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State Of The Arts Part Two: Art+ And BANK

Talking to some of the city's biggest gallery owners, directors, and moguls about the state of Shanghai's art scene and where our city stands in the world art ecology.
By Apr 21, 2015 Arts & Stage

Overlap No. 23 by by Ye Hongxing (叶红杏). Art+ Shanghai brought some of her works down to the Art Central Hong Kong fair last month.

Some complain Shanghai’s art scene is, like, waaaay too commercial. Or romantically claim it’s just like New York in the 1980s. Whatever it is, there is an abundance of new museums, international auction houses, and galleries. Hundreds. But what does it all mean? Not the art, per se, but Shanghai as an incubator; a maker; a showcaser; and a seller. We explore that question and Shanghai's place in the art world in this three part series.

The recent Hong Kong art fairs -- the mighty Art Basel, arguably China’s biggest art fair, and newcomer Central -- seem like a fine place to assess Shanghai’s standing, and its place in the wider Chinese and Asian art ecology. Is our city’s star ascending? Or did Shanghai’s moment pass in a blur of gallery opening white wine and schmooze? And just how many museums does one city need? We spoke to five local art moguls about their experiences at the fairs in HK last month, how Shanghai’s offerings compare to elsewhere, and what the future holds for art in the city.

This week we talk with Ana Gonzalez and Bonny Yau from Art+ Shanghai, and Mathieu Borysevicz from BANK Gallery.

Ana Gonzalez (Co-Founder) & Bonny Yau (Curator) of Art+ Shanghai

Ana Gonzalez is co-founder of Art+ Shanghai. Founded in October 2007, the contemporary art gallery is a veteran of the local scene. Having relocated several times over the years, right now it’s in a bright, sunny spot on Suzhou Creek, a stone’s throw from the Bund. Curator Bonny Yau joined the Art+ team in 2013, and is the driving force behind the current exhibition, Still, on show through May 3.

SmSh: Hi both! Congrats on your participation in March’s Art Central fair in Hong Kong -- how’d it go? What do you make of Basel’s newest contemporary?

Ana Gonzalez (AG): It was a new fair, but not so much for me. The organizers were the same as at the original HK fair, before it was Basel, I mean. The shift to Basel closed the door to Asian galleries, apart from the very big ones -- places like Pearl Lam, for example. What Basel does is bring European and American galleries and open the market to them. But of course, space is limited, so they closed the doors to galleries from Asia and China. So, it was obvious that someone would start a different fair, and I was happy it was Art Central -- they’re very professional.

SmSh: So Central was predominantly galleries from Asia? That sounds like a good counterbalance to Basel…

Bonny Yau (BY): I’d say about half and half. There was a lot of Chinese galleries, but also a lot of Korean, Singapore, a few from Japan too. It was pretty varied, with a strong Asia focus.

SmSh: Who was buying?

AG: For lots of the other galleries I’d say mostly collectors from Hong Kong and elsewhere in China. But our choice of artists perhaps wasn’t the best for Chinese collectors. We sold uniquely to foreigners: Americans, Thai, Italian… it was successful. Not only in terms of sales -- actually I just sold two more to people who visited us at the fair -- but also making new contacts.

SmSh: Which artists did you take?

BY: Mostly Chinese artists -- we had Tamen and Ye Hongxing, also a few younger artists like Huang Yulong, Pang Yun and Li Yuming, as well as one piece by Nathalie Perakis-Valat. But I’d say the highlight was Ye Hongxing, she covers canvases with stickers, everyone loved that!

Illusion by Ye Hongxing

Waves by Tamen

SmSh: Why do you say it wasn’t the best choice for Chinese collectors?

AG: You know, I think our choice was very soft. At a fair, you have four days and in our case just 25sqm to attract thousands of people in a space filled with galleries. Those who sold the most were more "show off".

SmSh: I can imagine that’s a tricky balance to strike -- grabby works, versus quieter artists you really want to show. Still, sounds like a success to me.

AG: It was a very good fair. But I’m a little sad. A few years ago I was convinced that Shanghai would be the center for commercial art in China, and in this area of Asia. But that’s not the case: definitely, it will be Hong Kong.

BY: Shanghai has a very international character, it brings in lots of people, but Hong Kong does that even more so. Also the lower taxes help…

AG: One fair cannot become a big fair if it’s not international. The success of a fair is the galleries and artists who present, but of greater importance, the potential client. It’s commercial after all -- it’s not like a biennale, this is for sale. Success depends on good buyers. Without them, a fair can never be an international success, so Shanghai can’t become that. Because of taxes. I mean, 37% -- come on! When SHContemporary started [in 2007] I thought that maybe [they] would reconsider the tax on art to help the process, be a little more open. But no.

