One of the world’s biggest art season is already kicking off in our fair city, as local galleries and museums unveil their biggest shows of the year ahead of a November now jam-packed with four art fairs in the first half of the month. Gird your livers and pack a backup pair of sensible shoes, because high culture involves a lot of parties – and a lot of walking.
Shanghai’s autumnal calling card dates to the 2000 Shanghai Biennale, which in its third iteration was the city’s first big internationally-facing contemporary art event. The quick proliferation of artists, galleries and museums in Shanghai fed into the 2007 launch of ShContemporary, which was the city’s first big, contemporary art fair, lasting until 2014 (though cancelled in 2013) and making the arty autumn an annual affair.
This year, Shanghai’s November art explosion centers around mega-fairs Art021 and the West Bund Art & Design Fair, respectively launched in 2013 and 2014, and this year both running November 11 to November 14. Asia’s leading photographic art fair Photofairs Shanghai usually kicks off the fall season in early September, but COVID-19 precautions saw it pushed to early November this year. New collectible design fair Design Miami/ PodiumxShanghai also will debut next month, from November 4 to November 14.
November "is insanely hectic! For instance, two major fairs, West Bund and Art021, overlap during one single week, and indeed every gallery wants to host an opening or at least a special event during that specific week," says Raffaella Gallo, founder of the ArtCaffè artist talk series and event sharing platform ArtSeeing.
In her seven years in Shanghai she’s seen the flagship fairs get bigger and better, while the museums and galleries terrain in Shanghai has continued to expand.
"The result is a crazy number of appointments that make collectors and art lovers running from one place to the other, jumping from an opening to a dinner, to an art talk. It is fun, but it can be overwhelming."
In "before" times, the Shanghai fairs pulled in the worldwide art world’s heaviest hitters – artists, collectors, dealers – for what had become the usually second biggest art season in Asia. Only Art Basel in Hong Kong (ABHK), held since 2013 usually in March, is more of a global draw in the region – though the durability of the domestic mainland art market means Shanghai outsizes all rivals in the era of quarantines and closed borders.
"Shanghai stays strong, it's a full year of art events. Galleries operate in all seasons," most with a new exhibition up every month or two, says Cathy Hau, a collector and art lover who last year founded the One Piece Club China (OPCC), a community for collectors of all experience levels.
“There is a galleries opening season usually in March and April around ABHK, while in the summer museums do more children’s programming.”
“I have to say that the Shanghai calendar is pretty hectic throughout the year, with July-August as the slowest period," agrees Gallo, who hosts online platforms ArtCaffè and ArtSeeing.
"Obviously, nothing comparable to the peak we have in November. In the past, we used to have a peak in September, due to Photofairs Shanghai," which plans to return to that schedule in 2022, "and then the big peak in November. As I said before, this year they will sum up in one single, crazy month."
She adds that, since Covid, Shanghai has lost the peacock parade of overseas galleries at the fairs, but new Chinese galleries are sprouting up to fill the gap. Many international galleries have outposts in Hong Kong or mainland China, and almost all of the big players have sales offices in the country, so there is still plenty of blue chip Western art on display.
"The quality of fairs like West Bund is really exceptional, people can see actual masterpieces," says Hau.
Western art also dominates the big solo shows that local museums have been unveiling all October, in a futile effort to evade the crazy calendar crunch. Long Museum West Bund is currently showing George Condo, Beatriz Milhazes (both until 28 November) and Pat Steir (until 3 January). Nearby, Yuz is showing Hernan Bas (until 9 January) and the West Bund Art Museum has its second Pompidou collection show (until 5 February 2023). The much missed Rockbund Art Museum just freshly reopened with a solo presentation of John Armleder (until 19 December).Big name Chinese art is also on show, with Liang Shaoji at Power Station of Art (until 20 February).
“There is a huge learning process for people here, it’s not like in the West with so many museums – but we are starting to catch up, with places like West Bund Museum and the new Museum of Art Pudong."
Art fairs are really just industry trade fairs, albeit hopefully livelier than most widget conventions, so their hot popularity in Shanghai for couples on dates or families to bring junior (please do not touch the art) can be perplexing. Still, their public popularity bodes well for Shanghai as a city with energetic art audiences; and and for art novices they provide a broad congregations of such breadth of artistic styles and backgrounds. While biennales and other curated group shows at museums provide more thoughtful diversities of art, the market-driven cacophony of art fairs provides a heady adventure.
“Newcomers should start with museums, which exist for the public, then go to galleries and fairs,” says Hau, who suggests novices start with Photofairs for its straightforward focus.
Hau and several members of OPCC will be talking about their collections at West Bund on November 13. OPCC has grown to 70 members since its creation last year, of aficionados of all backgrounds – and 40% of them foreigners – who support art by buying at least one new piece per year. “I see a lot of new collectors coming in. Everyone talks about young collectors, from generation Z, but there are a lot who are simply new, from al age groups, nationalities and professional backgrounds
"In the last two years, Shanghai is really setting itself up as the art hub of Asia,” Hau continues.
"It used to be Hong Kong, with Art Basel and Art Central, but since Covid they have been smaller or online. Shanghai has been special, even as the rest of the world went online-only last year, Shanghai never stopped. It really changed the focus of the whole art world.”
Art in November at a Glance
November 4 - November 14: Design Miami / PodiumxShanghai @ No. 1 Waitanyuan
November 5 - February 28: Group show "Good Vibrations", Liu Heung Shing and Zhou Xun curate photographs by celebrities @ Shanghai Centre of Photography
November 11 - January 9: "A Moon Wrapped in Brown Paper", works by Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg @ Prada Rongzhai
November 11 - November 14: Art021 @ SH Exhibition Centre
November 11 - November 14: West Bund Art & Design Fair @ West Bund Dome
Until November 28: George Condo, Beatriz Milhazes @ Long Museum West Bund
Until December 19: John Armleder @ Rockbund Art Museum
Until January 9: Hernan Bas @ Yuz Museum
Until February 5 (2023): Pompidou Collection @ West Bund Art Museum
Until Febrary 20: Liang Shaoji @ Power Station of Art