Only by mainland China standards could a city of nearly eight million be considered small. But despite a tech explosion’s gentrification that has made Hangzhou one of the country’s most expensive cities, the Zhejiang provincial capital, surrounded by pristine mountains and spotted with tranquil parks, still manages to feel bucolic. Denizens have been lake gazing, tea drinking and art making since AD589, and the city rose to prominence 30 years later, when it became the terminus of the Grand Canal shipping corridor from Beijing. Art and commerce have been crossing paths for centuries here, but unlike the nearby cultural capital of Shanghai, home to one of Asia’s biggest art scenes, Hangzhou’s creativity feels more like a lifestyle than a commodity. “Hangzhou and Shanghai have diametrically opposed urban rhythms,” says Cheng Ran, a Hangzhou-based artist known for long, contemplative video art as much as frenetic digital installations. “We exist in a number of parallel realities, and must choose between them.” In recent times, Hangzhou has started accumulating the sort of artistic infrastructure that transformed Shanghai into a contemporary art juggernaut, and Cheng will have no small influence on how much or how little Hangzhou will draw from or avoid what made Shanghai’s art scene what it is today. Originally from Inner Mongolia, Cheng has continued to live in Hangzhou since graduating from the city’s renowned Chinese Academy of Art (CAA) in 2004. He founded his collective and non-profit art space Martin Goya Business in 2017, at his studio in the Fuyang suburb, showing mostly young and outsider artists, and also home to a tattoo studio and Cheng’s 22 rescue cats. Martin Goya Business curated exhibitions of Hangzhou artists in Beijing and Paris in 2018 and 2019, respectively, along with regular artist showcases and public art projects in Shanghai, in an effort to bring a wider audience to the city’s emerging art scene. “Hangzhou is different from other cities,” says Cheng, who hopes Martin Goya Business, which opened a larger, more central second location at the CAA’s Xiangshan campus, on November 6, will become “a young cultural space run by artists, similar to Palais de Tokyo” in Paris. “Art is always changing, or it won’t be powerful, so new arrivals are welcome,” says artist and theatre director Mou Sen, principal of the Beijing- and Hangzhou-based MSG Theatre troupe. Mou was a trailblazer of Chinese avant-garde theatre in the heady 1980s, establishing the country’s first experimental theatre in 1987 in Beijing. The bald, barrel-chested, bespectacled and energetic impresario oversees site-specific performances, as well as creating set-like immersive artworks such as The Great Chain of Being – Planet Trilogy , which stole the show at the 2016 Shanghai Biennale. “The biggest change” for the city, he says, “will always be Alibaba”, which lit the fuse on a local tech boom in the wake of its founding in Hangzhou at the end of 1999. The company behind Taobao and Alipay, and the owner of the South China Morning Post , quickly carved out a chunk of the city with showcase office parks on the north shore of the West Lake. “Gentrification happened fast,” says Mou. “The tech boom has changed lifestyles, but [the tech lifestyle] doesn’t support art. Tech changed things in ways that are not right or wrong – just different. Every person, every industry has their own interpretations, like the workaholic culture [in tech],” which Mou says has clashed yet managed to coexist with the laid-back ethos of the local art scene. “Hangzhou is about the shanshui , and the lake – it’s inward facing,” he says, and unlike the roaring-business vibe of Shanghai, “it’s not a city defined by a river or the sea.” Hangzhou’s most famous band, The Honeys, was formed by a group of CAA students, who tightened their sets at Fanren (Common’s Place in English), a bookshop, cafe, bar and gallery well-loved since 1995. Today, CAA’s students and professors continue their experiments in combining art with music and literature at Common’s Place, which is situated in an old, nondescript residential lane under the shadow of one of Hangzhou’s many new malls. Venue founder Li Jiawen recalls how, in 2002, famous CAA alumni Yang Fudong screened several of his films there, and visiting Austrian filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky used the space for an installation “to test whether the Western functional tradition of revolutionary cafe culture could be replicated in China”. Wiry and intense, with a hint of his original Guangxi accent still lingering, Li is an art-world outsider but has worked with some of CAA’s most celebrated professors to stage experimental projects around the city. He had a large industrial exhibition space, also Common’s Place, from 2006 to 2009, and has been holding shows at ArtOne, in the current site’s storage room, since 2012. It is quite a leap from that underground, back-alley venue to CAA’s sumptuous new Xiangshan campus, built into a mountain in 2012 by Pritzker-winning architect and CAA architecture school dean Wang Shu. In 2016, the university unveiled the Kengo Kuma-designed Folk Art Museum and the Álvaro Siza-designed China Design Museum, which houses CAA’s Bauhaus Institute, and its stellar collection. The original Nanshan campus houses the Art Museum of CAA, close to the CAA-run Pan Tianshou Memorial Museum and the provincial-level Zhejiang Art Museum. Water, water, everywhere at expansive Hangzhou wetlands resort The art academy is almost as much a centrepiece as the West Lake itself, or even the Alibaba campus, and it remains the primary driver and shaper of contemporary Hangzhou culture. Founded in 1928 by education reformer Cai Yuanpei as the National Academy of Art, CAA was the first Chinese art school with a full academic programme. Merged in 1938 with the Beijing Art Academy, from 1950 it continued as the East China branch of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts. The school resumed its independence, operating as the China Academy of Art, from 1993. Hangzhou’s embrace of new artistic directions predates the academy as far back as 1904, with the Xiling Seal Art Society, whose members sought to update the traditional art of carving literati seals. Its first president, Wu Changshuo, would relocate to Shanghai and become a founder of the Haipai or Shanghai style of modern Chinese ink painting. The flow of artists between the two cities has continued, and many of Shanghai’s top artists and curators boast academic credentials from Hangzhou. Erstwhile Hangzhou luminaries Qiu Zhijie and Zhang Peili have departed, for Beijing and Shanghai, respectively, and both oversee museums in Shanghai. Qiu, best known for research-dense installations and paintings, established Shanghai’s performance-art focused Ming Contemporary Art Museum, while video-art pioneer Zhang is the founding director of OCAT Shanghai – currently closed after a scandal involving a video that ranked young women’s appearances went viral. Shanghai may boast a slew of art fairs, an internationally famous biennale, scores of professional galleries and dozens of decent private and state museums, but these chances to dip into that fast-paced alternative reality are readily available to Hangzhou’s artists and curators without having to pay Shanghai rents. “Shanghai jokes that Hangzhou is its garden, but I see it as two friends,” says Liu Tian, who teaches curation at CAA and is curating the 2022 Hangzhou Triennial of Fibre Art. “One reads, paints, drinks tea, the other likes to show off and throw parties. But there is no conflict.” Liu arrived in Hangzhou a mathematician, only to change course after meeting some of the city’s ubiquitous creatives. Quite a few nationally known artists have remained in the city besides Cheng and Mou, such as Li Qing, Li Ming and Zhou Yilun. Liu also seeks to highlight emerging talents such as Zhu Changquan, Liu Guoqiang, Ying Xinxun and Zhang Wenxin. But even in such a lofty culture, mundane issues remain. Of Hangzhou’s better known artists, only Ying and Zhang are women. Of the thousands of female artists who have lived in Hangzhou, only Xiao Lu has achieved international renown, for her daring performance art while living in Beijing in the 1980s. Mou says 80 per cent of his current students are women, but they hit a glass ceiling that is even more opaque than normal in China’s overwhelmingly male-dominated art world (all of CAA’s 12 presidents to date have been men). Though eastern China is considered to be relatively equitable, the cult of old male genius runs strong in this college town, and even Shanghai and Beijing have only just begun grappling with issues of gender equity in art. There, the exclusion of women is often blamed on market forces, but