The Art+ booth at Art Central Hong Kong last month

SmSh: I’m still hopeful. I mean, there’s that Art Freeport thing, and the fact that Christie’s auction house was allowed to operate here independently seems significant. And what about all these creative clusters popping up across China…

BY: I think it’s a little optimistic to think that artist districts in places like Beijing are to support artists. I think it’s also to keep track of them.

AG: You have to remember that everything is new. [Contemporary] Chinese art is less than 40 years old. In Europe it took centuries! Right now it’s a big confusion, but I think in time regulation will come. Of greater importance to me is that creation in China is amazing. The young generation, their experimental art, they are open to the world, they have information, they travel. The creation is there. Slowly, the commercial part will come but it will take a few years.

SmSh: I hope so. Certainly at quite a few press conferences I sat through recently, several arts journalists raised the whole "art is too esoteric" issue.

AG: Maybe that’s because of this year’s Shanghai Biennale…

SmSh: Ha, maybe! What did you think?

BY: I thought it was good. But so much of it seemed to be an "in-joke," talking to people who already understand what makes these particular works interesting. I remember asking [curator Anselm] Franke whether he was changing his curatorial style to cater to a Chinese audience. He said no, and that to do so wouldn’t be challenging audiences. But maybe he challenged them a little too much…

AG: Some works were incredibly strong. But for the theme, I felt there could be stronger artists from mainland China. It was still very good, I feel it’s good for the city. It’s also good to be pushed outside of your comfort zone occasionally. That need to understand, it’s important.

SmSh: The biennale brings us nicely round to institutions. The one to watch in China right now seems to be M+…

BY: That will be amazing!

AG: Absolutely! The problem in China is that they build these magnificent buildings in which to house museums but they forget the team and the collection. A museum without a collection is not a museum. Museums also need educational programming, and big shows need big budgets, so a strong sponsorship team. That’s M+. And here, Rockbund: they have a program and a long-term vision. That’s a museum. Here, museums are opened by very rich people, then nothing. They very quickly rent the space to fashion brands or similar, but how can you call a place a museum that for four or five months a year is given over to events?

SmSh: So is the problem is private museums, rather than museums generally?

AG: Private museums in other countries work…

BY: But in other countries it’s often linked to a foundation, it has a structure. Here you don’t always have that structure.

SmSh: You mentioned investing in staff. Where’s good in China for arts admin training, curatorial studies…

AG: China Academy Of Fine Art (CAFA), Hangzhou and Sichuan - these three have strong curatorial programs. Many of the teachers are former artists who left China and came back. It means that at the top, the level is high.

SmSh: Finally, in the eight years Art + has been on the Shanghai scene, would you say things have gotten better or worse?

AG: Better, better… better! I consider creation in China to be amazing right now, more ideas and more risk. Perfect! The market? Better and better. The only downside is institutional art. Because of money. You know that in every other country, museums are what brings people brings contemporary culture, then the galleries follow. Here it’s the opposite.


Mathieu Borysevicz, Founder of BANK Gallery

Writer, curator and filmmaker Mathieu Borysevicz heads up curatorial and creative collective, MAB Society from Bund-side spot, BANK Gallery. Housed inside -- you guessed it -- a former bank, it hosts top-notch exhibitions of cutting-edge contemporary art from China and beyond. Right now, that includes group show, Vive Le Capital, on display through 24 May. Prior to founding BANK, Borysevicz was director of Three on the Bund’s Shanghai Gallery of Art.

SmSh: I realize Bank didn’t show at either of the HK fairs this year, but I heard you took Xu Bing’s concept store to the K11 there. How’d that go?

Mathieu Borysevicz (MB): Both times we showed it in Shanghai was at art fairs so the audience was quite limited, quite specialist. [With Hong Kong], it wasn’t so much the contrast of the cities, but the context of where the concept store was placed.

The K11 people had been to see Reading Room here at the gallery, so they invited us to do something in HK. Basically the only reason I agreed to do it was because of the fair. We didn’t have a booth, so this was going to be our presence. It wasn’t quite the platform we hoped for, but a good test run for a "real" market environment. We got a ton of press, not art world press, but that’s fine.

Xu Bing's Reading Room at K11 Hong Kong

SmSh: I feel like Xu Bing and all that consumerism somehow fits very nicely in the arts development here in Shanghai…

MB: Certainly the winds have shifted. Shanghai is now more of a destination than it was. All along there’s been this big pregnant potential that, I don’t know, miscarries or something…I arrived in 2007 and there was the first SHContemporary. There was all this hope and promise, and all these galleries around the world rallied together. But then, over the course of the three-day weekend it all fell apart, there was all this in-fighting, and there’s still that law suit going on… No one wants to touch SH now.

