Shanghai’s “Art Districts”

Among the many great things we had the opportunity to do while in Beijing one of my favorites was getting the chance to wander the streets of 798, Beijing’s premier art district. 789 is made up of abandoned factories from the 1950’s which have now been renovated and are used as galleries, museums, artist studios and small independent stores. Although 789 is advertised in almost every travel guide as a must visit Beijing destination the area has managed to withstand commercialism, capitalism and continues to produce independent, compelling art. The art districts ability to keep it’s focus on art is not something I’ve seen is in Shanghai’s art districts, Red Town, Tianzifeng and M50.

Red Town

Red Town

Red Town is set in a renovated steel plant. It’s construction was planned out as part of the Mater Plan for Urban Sculpture and endorsed by the municipal government. Red Town is intended to be an epicenter of Shanghai Sculpture as a space to create and display sculptural works.

A 15 minute cab ride away is Tianzifeng an old neighborhood made up of Shikumen style houses and small interlocking alleyways. In 1988 Chen Yifei, renowned contemporary artist, moved his studios to Tianzifeng. After Chen Yifei both accomplished and emerging artists began setting up studios in Tianzifeng.

Often compared to 789, M50 is also located in old abandoned factories. M50 is home to several well-known Shanghai art galleries and claims to have over 100 artists working in the district.

Prior to visiting 789 I had been enamored with the vibe and aesthetics of Shanghai’s art districts, however, after seeing 789 it is had to feel the same about Shanghai’s art districts.  789 has a certain gritty feel to it which can be attributed to it’s grass roots development and the sometimes controversial art it produces. In comparison Red Town, Tianzifeng and M50 all feel polished and planned. Red Town was developed as part of a government initiative and all art pieces displayed here are endorsed by the government. Under these conditions artistic exploration has the potential to be stunted and develop homogeneously. In contrast while Tiazifeng’s development happened independent of the government the district appears to be dominated not by art, but tourism. The area claims to have 53 galleries scattered among it’s small alleyways all of which are nearly impossible to find. Bars, restaurants, boutiques, gift shops and throngs of tourists on the other hand can be found with great ease. The galleries which can be tracked down all feature commercialized art; cheap to produce, easy to sell, and could be found in most cities or even in somebodies living room. M50 suffers from a simialr issue as it is filled with deign firms, boutiques, and furniture stores. These stores are designed to cater to the upper class Shanghai craving for decorative arts. People come to M50 to feel like patrons of the arts, but who really just want something pretty to hang up in their living to show off to their friends. The art produced in M50 is not created with the intent to make a cultural artistic impact but to sell at extremely high prices and fuel the capitalist economy.

Entrance to Tianzifeng

Entrance to Tianzifeng

The art districts in Shanghai attempt to combine art, creativity and entrepreneurship, but instead the result is art that is made to generate capital and comply with the government.

“In China, the art market boomed during a transient era, when the country witnesses several parallel processes: the transformation to market economy with macro-level monitoring, the shift to consumerism- driven society and the emergence of New Rich, and experimental reform of former socialist institutions that is constantly re-interpreted by the state” – Jun Wang

For the Shanghai art market to continue to develop it’s art districts are going to have to either undergo drastic changes or relinquish their titles as “art districts” and be replaced with a new district with the aim of actually producing compelling, cutting edge art.