Dongguan, the neighborhood of Stonegrain space / Shekmai space

Research Trip Recap

This past year, I have been researching artist spaces and cultural institutions in mainland China & Hong Kong, interviewing residency directors and artists who attended these residencies. I moved to Beijing and from there, went on a series of three research trips across 11 cities to visit more than 33 spaces over the course of 9 months. And oh my, has this been a fluctuating year for artist residencies and creative places! In short: lots have opened, many were forced to moved, and sadly, many more have closed.

I had the luck to travel through cities scattered across the continent, to visit wonderful artist residencies and art spaces. Some located in the lush green mountainside, like Lucitopia in Jiangxi province, others like P8 are nestled on corporate campuses with untouched wetlands in rapidly developing cities in Changsha, others are located in preserved residential areas in historical row-houses, or in former tobacco factory buildings like Ailleurs in Shenyang. We moved between cities in slow-trains, resting on the oh-so-familiar sleeper beds from my childhood, sometimes with chatting retiree bunkmakes, or young students with large suitcases, or in one particular case, a 2-year old boy with a heavy Dongbei accent, sounding like a beer-bellied 50-something man from the North-East. We set out to visit as many of the artist residencies which have signed up on the China Residencies website as we could. We do site visits as a way to meet people in person and talk to the artists-in-residence to gain a complete picture of what the residency is actually like, in contrast to how it appears on a website or WeChat public account. Before each research trip, we would plan an itinerary according to the train routes, visiting as many as possible within our given time-frames. This last trip spanned across all climate zones imaginable, leaving a freezing northern Beijing in November for a mild Shanghai then onwards to the snowy high-altitude city of Lanzhou in the West. Then, we moved through endless mountains and tunnels towards the South-East to Xiamen, to visit our 6th Chrystal-Ruth-Bell artist-in-residence Zhou Yichen. The first two trips were packed with more stops: in the first research trip, we traveled to 7 cities in two weeks and four days, visiting artist spaces in Chengdu, Changsha, Xiamen, a mountain-village in the countryside, Shanghai, the nearby watertown of Jinxi, and Shenyang. In my second trip, I traveled from Beijing to the Greater-Bay-Area with a stopover in Shanghai to visit artist spaces and museums in Guangzhou, Dongguan, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. 

This is a recap of the year 2019, or rather a State of the Residencies. During those train rides and conversations, here are some assembled thoughts on the key conundrums kept coming up on the future of institutions: speed, support, and inequality.

On Speed

Time works on a different speeds in China: time can crawl either at a very slow pace, then suddenly move very fast. Things do not last long here, from buildings to city structures due to the precarious situation of land ownership. As the government technically owns each piece of land, and merely leases it to developers and occupants, the government also reserves the right to take away anybody’s building at any time. These land issues affect both the wealthy and the poor, with much more devastating consequences to the latter, often migrant workers who built structures later deemed “illegal” when they moved to the booming cities for better opportunities. Eviction notices pop up overnight, and that’s exactly what happened to two of the longest-running artist residency programs in Beijing. The Institute for Provocation (IFP), located in a historic courtyard in Heizhima hutong, one of the traditional alleys in central Beijing, had to clear out with less than one month’s notice, and Red Gate Gallery which had been located in a Ming dynasty drum tower had to move out of the locations they’d occupied for over two decades. Last year, Red Gate Residency’s studios in Feijiacun were demolished, and this summer so were many of the neighboring villages artists called home, like Huantie. The residency rehoused their studios in residential apartments further afield in Shunyi, and both Red Gate and IFP found a new gallery space in the arts district 798. Artist residencies, which are a place to offer visiting artists a space to rest, to develop their work, to connect to the local scene and ideally give back something in the city they live in, have to reinvent themselves and find new places to rest themselves. Ironic, no? Nearly every independent art space we talked to had the same problems: how to be able to at least cover the costs of rent, how to navigate through the muddy waters of keeping the physical space and staff all while sustaining oneself, and generally how to navigate through increasingly restricted times? This year, so many people we spoke to were tired, overwhelmed, and uncertain about the future. Some spaces move from temporary housing to another, some resist the impending evictions as long as they could, while others are thinking of turn into nomadic spaces, attaching themselves to no physical but rather non-physical space. 

While there is a growing interest in transcultural and transnational exchange, the limits on who can say what where felt acutely this year, with show cancellations and abrupt space closures -- goodbye, beloved Arrow Factory! Larger institutions were not spared either, with the Redtory Art and Design district in Guangzhou closing abruptly last month. But as places close, other new models spring up. This year, a new wave of exhibition programs and partnerships swelled between Chinese art museums and institutions abroad, forming collaborative exhibitions, ‘strategic partnerships’ or returning to the colonial terming of ‘outposts’. One of the first collaborative projects is coming to the end of its first 5 year contract in the Sea World district of Shenzhen with the Victoria and Albert Museum, and in the newly opened Centre Pompidou at the West Bund Museum, is also signed on for five years. The Yuz Foundation is now teamed up with LACMA, the Qatari government, and Hyundai (who also run their own Motor Studio gallery space in Beijing.) What happens after that? We hope these alliances bear mutually-beneficial fruit and have staying power, while we cynically fear these will be short term arrangements helping the established institutions much more than their young counterparts. With more than half of the residencies in our network are less than 3 years old, making it to five years in the same location nowadays seems like an immense and increasingly unattainable achievement 

