Why international galleries suddenly surge into Shanghai?

On 22 March, Lisson Gallery will launch in Shanghai, housed within the former warehouse known as the "Amber Building" on Huqiu Road. This will be Lisson gallery's first public space in Asia. The gallery will open with an exhibition entitled Love is Metaphysical Gravity, which will include works by Marina Abramović, Shirazeh Houshiary, Richard Long and Tatsuo Miyajima.


Lisson is not the first western gallery to set foot in Shanghai. Last September, Perrotin opened its 12,900 square feet new space in Shanghai in the same building as Lisson Gallery. Shortly after the opening of Perrotin, Lévy Gorvy and Hauser & Wirth both announced that they would open an office in Shanghai as well.


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▲"Amber Building" on Huqiu Road where Lisson Gallery and Perrotin is based.


Suddenly, we see many international galleries began showing interest in Shanghai. Nevertheless, this is never just act on impulse. These galleries have examined and tested the market in Shanghai for a few years before they made the decision. David Tung, Asia representative of Lisson Gallery, said: "Lisson Gallery has been working with, and active in, Asia since the 1980s. We have had a presence in Shanghai since 2016, as the gallery's base in Asia for the team, so it felt like a natural move for us to expand and open a public space there." Indeed, from 2016, Lisson Gallery has done quite a few researches and worked with local art institutions in Shanghai. In the past three years, Lisson Gallery has cooperated with M21 to hold Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg solo exhibition as well as teamed up with CC Foundation for the Ryan Gander show.


The truth is, for many western galleries, the fact that makes them most confident with the Shanghai market is the two local major art fairs -- Art 021 & West Bund. Founded in 2013 and 2014 separately, the two Shanghai art fairs are now among the world's top art fairs. Last year, the exhibited galleries at West Bund grew from 39 to 83 in 43 different countries. While Art 021 has more than 100 galleries, they took part in including some big names like Gagosian, David Zwirner and others.


The sales at both art fairs last year were overwhelmingly impressive. At Art 021, Bathing Cap (2010) at Ropac's solo Alex Katz booth sold for $550,000. A painting by Mark Ryden provided by Paul Kasmin sold for about $350,000. Hauser & Wirth also sold several artworks for more than $300,000, including Zhang Enli's The Garden (2017) and four works by Rashid Johnsons. Meanwhile, the West Bund, Ropac sold Georg Baselitz's 2018 painting Sind wir Schon da? for $906,000.


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▲Art 021 at Shanghai Exhibition Centre


It is to be noted that most of the artworks sold for high prices at the art fairs in Shanghai were artworks by western artists. Western art and artists have been well celebrated in Shanghai in recent years. This is definitely great news for many international galleries that have decided to expand their business in Shanghai. David Chau, the co-founder of Art 021 once told The Art Newspaper: "[Shanghai's] market has grown substantially since 2013,” says Mr Chau. “Before we started, very few collectors would buy western artists' works. But now, this has become the trend."


In fact, this trend has been noticed by local galleries as well as art fairs. According to AMMA's galleries industry report, nearly 40% of art galleries in Shanghai and Beijing have started to pay more attention to the field of western art in 2018. This includes galleries that sell traditional Chinese paintings.


Moreover, a few private museums in Shanghai have started to feature exhibitions by western artists. In 2018, we've seen Louise Bourgeois at Long Museum, Tschabalala Self at Yuz Museum, Francis Alÿs at Rockbund Museum, to name a few. To add to that, we can't ignore the rapid growth of private museums in Shanghai in the last few years. More private museums have chosen to open in Shanghai rather than in Beijing. On one hand, Beijing is heavily occupied with national museums and academic art schools, which left little space for private museums. On the other hand, the Shanghai government has shelled out some cash to support the art industry, including the leading project of establishing the West Bund art area. According to data from the Shanghai Municipal Tourism Administration, 67 out of 89 museums in Shanghai are private museums. These museums are the most important VIP customers for international galleries in Shanghai, according to David Chau.


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▲Louise Bourgeois' solo exhibition at Long Museum in 2018


It is easy to see that the market in Shanghai has great potential and is ready to be realized and maximized. Now is the perfect timing for foreign galleries to introduce themselves to the market, as there aren't many competitors yet. David Chau told ArtTatics that the art market in Shanghai at the moment is like luxury brands 15 years ago. The earlier you join the market, the easier it is for people to recognise you, to remember you. Even today, most people in China only remember several big brands, such as LV and Chanel. "It's very important [for galleries] to present in China. It makes people trust you more. It makes people recognise you more. If galleries themselves are brands, the earlier they come, it is easier for people to recognise them," said Chau.


The 17% high VAT stopped many foreign galleries from coming to Shanghai. That said, we've now already had some brave explorers on the frontline who have strong faith in the Shanghai market. We are looking forward to seeing more galleries bring life to this new market.