Ostensibly Art Shenzhen 2019 seemed to be a huge success. Fifty-four galleries from China and surrounding locales showed meaningful art in a megacity of 12 million people which is only forty-one years old and which has yet, to my eyes, developed a thriving art gallery scene. Furthermore, some of the major Shenzhen galleries were there and the exhibition center was filled with appreciative art lovers. Yet, as I wandered around the differing gallery cubicles chatting with owners and gallery managers, I got the impression that sales were slow. So, was Art Shenzhen a success? Well, it all depends on how you define success. If a fair presents thoughtful and engaging art to folks who are starved for it, you can argue it was successful. But if galleries packed up and transported works by artists and received little remuneration, that would be another story.
One could also ask whether this show helped Shenzhen move toward a more sustainable and thriving gallery scene. To answer that question one might ask whether Art Shenzhen can ever be like Art Basel Hong Kong or Art Canton. What does Art Basel Hong Kong have that Art Shenzhen does not? My guess would be: big-bucks buyers. Galleries with international reputations are not not-for-profit organizations. They are not going to pack, insure and ship $100,000 pieces to Shenzhen unless they are pretty sure someone might buy some of them. Indeed, one Shenzhen gallery owner informed me that she felt the prices of pieces in Art Shenzhen were quite affordable. So Art Shenzhen is not Frieze or the New York Armory Show. Shenzhen has the big-bucks fat cats, it has the potential buyers, but they do not seem to be buying art. The strategy for Art Shenzhen seemed to be targeting the upper-middle class urbanite and not the filthy rich. If my assessment is correct, this was a default choice as the filthy rich do not seem willing to support an art scene in this city.
Yet Art Shenzhen still delivered the goods. It may not have had Gagosian, Pace or Perrotin, but there was enough pithy stuff to look at to make the trip worthwhile. Indeed, I dropped by two days in a row (scalpers were selling comp tickets for half price outside the nearest subway stop – gotta love the Shenzhen entrepreneurial spirit). Like many art fairs there was a great deal of work that might be considered flashy or decorative, but that was counter-balanced by many works that were truly provocative. Yet, the galleries that provided the food for thought are not not-for-profit enterprises either. Which leads to the question of how the visual arts community can help to create a market in this city. If well-intentioned galleries are going to come to Shenzhen, they should be confident that they will be rewarded with some sales. So, for what it is worth, I would like to make a few suggestions to anyone who might be listening.
Right now there seems to be a loose cluster of galleries in the OCT-LOFT area. (OCT stands for Overseas Chinese Town – an area, apparently, in which Chinese folks with Western backgrounds once predominated). Is there a map of galleries in the OCT-LOFT area? Is there an alliance of OCT-LOFT galleries? I have not noticed either of these things. What made Chelsea and the Lower East Side in Manhattan so successful was that many galleries in the same vicinity would have openings on the same evening. So you drop by on a certain night and take in 20 to 30 different shows, for free, with complimentary wine and snacks. Shenzhen does not have 20 or 30 different galleries close to each other, by my reckoning, but if 7 or 8 could coordinate opening nights, this would create a buzz and a regular audience that might swell with time. Future gallerists might be attracted to the area. Create that buzz, create those buyers.
What if there was a gallery alliance of Shenzhen galleries from around the city? Why not have a gallery crawl night, similar to the night each summer in Chelsea where the galleries stay open late, a nice map is printed out and put online and people wander around discovering amazing venues and art? And what about the university students here? Are they not an amazing resource for possible galleries? Is Shenzhen doing enough to support its home-grown talent? How about a Shenzhen school of painting? A Shenzhen movement! What about professors from Fine Arts departments curating pop-up shows at unconventional venues? What about the students themselves moving beyond their universities and out into communities with pop up shows?
We, basically, have a chicken or the egg dilemma here in Shenzhen. Do you create the art first and then the buyers will follow, or do you somehow develop a market of buyers so that the art follows? I say since you already have a few quality galleries, keep developing the art until the fat cats take notice and start buying. Then you get a nice benevolent cycle system. The audience is here, the artists can be here…its just a question of the dough ray me now. When that cash starts flowing, you can count on the art community to start flourishing.