THE NEW SHANGHAI Gallery of Art (SGA) opened on the Bund a couple weeks ago, and anyone who was anyone was there: media types, event sponsors from designer labels, artists in heavy-framed glasses and a curator wrapped in a red feather boa. Waiters made the rounds with champagne, canapes and sushi rolls made with as much artistic license as the paintings on the walls. There were works by the usual suspects, such as Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun, probably Beijing's two most important avant-garde artists. You've probably seen their works if you've ever walked down Hollywood Road. The former is famous for repeated images of bald Chinese men; the latter for repeated images of hysterically smiling Chinese men. The inaugural show, 'Beyond Boundaries', also features plastic dinosaur toys strewn on a table by Sui Jianguo (whose red polyresin dinosaur did so well at Hong Kong's recent Asia Art Archive auction), and several examples of the video art currently en vogue in contemporary art circles. There were 20 artists represented. The SGA is part of the new 'Three on the Bund' development. In 1997, real estate development group House of Three bought the neo-classical Union Assurance Company building on the Bund, intending to convert it into a showcase for the best food, fashion, music and art. It's now had a facelift, courtesy of architect Michael Graves. The finished space will include the SGA, Armani boutiques, exclusive restaurants, Evian spas and cigar bars - becoming part of the trend to create increasingly chic developments in Shanghai. But despite its high-brow neighbours, A-list of guests and famous artists, the SGA promises to be a more democratic space, one where students, bankers and artists alike can interact. SGA director Weng Ling emphasises 'this is anything but the standard gallery; it is a gallery with a mission. If you love art, you are welcome here.' 'Shanghai is too commercial,' says Weng. 'People from different sectors of society don't have a proper space to communicate.' She wants to use the gallery to break down China's hierarchical culture, which she feels cordons off artists from the public. 'I hate artists who stay only in the art world ... even if they have fights or intellectual disagreements the discourse does not spread beyond their small circle to reach the public,' says Weng. According to Handel Lee, co-chairman of House of Three and owner of both Three on the Bund and Beijing's celebrated Courtyard Gallery, the SGA will help bridge this gap. 'The SGA will introduce China's most important artists, known and unknown ... SGA is a forum where dialogue between art and society occurs, where the artists and the people converge.' The SGA opening follows a series of recent events that have given this economic centre increasing cultural credibility. In 1998, Shanghai inaugurated its Art Biennale by showcasing contemporary art from around the world. In recent years, new galleries seemed to pop up everywhere, and there are several heavy-hitters in the contemporary scene, including Biz Asia and the new Art Scene WAREHOUSE. Shanghai has also become a stopping point for major exhibitions of contemporary and ancient art. But many feel Shanghai has a long way to go before overtaking Beijing as China's art capital. Chen Jiaying of the Shanghai-based East China Normal University calls Shanghai a cultural 'dwarf' when compared with Beijing. 'In Beijing, you can find unruly youth devoted to contemporary art, businessmen in new suits attending lectures at Peking University alongside those who are struggling to pay tuition, and renowned poets drinking beer in a shabby tavern,' she says. A cautious supporter of the SGA, Chen concedes that it 'provides a long-expected space for art to return to the neighbourhood of common people', but she wonders if one more gallery opening is enough. 'To tell the truth, Shanghai is somewhat bleak as far as non-institutional culture is concerned,' she says. Some like Chen say the problem lies in Shanghai's deliberate attempt to re-create itself as an economic and cultural powerhouse. 'The people of Shanghai are good at making plans and have achieved remarkable successes in their economic planning. But I am a bit dubious about their cultural planning,' she says. For Lee, creating a cultural climate in which art is part of everyday life is a much more time-intensive. Unlike Shanghai's economic miracle, its cultural transformation is unlikely to happen overnight. 'We need the art to have a lasting impact and to become an integral part of people's everyday lives,' he says. He regards it as a long-term project. 'Once art is brought into people's homes, workplaces, and public spaces the art will effect their children and their children's children and this is how change begins.' Of course, the SGA is interested in selling pieces whenever it can, but by starting with a private dinner reception for a solely Chinese audience, it is also trying to shift modern Chinese artwork away from foreign collectors, to Chinese people themselves. 'Today's Chinese art has little effect on contemporary Chinese society ... Most contemporary Chinese artists are being recognised and collected by foreign collectors, which is very troubling,' says Lee. This problem is exacerbated by what he calls China's historic under-appreciation of contemporary art - essentially put to a stop during the Cultural Revolution. 'In the recent past, Chinese artists have had more opportunities overseas, while artists who have stayed in China have had to work 'underground' or haven't had the ability to properly exhibit their works,' says Lee. The SGA's strategy to bring underground art to the masses is quite simple: 'We will roll out the 'greatest hits' of contemporary Chinese art, works that are very impactful and perhaps better known. After the gallery establishes a reputation, we will slowly bring in new emerging artists and will be able to place them in the public spotlight,' he says. In its first year, the SGA plans to hold 10 shows, featuring 80 Chinese artists. If the gallery is successful in its mission of introducing and selling works by Chinese artists, then it may open the gallery to non-Chinese artwork as well. Already some artists showing at the SGA see this as an opportunity to break from the confines of their standard oeuvre. Xu Bing, famous for his manipulation of traditional Chinese characters, chose to show some of his more recent work in glass rather than the avant-garde calligraphy that has become his calling card. Meanwhile, Taiwanese artist Lin Shu Min, who showed video art of nude subjects writhing in cardboard boxes, saw this as a political breakthrough. 'The inaugural show 'Beyond Boundaries' indeed breaks boundaries simply by inviting me. The Shanghai Biennale, which was co-sponsored by the local government decidedly featured no artists from Taiwan in 2002.' He says the SGA's readiness to include challenging work and unconventional artists will make it an 'important communication space and one of the most important spaces for contemporary art in China'. If the hype generated by the local press is any indication, the SGA will be a glittering success and director Weng Ling might just help generate the kind of open dialogue that brought her to creating this gallery in the first place.