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Shanghai’s first art season since China reopened its borders early this year came with a frenetic explosion of art events centered around the Art021 and West Bund Art & Design Fair (both of which ran from 9 to 12 November) and the Shanghai Biennale (8 November to 31 March 2024). Mainland China’s slowed economy and a precarious art market could not dampen the city’s determination to show off after three years closed to the world and a 2022 art week that saw both fairs dramatically shuttered midway due to zero-Covid enforcement.

“The energy in the city was incredible—with a phenomenal range of exhibitions and events,” said Elaine Kwok, Hauser & Wirth’s managing partner, Asia. “The best of China’s art scene gathered in Shanghai, and the scale is just amazing. Shanghai is not just fully ‘back’—it has gone beyond, with new museums such as Pudong Museum of Art and UCCA Edge amongst others showing that the city did not stand still during the pandemic years.”

These works are echoed by Pace partner and president of Asia, Leng Lin: “Shanghai has never left and has always played one of the most important roles in the Chinese art market. This year there was a blowout effect, around the art fair there were biennials, exhibitions of private art museum collections, and so many other events that made Shanghai so lively, so extraordinary, so incredible.”

Along with the standout 14th edition of the Shanghai Biennale, curated by Anton Vidokle at the Power Station of Art, Yuz Art Museum opened its long-awaited 37-artist partnership exhibition with Qatar Museums, Watering the Dessert: Contemporary Art from Qatar (until 3 March 2024). The Rockbund Art Museum unveiled shows by Tan Ping and Shubigi Rao (both until 25 February 2024), and the Long Museum overviewed the career of Shanghai-based painter Zhang Enli (until 14 January).

Along the lively shores of the Suzhou Creek, the luxury complex Suhe House is holding a month-long boutique art fair (until 3 December) featuring 16 exhibitors including established Chinese galleries like A Thousand Plateaus and Magician Space. The area, home to longtime gallery cluster 50 Moganshan Lu, has seen Sotheby’s and UCCA Edge open in recent years, and last month welcomed a new outpost of Fotografiska. OCAT’s former Shanghai space is filling out with the new location of Vanguard Gallery and with new nonprofit WD Art Space.

Vanguard and its neighbour MadeIn were among Shanghai galleries which offered daringly conceptual shows, respectively works on Chinese birth tourism by Guangzhou collective Jiu Society and a video and installation piece about resource extraction by the US-based Chinese artist Shen Xin. Greater China, Asian and Asian diaspora women artists dominated the standout shows, finally contesting a long predominance of Western and Chinese male artists during Shanghai art week. The Hong Kong gallery Kiang Malingue organised at curatorial office Totalab the first ever mainland solo show of pioneer Hongkonger video artist Ellen Pao. By West Bund, Don Gallery showcased local installation, sculpture and drawing star Zhang Ruyi, and ShanghArt Gallery exhibited London-based Chinese artist Han Mengyun.

“With over 200 art exhibitions and events in Shanghai over the last week, yes, I think the city reclaimed its vibrant cultural scene,” said Sammi Liu, the owner of the Beijing and London gallery Tabula Rasa. It showed at Art021 with nine artists including Ma Haijiao and Dan Zhu, and held a pop-up of painter Yuan Yuan near the Bund.

Last year’s lockdowns and quarantines nevertheless still darken the city. “People are so pessimistic about everything, especially the economic projections. People were cautious, and this sentiment echoes across various aspects, including the art market.” Liu says. And while “everyone we know from mainland China came,” collectors even from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the rest of Asia were scarce, “with almost no Western collectors present”, she says.

With his eponymous Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Singapore gallery participating in both fairs, the dealer Richard Koh describes the week as “so so”, with energetic young crowds, but safe works. “I think local China galleries sold okay back to their own crowd,” but his young Malaysian and Philippines artists did not fare as well at Art021, which saw mostly new Chinese collectors. A solo both at West Bund of Thailand’s Natee Utarit did not sell at all. “The rain on the opening day didn’t help,” Koh adds, with a downpour plus the concurrent China International Import Expo increasing traffic across town. “After Covid I think people are more careful about what they are spending on, not overpaying and buying mostly familiar things. Before, they were more willing to take a risk on the unfamiliar.” He compares it to the poor results for Long Museum’s Sotheby sale: “No one is willing to overpay.”

With sales expectations adjusted for the weakened economy, many exhibitors expressed anticipation for worse to come. Collectors are “sensitive to the price of collectible works, generally in the price range of tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Leng Lin says. Pace at West Bund on opening day sold two Adam Pendleton paintings, for $150,000 each, an Elmgreen & Dragset painting for $95,000 to a private museum, along with sculptures by Yin Xiuzhen and Sui Jianguo. “The economy and the art market are not completely synchronised, but an economic upturn will give the art market strong confidence. For example, in the current economic downturn, collectors will be more sensitive to high-priced works in the art market, but they still maintain the pursuit of art quality, and the demand for quality exceeds the sensitivity to price.”

This year West Bund marked its tenth edition with 128 participating galleries, and the 11th edition of Art021 featured around 150. After years of staff quarantining to attend, now “everyone just really appreciates the opportunities we have for these ‘normal’ days and cherish the ‘in-person’ experience even more,” says Hauser & Wirth’s Kwok. The gallery on opening day at West Bund sold four Gary Simmons paintings: two for $375,000 and one each for $280,000 and $110,000.

The atypically bad traffic and the splattering of events all over the city forced hard choices between shows. Geographical coordination was almost nonexistent. Kwok says: “While we love participating in West Bund, I believe the whole art week experience would be much better— not just for gallerists, but for collectors, journalists, curators, and everyone else—if there were one combined top-tier art fair, or if the two fairs could be held in the same location.”

But such hiccups do not dent the city’s role, Kwok continues: “Mainland China is still the largest market in Asia—the size of its economy, the sheer scale of the businesses, the number of collectors—and Shanghai has emerged as its cultural capital. Shanghai Art Week is still an incredibly important convening moment in the art calendar.” With the recent proliferation of Asian fairs, “that mix of people coming to Shanghai has shifted, nowadays the visitors are usually people who are quite dedicated to China”.

With the global economy adjusting, Leng says, Shanghai is proactively looking to the future. “Shanghai is an important window for China’s economy and cultural exchanges, and Shanghai’s history and construction have contributed to the city’s role in contemporary art. The world still has positive expectations for China, a large economy, and Shanghai is undoubtedly one of the most important cities in the world.”

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