SIZE CLEARLY MATTERS to Sun Peiliang, the director of the new art gallery in Ningbo, the port city across Hangzhou Bay from Shanghai. 'Ningbo's will be the second largest on the mainland,' he says, 'exceeded only by the China National Art Gallery in Beijing.' And Sun has the numbers to back it up. 'Ningbo's will weigh in at 23,000 square metres, compared with 27,000 at the Beijing Gallery. But, while our museum is smaller, its facilities are the best in China.' In recent years, Ningbo has invested heavily in cultural spaces. 'The government is building a science museum and it has already completed the City History Museum, a new opera house, theatres and libraries,' says Sun. The flurry of cultural construction mirrors the mainland's real estate market, which is purportedly on the verge of overheating. And although the City History Museum, for example, doesn't draw big crowds even during weekends and on holidays, Sun is confident that, in a city with the third-highest per capita income on the mainland and a long history as a cultural centre with its own artistic, musical and literary schools, the number of venues is only just meeting demand. 'The city is building so many museums because the residents, artists and tourists have asked for it,' he says. Nonetheless, he admits the gallery is part of a larger economic development plan to revitalise the area surrounding it on the Ningbo Bund. For a short period after the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, Ningbo became China's largest trading port. Some of the European bank buildings on its bund predate those in Shanghai by four years. The redevelopment of the Ningbo Bund has entailed transforming an abandoned site opposite an industrial park into an exclusive shopping, residential and business centre - not unlike the refurbishment of New York's meatpacking district or Shanghai's now chic Xintiandi. The bund makeover is aimed at enticing businessmen from Shanghai and Beijing to skip the last flight home, stay in Ningbo's planned five-star hotel, and spend their money in the stores along the waterfront. 'And, hopefully, they'll visit our fine museum, too,' says Sun. But now that it's built, will they come? Sun has impressive facilities at his disposal, including showrooms of more than 1,800 square metres, classrooms and a theatre. But he'll have his work cut out for him if he wants to live up to the gallery's formidable size. 'The gallery hasn't developed a permanent collection yet,' he says. 'But we plan to have a meeting with artists and, within two years, amass a permanent collection.' He says budgetary constraints are likely to limit the collection to modern pieces. 'We can't buy very expensive ancient pieces, so we'll purchase modern art.' Until then, Sun says he hopes Ningbo's gallery will attract travelling shows. 'The plan is to have four to five exhibits of modern art each year and one or two exhibits of ancient art,' he says. The Ningbo Art Gallery will face comparison to similar museums in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. The gallery's sister to the north, the China National Art Gallery in Beijing, matches its size and recent makeover, with exhibits that attract flocks of visitors. New director Feng Yuan began his career at the National Art Gallery by setting up a controversial show of more than 600 contemporary photos from the Guangdong Art Museum's permanent collection in an exhibit entitled Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography. The exhibit includes photos depicting everything from old men fraternising in one of China's ubiquitous beauty parlours-cum-brothels, to intimate body checks of alleged drug smugglers. Gone are the idealised images of happy peasants typical of Mao-era propaganda. In their place are more realistic images of weathered peasants toiling in the fields. 'The reality presented in these photographs may force political and social officials into feelings of conflict and discomfort,' writes Wu Gonghu, in the preface to the exhibition catalogue. The show reflects, in its selection of photos, directives issued by President Hu Jintao, who promises to take a more serious look at the disparity between urban and rural Chinese. Although 17 of the images were dropped from the exhibition when it reached Beijing, the show marked a turning point for government-sponsored art galleries, which now enjoy greater latitude in holding provocative exhibitions. Taking note of an international trend to stage biennials of various themes and scopes, the Ningbo Art Gallery will launch its season by hosting the International Poster Biennial, opening on November 26. The biennial is a showcase for graphic design talent. In previous years, it has attracted thousands of designers and design students from around the world. Ningbo's rise on the biennial circuit and the building of the gallery figure into a greater movement sweeping the mainland. There are already biennials in Shanghai, Chengdu and Beijing, and a triennial in Guangzhou. Art schools are under construction or renovation, and the works being produced show in the various galleries cropping up in Chinese cities. In an article titled The Future: In Whose Hands? (printed in the Chinese art quarterly Yishu), independent art critic and author Karen Smith says recent investment in the arts owes much to government recognition that cultural vitality must match economic prosperity in establishing China as a developed country. In the same journal, art critic Martina Koeppel-Yang says the investment in the arts is a cultural form of 'ping-pong diplomacy', aimed at demonstrating that the central government supports multiple forms of expression. 'The new gallery simply comes in response to public demand for a cultural centre to show off the wealth of Ningbo culture, and nothing more,' says Sun. To all appearances, the Ningbo Art Gallery appears keen to expand the boundaries of expression rather than limit them. 'We'll invite artists from all over the world to show in these exhibits - not just Ningbo artists,' says Sun. The gallery has eight large studios and can house artist-in-residence programmes. But if authentic freedom of expression is the end goal, one wonders what artist would dare create politically sensitive work in a government-sponsored bungalow overlooking the Ningbo Bund. 'I think Ningbo is ready for this art gallery,' says local artist Lin Shaoling, sitting in his large studio covered with paintings created during his travels in the US and Europe. 'The artists are here, and there's a tradition of great art and artists in Ningbo.' Sun - ever ready with his statistics - says there are 388 artists formally recognised by the city of Ningbo, 137 of whom are also recognised by Zhejiang province, and 22 at the national level. The two men conjure images of Ningbo as an artist's paradise, a city bursting with artistic activity in verdant surroundings. But later an artist passes me a monograph of his work. 'When you're in Beijing, please see if there are any galleries interested in showing my paintings,' he says. Ningbo may well become an artistic centre eventually, but this city by the sea is first and foremost a town of merchants.