Hand over
By Zhao Xu (China Daily)
China Daily 04/10/2009 page18

For anybody who still watches the news these days, the international art market, which some think is led by the phenomenal rise of contemporary Chinese art, is on the brink of tumbling. Pieces that would have easily fetched hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone unsold at auctions; galleries have shut down in the middle of refurbishment; and artists who had previously been limoed around for show openings have suddenly found time to paint.

Amid all the doom-talking and fear-mongering, one place attracting special attention is the 798 Art District in northeastern Beijing. Regarded as China's answer to New York's Chelsea and the undisputable center of the Asian art world, the 500,000 sq m space outside the city's fourth ring road has packed in over 200 galleries, the latest addition being the first Asian outpost for PaceWildenstein of New York.

A recent visit, on a chilly, rain-washed Friday morning, saw the gallery district-cum-artists' colony in a sedate, if not sleepy, state. Colorful posters still lined the main boulevard but most belonged to exhibitions that had been shut for a month. The site was mostly cleared and only an occasional handful of visitors lingered in front of closed doors and painted in red on a bare brick wall was an advertisement for a show: A Warm Beijing Winter.

For most 798 residents, last winter was less than warm.

Jerome Sans, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), believed that the casualties should be investigated case by case. "If you tell me 10 galleries have closed, I'd ask: who? It all depends who you are talking about," he said. "Some galleries opened last year to cash in on the growing phenomenon of contemporary Chinese art. They abused art and had bad motives. They are out now."

And if you listen to Sans, the bursting of the art bubble has been viewed by many in the gallery world with a sense of relief. "It's childish to think it would last forever," he said, referring to an overheated art market where everything fetched dizzying prices and was snatched up at auctions. "You could smell the crisis back in 2007 when you saw people scampering around for money like idiots."

The crisis does impact everyone, albeit in mixed ways.

According to Guo Xiaoyan, chief curator of UCCA, blockbuster shows involving the shipping of items from foreign art institutions were unlikely to take place in the near future. "We plan to focus on projects created by Chinese artists in China for our local audience," she said. "Bearing in mind that most of the big names in contemporary Chinese art have first achieved their successes overseas, this will help nurture local creativity in the true sense of the word."

By doing so, the Center has realigned itself with its founding mission: to put Chinese art and artists on an equal footing with the rest of the world.

"In bad times, galleries tend to look at available resources," said Guo. "Re-editing existing collections could give birth to a whole new show."

For Sans, the present is a "fantastic historical moment for Chinese art and for 798".

"I'm not trying to hide the crisis and frankly, I don't care how long it lasts," said the French director. "In your life, you'll probably know one or two little crises. It is the same with a gallery, the art world and 798. But remember: Real art is priceless and its spiritual side will live beyond any crisis or boom."

"Our business touched the lowest point sometime between last November and December," said Long Yu, director of Amelie Art Gallery, a long-time presence at 798. "Sales were down 20 to 30 percent compared with the year before," she said, while denying rumors of widespread closures, saying that most galleries, including hers, were in a "readjusting" period. "Some galleries may go into hibernation for some time - putting on less, or even no shows. But that won't last very long," she said. "Besides, things have actually been getting better since the beginning of this year."

And they may also be looking at one another for the so-called "synergy effect". Launched by Amelie Art Gallery and co-sponsored by five other galleries within 798, the New Year Print Art Festival began in January and continued until mid-March.

Audiences were invited to find exhibits in a downloadable on-line form and scattered across six galleries. Those who got all the answers right were then put into a lucky draw to win an original print by a leading Chinese print-maker. More than 10,000 people registered.

"Before, we were too busy to care about what other galleries were doing," said Long. "Now it's time to come together and discover the sense of unity and kindred spirit that used to lie at the heart of 798."

Long believes that galleries that previously relied on foreign buyers for big bucks, should now focus on expanding the domestic market.

"The Chinese contemporary art world became so polarized that you got the nouveau-rich artists at one end and the perpetually poor at the other. Part of the reason is that we had almost no collectors dealing in the middle-to-low range of the market, collectors who in Western countries would make up the solid base of what I call the 'collecting pyramid'."

Long predicts China will pay dearly if the situation is allowed to continue. "What is contemporary today is classic tomorrow," she said. "If you look at what has happened to Chinese imperial antiques at international auctions, you realize that at the end of the day, the bills for contemporary Chinese art will have to be paid by the Chinese."

Rather than griping about visitor-bereft spaces and dwindling sales, Long reckons galleries should exploit the economic crisis - when people are less work-driven and have more time for art - to attract new potential buyers.

"There's no better time to see art than now," she insisted.

"In bad times, artists search for clarity and you encounter more articulated, thoughtful voices within the galleries than you might do before.

"Artists above all people should be self-reflective. Now with less orders to fill and exhibitions to attend, they have more time to probe deeper into their own inner world, to find solutions for problems of the outer one."

And that process of thinking, according to Sans, has helped to bring things down to earth. "Thinking is normal human stuff. It's unnatural to produce the art-world equivalent of Hollywood blockbusters all the time," he said. "For whom?"

"Before the crisis, everybody was led by those around them. Now you have to be visionary."

Long believes the economic downturn will cause a "reshuffle" at 798. "Art market is unlike the stock market - there will not be a domino effect," she said. "The crisis is an opportunity for the art district to weed out some of its 'disingenuous' elements and to consolidate its reputation as the throbbing heart of contemporary Chinese art