On Support

The funding situation in mainland China has yet to secure stable structures for institutionalized funding in the contemporary art scene. In comparison with the combinations of philanthropic, private, and governmental funding models in the US and Europe, the current system in mainland China offers little in direct public support or in tax incentives to encourage individuals or corporations to give. Since the beginning of the market reforms and opening up in the 1980s, many museums, galleries, and foundations still find it easier to work in and through Hong Kong, for example. And while newer fairs pop up in cities like Nanjing and Chengdu, and giant museums sprout along the West Bund in Shanghai and on real estate developments, the vast majority of institutions with a proper staff to match their scale are also in Hong Kong. This (lack of) funding trickles down, from the lack of investment towards properly insulated museum walls, to the lack of seeing the importance for living wages for the curatorial and managerial staff, to the lack of funding for artists and curators to create the content for these institutions. This leads to an array of museums being opened not for arts sake, but rather as an accessory to keep the malls, property development areas or somewhat related things going. And when institutions like these run residencies, it turns out fairly terribly: the artists are often asked to pay their own way, leave work for collections, and create the programs they want to be a part of. In a funny turn of events, several artists have stayed on to become the managers of these residency programs themselves, doing their best to create a better environment for others, only to quit after a year or two due when the founders tighten their budgets again.

But things are changing, and many new developments leave room for a more optimistic perspective: visionary curators like Li Jianhua at the Times Museum support the independent art scene in their own cities, by subsidizing permanent spaces for exhibitions with the HB Station space, and supporting collective projects through SJT. The Times Museum continues to build on exchanges with Cuba this year and Vietnam next with the All The Way South reciprocal residencies. And some private art foundations opened by wealthy collectors create awards focus on projects made by artists and curators from the local scene. Research projects such as the one between the Long March Project and Institute of Contemporary Art and Social Thought in China Academy of Art devote their time to Asian-centric academic writings and theories, while informing their curricula with strands of Western-based theory. Smaller independent spaces like CACHE Space host roundtables and host an intimate residency in their 798 space, and Studio Gallery in Shanghai creates a true microcosm of support between their residency, gallery, and programming. And artists return to their hometowns, like Li Jinghu in Dongguan, and open up artist spaces and residencies, working on themes affecting the hyper-local and disregarding global trends and narrations of said hometowns. Other successful artists like Yuan Gong support spaces in the mainland like Points while living abroad, and a new generation of artists from the mainland are returning from abroad to start hybrid spaces like Standard Stoppage. And the longest running residency, CEAC, celebrated their 20th anniversary!

Still, what does it say about the state of the arts when the only people who can work at art spaces artists need to come from families with money who are willing to support their children well into adulthood? Or when artists have to pay a fee to take part in a residency or an exhibition, instead of being paid a stipend to support their work? Citing their “passion for arts” dismisses the actual economic and social value of the cultural work and public good which is frequently being traded and showcased to greatly benefit and often profit institutions, cities, and brands. These issues are not solely a pressing problem in China, but in other countries as well - arts workers at many institutions in the USA are fighting back by forming unions, while Australia most recently slashed the entire department of communications and the arts… Some steps forward, many steps back: the situation overall does not look rosy.

On Inequality

Most notably mentioned in L’1%, c’est moi by Andrea Fraser, the art market's collectors and investors belong to the upper 1% or even 0.01% , and inequality is still an underlying shadow lurking behind the goings and comings of the "art world." The researchers Goetzmann, Luc & Spaenjers have linked an increase of activities and tradings in the art market to countries with increasing inequality. Inequality in China has skyrocketed since the 1990s, and is also on the rise in nearly every part of the world. We could take this fact into consideration when looking at the status quo and development of the Chinese art scene: the majority of museums are backed by property development companies and the inheritors of 2nd generation wealth (富二代). The question arises whether these private art museums are used as the last economic asset rather than from a philanthropic interest in the arts. Situated in the periphery of the city, many of these private art museums are nearly impossible to reach through means of public transport. Sometimes, museums are built in freshly erected towns or smaller 3nd-tier cities, where they are used as part of local governmental plans to (re-)develop areas as the new economic hotspot of the city, eager for an ‘iconic’ building to a newly erected city. The futuristic-looking Culture & Arts Centre designed by Zaha Hadid Architects in Changsha is one of the examples, located in the newly destined CBD with the hyper-dystopian name “Meixi Lake Eco-City.” A name like that probably arose from an idea to slap a green label on as a way to decongest traffic in the city center by relocating the “center” to the outskirts, attracting new residents and commerce and increasing overall consumption of resources.... Even when centrally located, the entrance price alone can be shockingly unaffordable. To note, the David Hockney exhibition at MWoods' new space in downtown Beijing set the price for entrance tickets at 220 rmb on the weekends, which is roughly equivalent to two to three days’ wages for most entry level workers in the arts (that’s equivalent to $31 USD -- for reference, admission to MoMA in NYC is $25.)

Maybe this is something the city, the people, and visitors have to come to terms with: that those museums were not built for them, for actual human people, to be walked around and looked at and discussed at during weekend outings, for children to run through during school trips, workshop seminars and public openings. It was meant as a way to hide their wealth and at the same time to display it in the most bizarre way possible: “Look at me, here is the shiny new building by an architect we brought over only for sake of their name. Look at me, I am standing empty.”

When we look at the temporalities and sustainability for the local art scene, we need to ask ourselves: Who are these spaces for? Who can afford to participate? How can we battle shortsightedness in a country where long-term planning is almost impossible? And how can we change the perceived value of creative labor to truly support independent structures from within?