallery, headquartered in Korea, which shows work by Gao Lei, among others.
The PSA is an impressive but cumbersome space, a huge building likened by curator Qui Zhijie to London’s Tate Modern. The PSA may have similar hardware to that legendary institution but it doesn’t have the software — the staffing, budgets, etc — to match. Nevertheless, it has accomplished an incredible amount, hosting two biennales, visits from the Warhol museum and the Centre Pompidou, and, in 2014, a memorable Cai Guo-qiang solo show.
Across the river, the China Art Palace is a great place to see how Chinese officials want to present the country; it’s like the People’s Profile of Tinder. Here’s China posing next to a sedated tiger. Swipe. Here it is killing Japanese soldiers. Swipe. Snorkeling in a bikini with a sea turtle. Swipe. Kicking out the Nationalists. Swipe...
Since its inaugural exhibition, “Peasant Da Vincis”, in 2010, RAM has been on some next-level shit. Nowhere else in the city has such a strong events program or such consistent, well produced shows. RAM has held major solos for some of China’s most celebrated artists, including Zeng Fanzhi and Zhang Huan, and introduced the successful Hugo Boss Asia Art Prize. In recent years, under French director Larys Frogier, the museum has steered more towards overseas artists — Paola Pivi and Ugo Rondinone have been highlights — but it would be good to see more blockbuster solo shows by Chinese artists. Think what Ai Weiwei could do with the place.
Though they’ve gotten off to sluggish starts, the Yuz Museum, which has the most blockbuster artworks in the city, and the West Bund Long Museum, which has the largest private collection of Chinese art, both have the potential to evolve into excellent, active museums. Hell, RAM closed down completely for more than six months back in 2011.
So there it is. The ten best, most active art venues in the city. And 17 others.