The market for Chinese contemporary
art has developed at a feverish pace, becoming the single fastest-growing segment of the international art market. Since 2004, prices for works by Chinese contemporary artists have increased by 2,000 percent or more, with paintings that once sold for under $50,000 now bringing sums above $1 million. Nowhere has this boom been felt more appreciably than in China, where it has spawned massive gallery districts, 1,600 auction houses, and the first generation of Chinese contemporary-art collectors.
This craze for Chinese contemporary art has also given rise to a wave of criticism. There are charges that Chinese collectors are using mainland auction houses to boost prices and engage in widespread speculation, just as if they were trading in stocks or real estate. Western collectors are also being accused of speculation, by artists who say they buy works cheap and then sell them for ten times the original prices-and sometimes more.
Those who entered this market in the past three years found Chinese contemporary art to be a surefire bet as prices doubled with each sale. Sotheby's first New York sale of Asian contemporary art, dominated by Chinese artists, brought a total of $13 million in March 2006; the same sale this past March garnered $23 million, and Sotheby's Hong Kong sale of Chinese contemporary art in April totaled nearly $34 million. Christie's Hong Kong has had sales of Asian contemporary art since 2004. Its 2005 sales total of $11 million was dwarfed by the $40.7 million total from a single evening sale in May of this year.
These figures, impressive as they are, do not begin to convey the astounding success at auction of a handful of Chinese artists: Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Cai Guo-Qiang, Liu Xiaodong, and Liu Ye. The leader this year was Zeng Fanzhi, whose Mask Series No. 6 (1996) sold for $9.6 million, a record for Chinese contemporary art, at Christie's Hong Kong in May.
Zhang Xiaogang, who paints large, morose faces reminiscent of family photographs taken during the Cultural Revolution, has seen his record rise from $76,000 in 2003, when his oil paintings first appeared at Christie's Hong Kong, to $2.3 million in November 2006, to $6.1 million in April of this year.
Gunpowder drawings by Cai Guo-Qiang, who was recently given a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, sold for well below $500,000 in 2006; a suite of 14 works brought $9.5 million last November.
According to the Art Price Index, Chinese artists took 35 of the top 100 prices for living contemporary artists at auction last year, rivaling Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and a host of Western artists.
"Everybody is looking to the East and to China, and the art market isn't any different," says Kevin Ching, CEO of Sotheby's Asia. "Notwithstanding the subprime crisis in the U.S. or the fact that some of the other financial markets seem jittery, the overall business community still has great faith in China, bolstered by the Olympics and the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010."
There are indications, however, that the international market for Chinese art is beginning to slow. At Sotheby's Asian contemporary-art sale in March, 20 percent of the lots offered found no buyers, and even works by top record-setters such as Zhang Xiaogang barely made their low estimates. "The market is getting mature, so we can't sell everything anymore," says Xiaoming Zhang, Chinese contemporary-art specialist at Sotheby's New York. "The collectors have become really smart and only concentrate on certain artists, certain periods, certain material."
For their part, Western galleries are eagerly pursuing Chinese artists, many of whom were unknown just a few years ago. Zeng Fanzhi, for example, has been signed by Acquavella Galleries in New York, in a two-year deal that exceeds $20 million, according to a Beijing gallerist close to the negotiations; William Acquavella declined to comment. Zhang Xiaogang and Zhang Huan have joined PaceWildenstein, and Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaodong showed with Mary Boone last spring. Almost every major New York gallery has recently signed on a Chinese artist: Yan Pei Ming at David Zwirner, Xu Zhen at James Cohan, Huang Yong Ping at Gladstone, Yang Fudong at Marian Goodman, Liu Ye at Sperone Westwater. Their works are entering private and public collections that until now have not shown any particular interest in Asian contemporary art.
"The market hasn't behaved as I anticipated," says New York dealer Max Protetch, who has been representing artists from China since 1996. "We all anticipated that the Chinese artists would go through the same critical process that happens with art anywhere else in the world. I assumed that some artists would fall by the wayside, which has not been true. They all have become elevated. It seems like an uncritical market."
