China's contemporary art gets a boost from the sandwich class
After a lull in recent years, mainland contemporary art is growing in popularity
The Chinese contemporary art market, which has cooled down since 2008, is gaining momentum again with increasing exposure on the global stage and rising numbers of middle-class collectors on the mainland.
Philip Tinari, director of Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing's 798 Art District, has recently been busy working with 17 Chinese art galleries to prepare for the Armory Show in New York in March, one of the largest art fairs in the United States. China will be the country featured in its "focus" session for the first time this year.
"So much has been happening in China's art market and so little of that has been visible outside China," said Tinari, who will curate the focus session. "I think it's the time in history when the world is looking to China and hoping there will be some new cultural voices to come out of it."
Tinari has witnessed the ups and downs of the market over the past few years, and described China as an emerging yet increasingly mature market.
"Especially, we've seen the level of interest from society in contemporary art has been growing," he said. "The base of local collectors is becoming bigger and the existing collectors have become more passionate and mature."
After taking off around 2003, the Chinese contemporary art market has experienced a roller-coaster ride over the past decade. Enthusiastic investors and speculators used to be the driving force for a market that kept pushing up the mainland prices for works of art and breaking auction records.
Between 2003 and 2008, the transaction value of Chinese artists' work doubled or even tripled each year, with hundreds of new art galleries setting up each year to profit from the "gold mine".
However, the bubble burst in 2008 when the global financial crisis struck. The market has since slowed, with some works by top artists failing to sell at auction and transaction values and volumes both down.
Despite the cool down, the mainland market kept evolving.
Feng Ying, a manager of Beijing's Space Station art centre, said the biggest change in the industry in recent years was the increasing number of new collectors.
"They are very different from pure investors," she said. "They are not very rich. They could come from all walks of life, working as architects, designers, doctors, lawyers or white-collar workers. Their budget for a painting may be just tens of thousands of bucks. But they are real art lovers. They do a lot of research on the artists and go to many exhibitions. They have their own taste for art."
Although the art market is still in a trough, the growing customer base has given Feng more confidence about the future.
To explore more business opportunities and build up solid information, Feng said they were seeking more exposure internationally by attending overseas art events, organising artist exchange programmes and planning exhibitions overseas. The Armory Show is a major event on its schedule this year.
"Going international is an essential process that all the top art galleries in the world would go through," she said. "We have just started and will do more this year."
Feng's art centre is working with Double Fly, a team of nine artists, to present a "performance artwork" at the New York show, which she said would create a joyful atmosphere and enable interaction with everybody at the show.
"We are very excited," Feng said. "We'd like to tell the world there's not only Ai Weiwei or Cai Guoqiang in China. There are many more good and interesting artists and examples of avant-garde art."
Gallery Yang has also been selected to join the Armory Show.
Founded in 2010, the gallery aims to find young, talented artists and help them develop their art careers.
"We told the artists they must have an 'international vision'," said Mu Jinpeng, general manager of the gallery.
"For an artist, his creation would be different if he is clear about his position in the international art world. For the gallery, it can meet different collectors and industry people by joining overseas art events."
She said she had also noticed more new collectors showing an interest in contemporary art.
"Most of these collectors received a good education and have an overseas background," Mu said. "The potential of growth in value is of course an important goal for them to invest in a piece, but love of art is a more important reason attracting them to this industry."