contemporary art in Hangzhou enjoys a position of artistic liberty that is comparatively unshackled. “There are many excellent female artists in Hangzhou, and Martin Goya Business works with many of them,” says Cheng, highlighting Ying and Zhang, as well as Gu Rong, Zheng Wenxin, Zhou Yaling, Tao Xinqi and Wang Jiaxin. “I think the issue goes beyond unfair gender treatment in the art field. It comes from the overall art system, and art in the whole social structure is problematic.” In true Hangzhou style, it has been a slow process. Only one well-known gallery has set up shop in town, the HdM Gallery, first established by Hadrien de Montferrand in Beijing in 2009. HdM Hangzhou operated from 2013 to 2017, and “operating in Hangzhou was great”, says HdM Gallery partner Olivier Hervet. “Hangzhou [has] a very strong cultural history, so people are naturally attracted to art and cultural pursuits. “The difficulty, of course, is that there’s no gallery ecosystem, so when you open a gallery you’re by yourself, you don’t have any random traffic and you really have to build your network of clients from the bottom up. The appeal was that we felt there was a significant crowd of collectors, as well as the Hangzhou art academy, which is a great source of new artists.” But there are not enough buyers to keep the lights on. I have been in Hangzhou for more than 20 years. As time goes by, many problems are no longer problems. Time is the answer Cheng Ran, a Hangzhou-based artist Hervet concedes that “there are quite a few collectors, and very active ones at that”, many drawn from the fashion world, such as Li Lin and Vivian Cui, from Cocoon, but, “no,” he says: “tech people don’t buy art,” a disinclination that has been noted worldwide. “That said, there are no other galleries because it’s obviously easier to open in Shanghai or Beijing, especially now, when there are free ports in both cities [where collectors can keep their art investments climate controlled, heavily secured and tax free]. We opted to depart when we decided to open in London, and we had a limited roster of artists.” So Hangzhou has just carried on in its own way. Liu Tian says a lot of the collecting happens informally, artist to artist, middleman-free or via non-profit spaces, and anyway, when it comes to the commercial side of things, it’s the Shanghai galleries that beckon for many. And, notes Liu, “old money likes spending on culture, new money [in Hangzhou] less so, they just don’t feel art is important, to them it is just a decoration”. Liu says there have been some collaborations between local artists and the tech scene, such as the digital Museum of Inspiration, hosted in the Alibaba cloud server Aliyun, although dealers in antiquities and traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy fare better. But, in the end, “the market should not be of concern to artists”, says Cheng. “Artists should pay attention to themselves, to whether they can get the intellectual nutrients needed for inspiration. The conditions in their urban art community may be more important.” Aside from his own, Cheng expects that other new projects will bring renewed energy to his adopted hometown, especially the hotly anticipated contemporary museum By Art Matters, run remotely by New York-based Italian curator Francesco Bonami and backed by fashion brand JNBY (Jiangnan Buyi) founders and mega-collector couple Li Lin and Wu Jian. The museum was meant to open in November, but Covid-19 has delayed the launch until an as-yet-undecided date. “Cities need more dimensions to their art spaces,” says Cheng. “[By Art Matters] is Hangzhou’s most anticipated art museum in many years,” and after its inaugural group show, titled “A Show About Nothing”, Cheng will be the first Hangzhou artist shown in the new museum. While the traditional gallery structure hasn’t quite taken off in Hangzhou, New World Group’s K11 brand has broken ground on a property in the city, and hopes to open its next commerce-museum hybrid – as it has in other regional cities, including Hong Kong – by mid-decade. “K11 has taken the lead in bringing changes to the art ecology and pattern in many cities,” says Cheng – but he is in no hurry. “I have been in Hangzhou for more than 20 years. As time goes by, many problems are no longer problems. Time is the answer.” And as one of the city’s adopted sons, it’s a very Hangzhou philosophy.