One of the key artists buoyed by this success is Zeng Fanzhi, who is best known for his "Mask" series. Five years ago his works sold for under $50,000. Today he commands prices on the primary market closer to $1 million, with major collectors Charles Saatchi and Jose Mugrabi among his fans. Now preparing for his first solo show at Acquavella in December, he is considered one of the more serious artists on the Beijing scene because he works alone, without the horde of assistants found in most other artists' studios in China. Still, his lifestyle is typical of that of his equally successful peers. When asked if he owns a mammoth black Hummer parked outside his studio, he answers, "No, that's an ugly car. I have a G5 Benz."
This success has blossomed under the watchful eye of the Chinese government. Movies, television, and news organizations are strictly censored, but on the whole, the visual arts are not. Despite sporadic incidents of exhibitions being closed or customs officials seizing artworks, by and large the government has supported the growth of an art market and has not interfered with private activity. In the 798 gallery district in Beijing, a Bauhaus-style former munitions complex that has been transformed into the capital's hottest art center, with more than 150 galleries, one finds works addressing poverty and other social problems, official corruption, and new sexual mores. The icons of the former China-happy workers and peasants and heroic soldiers raising the red banner-are treated with irony, if at all, by the artists whose works are on view in these galleries, which are private venues generally not under the strict control of the Ministry of Culture.
On the eve of the Olympics, however, the government asked one gallery to postpone an exhibition until after the games. Considered unsuitable was "Touch," a show by Ma Baozhong at the Xin Beijing Gallery of 15 paintings depicting important moments in Chinese history, including one based on a photograph showing Mao Zedong with the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama in 1954.
The Beijing municipality spent enormous funds to renovate the 798 district before the Olympics, putting in new cobblestone streets and lining its main thoroughfare with cafés. Shanghai, which has benefited less from government support, now boasts at least 100 galleries. Local governments throughout the country are establishing SoHo-style gallery districts to boost tourism.
One person who seems confident about the future of the Chinese market is Arne Glimcher, founder and president of PaceWildenstein, who opened a branch of his gallery in Beijing in August. Located in a 22,000-square-foot cement space with soaring ceilings, redesigned at a cost of $20 million by architect Richard Gluckman, the gallery is in the center of the 798 district. "We are committed to the art, and we wanted to open a gallery where our artists are," says Glimcher. Adding that he normally eschews the "McGallery" trend of setting up satellite spaces around the world, Glimcher insists that it was necessary to establish a branch in Beijing because there is "no local gallery of our caliber" with which Pace could partner. He has, however, recruited Leng Lin, founder of Beijing Commune, another gallery operating in 798, to be his director.
Another Western dealer who has taken the China plunge is Arthur Solway, who recently opened a branch of James Cohan in Shanghai. "I started coming to China five years ago, and I was fascinated by the energy," says Solway, who wanted to introduce gallery artists like Bill Viola, Wim Wenders, and Roxy Paine to Asia but, like Glimcher, could not find a public museum or private gallery that he considered professionally qualified to handle such exhibitions. James Cohan Gallery Shanghai is located on the ground floor of a 1936 Art Deco structure in the French Concession, a particularly picturesque section of the city. The building was once occupied by the military, and red Chinese characters over the front door still exhort, "Let the spirit of Mao Zedong flourish for 10,000 years."
"From 1966 to 1976, during the Cultural Revolution, people had nothing, but now there are spas in Shanghai and people drinking cappuccinos and buying Rolex watches-it's an amazing phenomenon," says Solway, who believes it is only a matter of time before these same newly affluent consumers begin to collect contemporary art.
Chinese collectors-or the hope that there will be Chinese collectors-are the key draw luring these galleries to Beijing. As recently as two years ago, few could name even a single Chinese collector of contemporary art. It was a truism that the Chinese preferred to spend their money acquiring antiquities and classical works. Since then several well-known mainland collectors have emerged on the scene.