Art Market

What Leo Xu’s Move to David Zwirner Says about the Chinese Art Market

Sarah Forman
Nov 6, 2017 8:50PM

Left to right: Jennifer Yum, David Zwirner, and Leo Xu. Photo by Anna Bauer. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London.

The news that David Zwirner’s new Hong Kong space will be run by young dealer Leo Xu highlights the challenges for emerging galleries and artists amidst growing demand for international art stars in Asia’s fast-evolving market.

Xu, whose six-year-old Shanghai gallery Leo Xu Projects will close at the end of the year, said Zwirner’s presence in the region will bring an international platform and resources that will bolster and support Chinese artists, but acknowledged that none of his current artists will join the mega-gallery’s roster, which is made up of largely big-name international artists such as Luc Tuymans, Yayoi Kusama, and Carol Bove.

The news of Xu’s gallery’s impending closure comes amidst a rise of Shanghai’s stock on the international art scene; two fairs, West Bund Art & Design and Art021, open here this week. However, it follows the closure of fellow Shanghai gallery Studio Rouge in 2014, and a series of gallery shutterings in New York and London, including similarly well-respected, much beloved operations such as Andrea Rosen, Feuer/Mesler, and Vilma Gold.

“The world over we are witnessing the phenomenon of big galleries getting bigger, mid-tier ones closing, and small emerging galleries struggling to get by (and subsequently feed the big galleries),” said Mathieu Borysevicz, founder and director of Shanghai gallery BANK/MABSOCIETY, in a WeChat message. “Shanghai is not exempt and Leo’s move is sort of a testimony to this.”  

An “influx of Western art”

The arrival in Asia of mega-galleries like David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth, both opening in Hong Kong in early 2018, could crowd out the market for local artists by making established international names available year-round, at Chinese buyers’ doorsteps. While their tastes are growing increasingly sophisticated, Chinese collectors are known for their affinity for established names and high price points, which will likely be reinforced by greater proximity to a greater supply of those artists.

“The influx of Western art will almost inevitably direct money away from Chinese artists,” said Josef Ng, the managing director for Asia at Pearl Lam Galleries. But he hopes that eventually, increased education and exposure will lead Chinese collectors to look back to artists from their homeland for “something new, something different and something more from this locale.”

Zwirner brings resources for international projects

David Zwirner and Leo Xu began their conversation at Art Basel in Hong Kong this past March. The fair, in its fifth year, had grown to over 240 dealers from 34 countries, with an increasingly international audience and a noticeable uptick in the sophistication of Asian buyers.

Xu had become known for presenting innovative exhibitions by young and emerging Chinese artists, such as Pixy Yijun Liao, Shiyuan Liu, Chen Wei and Xu Wenkai, better known as aaajiao. Many of their projects focus on urbanism and the relationship between new media and its influence on the visual culture of modern China. Working with institutions such as the Power Station of Art in Shanghai and the Jewish Museum in New York, Xu had been at the forefront of an international dialogue.

But Xu said staging ambitious, internationally oriented programming, combined with running an artists residency and the cost and work of traveling to fairs, had stretched him thin. Despite the name he was making for his artists and his space, he felt his efforts were unsustainable.

“It’s becoming harder to travel and participate in major international art fairs…considering costs, logistics, staging offsite projects around the world while running a dynamic exhibition project back home,” he said. Moving to Zwirner enables him to continue these kinds of international projects with more resources.  Although he will no longer represent his current roster at Zwirner, he said he will continue to work closely with them once the gallery shuts its doors, in particular connecting them with international and local institutions.

“I see many opportunities to work with my artists in the future, and they’re in a great position to go out and grow internationally,” he said,  pointing to Liu’s debut solo show with New York stalwart Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, which opens in February 2018. Xu said he and his colleagues at Zwirner are working to determine which local artists they can bring onto their roster to help strengthen the gallery’s presence in Asia and to further the appreciation for contemporary Chinese art internationally; the timeline for this to take place is, however, not set.

In the meantime, it’s unclear who will help today’s cohort of emerging artists grow. Xu was one of the few who was promoting his artists abroad and bringing them into dialogue with international artists.

“I think we’re all waiting to see what the impact of losing such a well-respected gallery mainstay will have overall,” said Shanghai-based independent curator Leigh Tanner.

Sarah Forman