Gloomy picture?

By Zhu Linyong (China Daily)
(China Daily 11/20/2008 page18)

Can China's contemporary art market survive and even thrive in the global financial crisis?

Reactions differ among people in the art sector but some, like Xiao Baozhen, are not optimistic.

"The number and scale of art exhibitions in the coming years might shrink dramatically as people in the art world anticipate a gloomy economic situation in the near future," predicts the veteran Beijing curator.

Not that she sees the streamlined market as necessarily a bad thing, though. "People will use their money more rationally," she explains. "More care and energy might be put into holding smaller but better exhibitions."

"Let's face the music," says Li Guosheng, director of the Chinablue Art Gallery in southern Beijing.

"A slump in the art market is unavoidable. We must be prepared for chilly winter days ahead."

An equity trader-turned art dealer, Li is now reviewing his budget for things like advertising, attending art expos and signing new artists.

Nan Nan, vice-director of the Today Art Museum in Beijing, sees the situation differently, however.

Her museum is widely recognized as one of the city's largest non-profit organizations for promoting Chinese contemporary art.

Nan says the impact of the financial crisis has so far been mainly "psychological" and she sees no downturn for at least a year.

"The museum's schedule for exhibitions and related artistic and cultural activities in the year 2009 is full," she says. "No news has yet come about whether art patrons and corporate sponsors are going to cancel or downsize their budgetary plans for supporting our contemporary art programs.

"We have to wait and see whether our exhibitions and other programs will be affected by the global crisis."

Tony Chang, artistic director of the Amelie Gallery in Beijing's famed 798 Art Zone, has no time for self-pity. Financial crisis, even worldwide ones, arise from time to time, he says, and any astute businessman should always be taking such risks into account.

"Since there's not much we can do to change the macro-economic climate, what needs most attention for an art gallery is to upgrade its business strategies and management status," he declares.

Chang's gallery has for years been trying to build a bigger and more diverse client base, train a strong and professional team and develop more diverse products and services. Far from planning for a downturn in business, he says he will sign more artists to "boost the confidence of contemporary Chinese art".

The Chinese art market has surged at breakneck speed over the past few years despite influential critics like Art Map editor-in-chief Zhu Qi and Pittsburg University professor Gao Minglu warning it is a bubble fueled by speculators and conspiracies (fixed auction sales to promote certain artists).

The impact of the economic crisis has been widening and will certainly affect the art market, critics say, although it's not all bad news.

"The financial crisis has magnified the existing problems and may force the art market to adjust itself so as to ensure rational and healthy growth," says Shen Qibin, director of Zendai Art Museum, a pioneer in promoting Chinese contemporary art in Shanghai.

"Amid the economic downturn, some artists may find the prices of their works falling, some galleries may have to shut and some speculators may see their money stuck in the tumbling art market.

"But really good art will always survive. Honest artists will win due respect and reward."

Shen's boss is pouring money into a new museum, to be named Himalaya, seven times bigger than the 3,000-sq-m-Zendai.