At a time when a contemporary Chinese painting can fetch more than US$4 million - as Yue Minjun's The Pope did at a Sotheby's auction in London two months ago - it's easy for the art circle to get a little heady. But Pi Li's feet are firmly on the ground - it's his job to ensure that mainland artists benefit from their works on a long-term basis.
'Although the market is doing well, the future for Chinese art isn't good,' the 33-year-old Beijing-based independent curator says. 'The artists are quite rational, but the market isn't.'
Pi was recently appointed a co-director of the curatorial committee for the Artist Pension Trust (APT) Beijing, part of a global investment programme established specifically for emerging and mid-career artists. Under the plan, artists agree to provide 20 works over 20 years for the benefit of a community of artists. So far, there are 250 works in total, worldwide. They'll be collectively maintained, exhibited and sold at appropriate times to generate income for a pension fund pool. The artists will benefit annually and in the long term.
The curatorial committee - comprising curators, gallery owners, academics and art professionals - selects the artists. Sitting on the Beijing body, for instance, are curator Hou Hanru and Long March Project founder Lu Jie.
The trust was established in 2005, with committees also in Berlin, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Mumbai and New York. Japan and South Korea were added under the Beijing office last year, allowing the committee to select artists from almost the whole of the region.
That Pi was chosen for the job surprised few. The son of pioneer art critic and former art magazine editor Pi Daojian and an owner of the 1,200 square metre Universal Studios art space in Beijing, Pi has curated for projects including the Chinese pavilion at the Sao Paulo Biennale (2002) and the first overseas Chinese contemporary art exhibition at Pompidou Centre in Paris (2003). His two-year-old studio is now gearing up for December's Art Basel Miami.
Pi is also one of 10 key curators behind Phaidon's new release Ice Cream: Contemporary Art in Culture (2007); chief editor of Contemporary Art Magazine; founder of website Art Union; producer of Cannes-winning film Shanghai Dreams; and one of two advisers to the corporate collection of Swiss bank UBS.
His father, who was forced to move south to teach art after signing a petition supporting student protesters in 1989, wanted his son to study anything but art, but Pi followed his pedigree and passion.
After graduating with a degree in art history from Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts, Pi spent months in London and Glasgow, including at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, on a British Council fellowship to study art management. These opportunities enabled the aspiring young curator to build a network of connections outside the mainland.
Pi says that Chinese contemporary art began attracting western interest after 1989, when China became the world's last major socialist country. At that time, most who bought Chinese contemporary art were diplomats, such as Swiss ambassador Uli Sigg, or journalists working on the mainland. There were no local museums or galleries showing contemporary art. And as most promoters were westerners, they either presented a political China or an ethnic China.
'There was lots of imagination,' Pi says. 'It could be bicycles, the Great Wall, Chairman Mao, Tiananmen - that's why political pop was so widespread.'
Political pop and cynical realism sold best, especially in the west. International professional collectors, who had once looked down on the amateur western collectors in China, started dipping into the market as well. By 2004, 'a lot of young artists were swallowed by the market', Pi says. In other circumstances, they may have moved on from political motifs to explore broader themes such as daily life - but many were lured by the money art could generate. After all, established artists such as Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Xiaodong, Wang Guanyi and Cai Guoqiang were commanding millions of dollars for their works.
Yet those vast sums changing hands in a heated market may not benefit the artists. Most of the people pocketing the profits are opportunist investors or the rich putting their money in art without a long-term collection plan, Pi says.
The balance between auction houses, galleries, investors and collectors on the mainland is skewed, he says. Most investors tend to buy at auction, rather than from galleries. In many cases, speculators buy pieces from auction houses then quickly resell them.
With many galleries not properly promoting their artists and protecting their work, something has to be done to redress at least some of the problems, Pi says. He hopes APT Beijing will be a step towards brand-building for emerging artists, and bridging the gap between artists and the skyrocketing prices paid for some work on the market.
So far, the reception has been lukewarm, Pi says, although well-known names in new media and photography such as Ma Liuming and Zhijie Qiu have signed up.
Pi says that making the mainland art market more professional is the only way to avert a meltdown. He offers an example: Yang Fudong's photographs are selling for a modest US$3,000 in New York, a low price by the Chinese market standard, but a reasonable one by inter-national standards. This will lure serious collectors, providing a bigger potential for growth.
When APT decides the time is right to sell an artist's work, it won't be by auction but private treaty through a gallery or directly to an institution or collector, away from the distorted market valuation.
'When I was young, I thought the history of art was written by artists,' Pi says. 'Now, I realise it's formed by many other dots as well - museums, galleries, critics, collectors and dealers and so on.
'We're at a critical stage. If we work hard to become professional, Chinese contemporary art won't experience a bubble.'