Beijing’s Art Scene Raises Its Profile

The New York Times
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On a recent Sunday afternoon in the sunken terrace of Beijing’s sleek Opposite House Hotel, an art event was in full swing. The wine was chilling, the dumplings steaming and a few dozen locals and foreigners were looking on with curiosity as the artists Yan Wei and Yinmai O’Connor ran their black paintbrushes over the walls, furniture and even the human occupants of a whitewashed room.

The event was put on by a company called Surge Art and was its third in three days, its contribution to Beijing Design Week that ended in early October. The turnout seemed reasonable, though Tom Pattinson, Surge’s director, told me it had nothing on the party they held the previous Friday night at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Casual art events like this one are gaining traction in Beijing: Emerging artists who were previously overshadowed by the country’s high-end art stars are increasingly being given more of a platform by galleries and dealerships. While the works of established Chinese artists are still selling well internationally, the lower end of the market is now also beginning to open up in China, helped along by online sales of artworks.

The target market is twofold: the new generation of high-salaried Chinese professionals who are turning more toward contemporary artworks than designer trinkets, and foreign visitors for whom a painting by a hot young artist is the ultimate souvenir from the country’s capital.

Surge is one of a growing number of businesses in Beijing boosting the market for works by emerging artists. Others include the Hi Art Store — another online outlet — as well as institutions like the UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art) store in the 798 Art District, which also sells limited-edition prints online, and some of the more trailblazing galleries like Red Gate.

“Buying a work of contemporary Chinese art is buying a little piece of history and a window into how society is changing,” said Mr. Pattinson, whose passion for Chinese art began more than a decade ago when he moved to Beijing from England and, as an art lover with a small budget, was pushed to find affordable inroads into an art market that was, in his opinion, “elitist and lacking any depth.”

“After speaking to friends in the art world, I realized there was both a supply of great young artists looking to sell their work and a huge number of people interested in picking up something contemporary, original and yet affordable,” he said.

Beijing’s art scene has already become a staple destination on the sightseeing itinerary. Companies like Bespoke Beijing and Context Travel have been leading walking tours through the 798 gallery district in the northeast of the city for several years and setting up studio visits to meet and greet artists. What was once a small, alternative scene there has flourished, an expansion that has forced many artists to move to more affordable nearby areas like Caochangdi (home to Ai Weiwei), Huantie and the 318 International Art Village, as well as the farther-flung Songzhuang.

The price of artwork bought online starts at about $75, making it a tempting foray for a souvenir hunter with no previous aspirations of art collecting.

Janice MacLeod, a 76-year-old social worker from England, was one such unassuming buyer first exposed to Chinese contemporary art at one of Surge’s art fairs, while visiting her son, a journalist, in Beijing in 2013.

“I was blown away by the exhibition, got wonderfully carried away, and bought my first piece of contemporary art,” she said, referring to the painting “Chinese Cabbage” by the artist Ma Jing, which now hangs in her Oxfordshire cottage.

Other buyers are also entertaining the possibility of some return on their vacation purchase: One potential perk of buying art in China over a souvenir porcelain tea set is that the art is more likely to appreciate a few years down the line. Artists like Sheng Qi, Zhou Jun, Hei Yue and Gonkar Gyatso, now selling their creations for five-figure sums, originally started selling their work online for just a few hundred dollars.

Bradley Schurman, a 37-year-old Washington, D.C., resident — who came away with an original sculpture by Huang Yulong after a trip to Beijing earlier in 2014 — has been surprised to discover that the work he bought online is now worth several times more than its purchase price.

Mr. Schurman said that his art purchases have always been for aesthetic reasons. “That mentality was no different when I bought this piece,” he said of the artist’s gold ceramic skull, his Chinese art keepsake. “However, there is something incredibly gratifying when these beautiful pieces grow in value at a rate similar or substantially above the market.”

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