SmSh: And now?

MB: Things have changed. There’s a lot more bricks and mortar. A lot more fundamental support, not from just one single art fair, but across the board. But more important, artists are coming. Whether it's long-term or short-term, there’s a lot more production. I think that’s what’s been missing all along. Those artist-initiated projects. In Songjiang, for example, there’s this kind of studio ghetto that opened in the past two years. They offer artists spaces in return for leaving behind work. It attracts a lot of artists. The market has always been about foreign galleries, it’s never been an artist-run scene, and now I think with the museums, places like K11, there’s a good eclectic mix.

SmSh: Right, all those museums. And more on the horizon I hear…

MB: I think they’re a good thing. When I first came here in 2007 I was writing for Art Forum and one of the first things I wrote was how for a city of 23 million people, Shanghai had a truly pathetic arts scene. You could count everyone on one hand. Really, for a city this size, it was kind of dismal. That was my reaction then, and it didn’t make me many friends.

Shanghai should have a lot of museums. I think it’s a question of balancing hardware and software. But China’s always done things on its own terms. I think there’s a degree of naiveté that also creates a lot of licence: why do museums have to look like they do in, say, Germany? They can be different.

Countin' cash at BANK's current exhibition Vive Le Capital

SmSh: But is the sheer number of them sustainable, do you think?

MB: Well, they’re not going to make their budgets from ticket sales. Operating costs come from somewhere else, or they’re just going to pay themselves. A lot are privately funded. I remember talking to Budi Tek [founder of Yuz Museum] about just how much it costs to get the garbage taken away each month - on top of stuff like security, electricity, moving art work, staff, it’s a lot!

SmSh: I bet. But garbage removal aside, it’s great for audiences…

MB: The audience for art is growing. There’s the whole maxim of "build it and they will come" -- that’s happening. People are getting more and more interested; globally, the art world has never been so big or as influential as it is now. And that’s only going to grow. Certainly, in China that’s happening, but it comes down to good, entertaining programming, not just giving people a bunch of eye candy. It’s about showing a history, writing a narrative. One of the strong points of Long Museum, their original venue in particular, is that their collection really writes the history of Chinese art. From Cultural Revolution era to early modern stuff, to contemporary. They’re earnestly putting together a collection. Even PSA now is collecting. They’re building a story of culture. They’re also looking outwards.

So I’m optimistic. I won’t go as far to say that any contribution is a good contribution, but for the most part, they’re trying. Yes, programming is cobbled together from a lot of resources. It’s very eclectic and also very difficult to get a grasp of their identity, and their mission as a museum. I think the rest of the world it’s very clear and it’s taken very seriously, but maybe here no ones bothered to do that yet.

SmSh: I reckon Rockbund does that - they’re consistent…

MB: I think Larys [Frogier, Director] fought for that. But overall, I think they all offer something different and all do their best. The ante is raised. You can’t do what you did before, it has to be more exciting, or off the radar than before. That’s what changed.

SmSh: Do you remember way back when when it was just Shanghai Art Museum…

MB: Right. I mean, I don’t get out to half of these things -- I’m busy, I have to prioritize, but that’s how a real cultural scene is built: on possibilities and options.

SmSh: Since you’ve been here, what changes have you witnessed in terms of audience and maybe collectors?

MB: Certainly the collectors base has grown exponentially, and also people who were curious and are now regular visitors and now a lot more knowledgeable about what’s happening. It’s about enthusiasm. We have a lot of people who come ask if they can intern here. That’s great, especially given we’re only a year and a half old. Plus we’re really hard to find…

I’m optimistic. I think Beijing is still the center of art in mainland China, and as such, its somewhere I find myself somewhat regularly. But more and more we see Beijing people here for exhibitions, business, studio visits, or art fairs. There’s a lot more traffic in this direction. When you go to Beijing now it seems comparatively dull.

SmSh: On a wider scale still, how does the city feature in the kind of wider ecology of art in Asia, or the world?

MB: Compared to before, there’s more ties to the outside world: Yuz Museum has drawn ties with the Picasso Museum, they’re doing stuff with MoMA, they're drawing synergies. The world’s getting smaller and China is increasingly central to its geo-politic center. Culture is the next step. Without a doubt, it’s got a lot more interesting since I’ve been here. It’s no longer the dismal cultural scene it used to be!


For more in this series, check out State Of The Arts Part One, with Megan Leckie of Pearl Lam and Leo Xu of Leo Xu Projects


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