West Bund Marks a Shift in World Power
In Shanghai, it was midway through Wednesday afternoon when news outlets confirmed that Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States. Throughout the morning, dealers from all eight nations participating at the third edition of West Bund Art & Design had been as attentive to refreshing CNN, BBC, Der Spiegel, and Le Monde on their VPN-linked browsers as they were to selling art.
Many dealers had reportedly sold significant works during Tuesday’s VIP opening to owners of the city’s still rapidly growing number of private museums—Budi Tek of Yuz Museum, Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei of Long Museum, and Qiao Zhibing of Qiao Space among the more frequently mentioned names. The next rush of collectors from Beijing and Asia at large wasn’t expected to arrive until later in the week and over the weekend, dealers said, due to the confluence this year of West Bund with fellow fair ART021 and the 11th Shanghai Biennale.
West Bund was as odd of a place to witness the presidential election as it was fitting. Donald Trump’s stunning upset followed an acrid and often xenophobic campaign, one that promised to bring jobs back to the U.S. Many of those jobs have disappeared to China (and beyond) over the recent decades, and economists worry that a number of the measures the president-elect has proposed would spark a trade war between the two countries. But while Trump’s campaign viewed the economy through the lens of laid-off factory workers in the American Rust Belt, and thereby succeeded in reshaping the American electoral map, standing in Shanghai on the day of the election provided a more nuanced view on the underlying factors at play.
A government-owned initiative, West Bund is a stunning soft-power effort. It is among the smallest of the nearly 300 art fairs that dot the globe, with just 31 galleries. But those galleries are also among the very best on the globe. West Bund imports the top of the Western art pyramid to Shanghai for one week: David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Pace Gallery, Galerie Perrotin, and White Cube among them. And it puts those dealers side by side with Asia’s most influential galleries such as Pearl Lam Galleries, ShanghART, and Long March Space. Picture either Frieze or any of the three Art Basels, but with a lot less walking.
Fittingly for China’s path to economic growth, West Bund takes place in a former manufacturing facility. It is located within a previously desolate district, known today as West Bund, that the city of Shanghai is actively reshaping as an epicenter for art. The city has incentivized private museums and galleries alike to move to the area. ShanghART did so just ahead of this year’s fair. At West Bund’s glitzy opening night gala dinner, first-time participant Zwirner followed a string of private museum owners and development officials in being asked on stage to make a speech. “Everyone loves you,” cried the presenter, adding another acquisition to her country’s collection of culture minters.
It’s no secret that art world buying power has shifted significantly over the past decade towards Asia and towards China even more specifically as the country’s economy has boomed. That is especially the case at the top end of the market. Christie’s scrapped the curated sale that it has held each New York auction season since fall 2014 and would have otherwise taken place this coming week. Instead, the house has decided to put its efforts behind a Hong Kong selling exhibition of 15 high-value works titled “The Loaded Brush.” But West Bund makes this shift visible in a way that even Art Basel’s Hong Kong fair does not. Galleries descend on Shanghai—many participating in both West Bund and ART021 with some additionally taking over a private collection or temporary exhibition space—not for the prospect of international collectors, but instead purely for the local scene’s newly deep pockets and willingness and acumen to buy.
In the context of this week’s presidential election result, the fair lays bare the coming intersection of the world economy’s two great curves of the moment. Like London before it, New York has hit a crossroads with the next economic superpower to take the reins; this time it is the 100 cities in Greater China with over one million inhabitants. (The U.S. has 10 cities with a population above the one million mark.) We have begun to see, but will hopefully be able to hold off, the social unrest and violence that has come with every major intersection of power before it, World War II having marked the most recent passing of the world economic baton across the Atlantic.
What looking at the abandoned factory in Michigan might not tell you that standing in West Bund does is that there is no walking this back. There is a very large base of talented, determined, and increasingly moneyed individuals squarely responsible for China’s economic rise. And besides, when President Trump comes looking for his jobs, he’ll find that many of the buyers at West Bund already outsourced their own manufacturing to countries with cheaper labor still. And so the next cycle begins.
“The art world in the Asia region has been developing rapidly, especially the acquisition of knowledge and expertise in contemporary art continues to surprise me. It’s inspiring,” said German gallerist Esther Schipper of China’s rise. Schipper showed at both fairs this week, bringing “much bigger, possibly more institutional work” to West Bund. This trend was persistent across all the galleries showing at both fairs, reflecting the generally older and more well-established scene around West Bund and servicing a hip and discerning, but younger, collector base at ART021 focused more on purchasing for their homes. (Smaller at ART021 doesn’t mean lower-value, however, by any stretch; perhaps just a modest Calder painting or Louise Bourgeois sculpture.)
Approximately €200,000 in works by Tomás Saraceno sold from Schipper’s stand on opening day alone. Works on paper that see pigment sprayed onto his signature hybrid spider webs, which are then pressed onto the paper to create their image were priced on the range of €15,000–20,000. Work by the artist, who is included prominently in the Shanghai Biennale, complemented other early sales of pieces by Ugo Rondinone and Ryan Gander, according to the dealer. Schipper reported being particularly encouraged by the positivity she routinely found among Chinese clients at her first West Bund. “There’s no cynicism or questioning of whether something is art or not, which you have in other parts of the world,” she said.
