Art Market

The “Art Supermarkets” Catering to China’s Growing Middle Class

August Rick
Feb 5, 2019 8:00PM

People at the Affordable Art Fair Beijing in one of the main gallery spaces at 798 Art Zone. Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images.

The 798 Art Zone in northeast Beijing is most familiar to international contemporary art lovers for the big-name galleries, like Long March Space and Pace Gallery, and the museums, like UCCA and M WOODS, that have cropped up there over the better part of the past two decades. But wander the former military factory’s narrow alleyways and low-slung storefronts, and shops selling affordable artworks and artisanal goods are more prevalent than the loftier fair.

It was in one of these shops, 798 Art Space, on a cold January afternoon, that I met Yan Xiaolei, a visitor in town from Zhejiang province pecking around a table of small sculptures. The selection of original works featured several busts, including a Labrador retriever and the monkey-headed protagonist of the classic 1996 film Journey to the West. The works were priced between CNY350 and CNY26,000 (about $50 to $4,000), a reasonable price level representative of many of the shops along this block. And while Yan wasn’t looking for anything in particular, he said he was prepared to buy a work if he found something he liked.

Yan said the district’s offering of original, high-quality, and affordable art was a draw that was compounded by the fact that many shops in the district are manned by the artists themselves, with work tables against the wall and a loft with a bed.

“Here, I can meet the artists and talk to them, see how they made everything,” he said.

This contrasts with the experience of looking for art through the more obvious alternative: China’s all-reaching online shopping platform, Taobao. Yan said that art on the e-commerce platform lacks the kind of originality you see in 798—and the narrative about an artist’s work that you can learn from speaking with them directly or glean from the stores’ knowledgeable, talkative owners.

Yan was far from alone in his pursuit of affordable artwork during my visit last month. Dozens of others strolled around the shops: families, photographers, shoppers, day trippers, and many, many couples. The punters were largely members of China’s growing middle class, which emerged in the 40 years since the country began its process of economic liberalization known as Reform and Opening Up, and saw hundreds of millions of rural Chinese migrate to seize opportunity in cities.

Estimates on the size of this middle class vary, with China’s state statistics agency last year putting the figure at 400 million households making between $3,640 and $36,400 annually. The Brookings Institute, an economic think tank, estimates a middle-class population of 430 million in China, a number it projects will rise to 780 million by 2020. By contrast, about 167 million Americans, or 52 percent of the population, count as middle class. During its growth years, China’s new middle class has propelled a wealth of new lifestyle industries in the country: Exercise fads, retail, eco-tourism, and the arts have all seen new customers who are enjoying their first years with extra money in the bank for discretionary spending.

While works in the internationally recognized galleries of 798 remain out of these middle-class individuals’ reach, new art spaces, galleries, studios, and fairs that aim to provide large selections of original, affordable art have opened over the past decade to sate the demand for original art. Many of the visitors I spoke to had come to the district specifically to shop, and, like Yan, had beelined to these less-recognizable spaces where art, and the craft behind it, was displayed—and priced to sell.

The phenomenon has spread across the nation. In larger cities, spaces like Shanghai’s Zendai S-Art Supermarket, Shenzhen’s 365 Art Life Supermarket, and Chengdu’s Xicun Art Village have sprung up to meet this demand, with galleries stocked wall-to-wall with an overwhelming amount of art.

To walk through the showroom of the Zendai S-Art Supermarket is to absorb, at speed, an entire arc of taste. The artwork ad nauseum creates a familiarity due to the number of references and compositions that repeat across the canvases; it’s also a bit jarring. Portraits of deer with flowers on their antlers is a popular trope in these artworks—and on the walls of Airbnbs across China’s third-tier cities. But if the key to knowing a good painting from a bad one is looking at 100,000 paintings, these supermarkets are an excellent place to start.

Whereas luxury retail concerns, like billionaire collector Adrian Cheng’s growing number of K11 Art Malls, cater to the artisanal taste—and enormous spending power—of China’s upper class, these art supermarkets are more accessible to the middle class. They are easy to get to, both in terms of their location off the metro and their easy-to-read tastemaking. Their offerings, which primarily exist between pop culture, decoration, and fine art, come in plentiful stock, so any visitor is bound to find something that speaks to them. These art spaces have a wonderfully pop element to their repetition, souvenir-readiness, and helter-skelter pull from any and all culture corners.

With growth comes eventual headwinds, however: China’s economy has slowed, growing at just 6.6 percent in 2018, the slowest rate since 1990. And as middle-class shoppers begin to eschew additional purchases of luxury goods to cover rising rents that their stagnating paychecks fail to keep up with, China’s art supermarkets and sellers of crafts will face the same angst as the international galleries that have placed big bets on increasing demand from the Middle Kingdom. The effects have already begun and will likely be felt by galleries across the board, said Christopher Moore, who publishes Ran Dian, a magazine focused on Chinese art.

“The economic downturn began having an effect in May last year, and it continues to worsen,” Moore said. “Banking restrictions, a fragile property market, corporate debt, a trade war with the U.S.—all of these are affecting the art market. Many galleries are struggling. Only those with a very strong reputation or alternative cash supplies will come out of the downturn in any healthy shape.”

One couple standing inside the UCCA gift shop during my recent walk through 798 discussed a Feng Mengbo painting at length, and typified the growing economic strain faced by their countrymen. The work was on sale for the Chinese New Year, priced at CNY10,000 ($1,482), down from CNY42,000 ($6,227). But the pair said they were unlikely to buy a piece of art so expensive at the moment. They cited expenses—mostly their rent, which had increased steadily over the past four years—as making them hesitant about making a purchase.

“We don’t have anything like these in our apartment, but it’s nice to come here. I would want something like that,” the woman, Feifei, said, pointing to Feng’s video game-y, pixelated image.

“But,” she said, even on sale, “it’s still a lot of money.”

August Rick