Western galleries have thus far been slow to open permanent spaces in Shanghai, preferring the business-friendly city of Hong Kong to the south or, in smaller numbers, China’s traditional art hub and capital, Beijing. But signs point to increased interest in making year-round investments in the city. Timothy Taylor temporarily took over a building adjacent to the fair and ShanghART’s new space for a show of works by Alex Katz this week. “You need to make bold statements here,” said Taylor of the move. It panned out, with four works from “West Broadway and Spring,” Katz’s first large-scale show in China, selling by mid-week.
Taylor praised West Bund for the space devoted to each gallery and the fair’s efforts to limit the number of participating dealers while maximizing quality. “I think of all the fairs that I’ve attended in the last 25 or 30 years, it’s among the most elegant and it’s a model that I think people should be looking to in the future,” he said. “It affords you the chance to do something substantial and to represent your commitment to your artists properly.”
Due to Chinese artists’ traditional eschewing of official gallery representation, these displays of dominance of an artist’s ouevre and market can be particularly important for galleries making a bigger push into China and recruiting new clients. Taylor sold four paintings by Armen Eloyan on opening day. The dealer was also displaying work by Sean Scully, attributing interest in the artist to a touring show of Scully’s work through Beijing, Nanjing, and Guangzhou that he recently organized. Prices for these works, as well as the Katzes on display, ranged from $2,000–900,000.
At Pearl Lam’s stand, the gallery’s managing director for Asia, Josef Ng, noted the growing sophistication among Chinese collectors. “There is definitely a certain flair and savviness,” he said. “They don’t just see art. They also look at the numbers. They want to know who’s being picked up in the market as well as who’s getting picked up academically.” This, along with the competition to work with commitment-shy established artists from the region “makes the galleries step up,” said Ng.
It has also led the gallery, known for its expertise in abstract art, to expand its image. “We’re shifting to be more related to contemporary times, in terms of how art has been developed,” Ng added. At West Bund, this new strategy resulted in particular interest for their younger artists. Paintings by Zhou Yangming had sold out by the fair’s second day as had several sculptural works by Ren Ri that the artist makes by directing bees to build their honeycombs in a particular form. Ng chalked up this early interest in these younger artists to the differences in collectors from specific parts of China. “Collectors in Beijing are far more diverse and larger, in terms of capacity. They’ve been collecting for longer and are steadier collectors. By and large, collectors from Shanghai are younger. They mostly buy either young artists or very historical works.”
In recent months, many including myself have speculated about the prospects for the Chinese art market as the country’s economic growth slows from break-neck to steady, its stock markets wobble, and other key indicators—like its debt-to-GDP ratio—portray a negative outlook. But, as with many things here, the relationships are more complicated than their initial appearance. “What happens in the economy here doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the art market to have a direct impact. Things are getting tight. But the lines or cause and effect between the two are very dotted,” said Ng.
The answer, said Craig Yee, co-founder of Beijing’s Ink Studio, comes down to liquidity and the return of other assets at any given time. “In the West we talk about art as this new asset class. In China, they never doubted that art was one of the four major ways in which they could store their wealth,” Yee said. “If real estate is on a tear, some people will say ‘You know, I can’t afford to be in art right now.’ If the stock market is on a tear, same thing. But if the stock market is in the doldrums then people are going to ask ‘more real estate or more art?’”
While a plurality of galleries at West Bund focus on bringing established and blue-chip artists from the West and other parts of Asia to Shanghai, Ink Studio remains focused on Chinese artists who are dealing with the country’s millennia-long tradition of works in ink on paper. At West Bund, pieces by Zheng Chongbin, which form organic abstractions reminiscent of aerial shots of river deltas or brain scans out of black ink and white acrylic, were drawing the most collector attention. Four of Zheng’s works sold by the end of the fair’s second day on the range of $25,000–100,000, the largest going to an American museum.
One interesting facet of West Bund, and ART021 for that matter, is that while sales were in no short supply, the fair itself was never particularly crowded. The contemporary art collecting community in China is mighty but it is still relatively small. And, as indicated by the many private museums in Shanghai that are reportedly arduous to access by public transport—with some limiting access only to visitors directly invited by the collector—the art scene here remains relatively closed off to the wider public. (One notable exception is Photo Shanghai, which routinely welcomes hoards.)
However, Ink Studio’s sales director Christopher Reynolds explained that the community is beginning to widen due to supply constraints in collectors’ preferred genres. “We’re starting from a very low base,” said Reynolds. “The vast majority of money going into art in China is going into classical art. But now that it’s harder and harder to find great works of classical Chinese art, even those collectors are starting to look elsewhere.” This, coupled with the country’s growing middle and upper class, bodes as well for the country’s art market as it does for China’s growing economic sway around the globe.
As for Donald Trump? For the art market, it’s clearly too early to tell. The most dovish of Trump’s policy proposals, like tax cuts, loosened regulation, and fiscal stimuli through infrastructure spending, are things the market likes. These kinds of initiatives increase wealth and thereby disposable income among the elites who buy art—likely disproportionately in their favor. The hawkish, xenophobic, trade-warring, wall-building side of Trump’s campaign persona is another story entirely.
In either case, it appears that Trump’s election will serve to push the intersection of China’s and the United States’s economic influence ever closer. A less globally engaged United States could open up space for China to fill the gap, as the world’s economic baton potentially moves further from West to East. Following Obama’s abandoning of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) due to the election, TPP’s 11 other would-be signatories, including China, have indicated interest in moving forward with the deal. So, while the smog still hangs thick in the sky here, the country begins to build its version of the United States’s mid-century middle class.