Chinese art — not a bust

BEIJING — Fabien Fryns, who runs the F2 gallery in Caochangdi village on the outskirts of Beijing, does not look like a man who is worried about the financial crisis.

“The middle has dropped out of the market,” said Fryns, discretely smoking a cigar in the gallery’s voluminous interior garden, “but the top and the bottom are both strong.”

What is "the middle"? Pieces from $30,000 to $500,000, according to Fryns.

Compared to the stock market, or nearly any other place one can put one’s money these days, Chinese contemporary art still looks like a very good investment. Recent art auctions in Hong Kong have registered sales at the high end of their estimates, even though the targets the auction houses are setting for themselves are less ambitious today than previous years.

The owners of some of the best Beijing galleries said the shakeout promises to be a positive development for dealers, but also for artists. No one likes a bubble and there was growing concern that easy riches were destroying creativity by encouraging Chinese artists to go after major sales, rather than the real thing.

Li Xianting, the former editor of the magazine China Fine Arts who is considered the spiritual father of the contemporary art movement, said media hype transformed many artists into “money celebrities” and produced a twisted form of art.

Pan Xing Lei, a sculptor and painter who recently returned to Beijing from New York, said the financial crisis would weed out less serious artists.

“The artists who are serious can take this time to reflect and to develop their ideas,” he said. “The others will go back to their villages, or do something else.”

The craze over contemporary Chinese art began to trigger serious waves on the international art scene in 2005, after the auction house Sotheby’s established an Asian contemporary art department and began buying up works. Many of the artists were reacting to the Tiananmen Square massacre and grappling with the wrenching changes in Chinese society, a fact that made them especially interesting as an emerging China began to make its influence felt in other domains.

“The relationship was becoming difficult because many of the artists were spoiled,” Fryns said. “The scene in the last few years was crazy. You were given an hour to decide if you wanted to buy a piece.”

In March 2006, an auction that was expected to bring in $6 million raised $13 million. In 2007, a single painting, “Executioner,” by Yue Minjun, famous for his cynical-realist political pop caricatures of himself with a frozen smile, went for $5.9 million, up from the $32,200 the original owner had paid a decade earlier. 

With results like that, China’s own millionaires, many of them newly minted, began buying art mostly as investment.

“None of them had time to study what it was that was making contemporary art so successful,” Fryns said, “so they bought the pieces that were going for the highest prices.”

A sprawling gallery complex known as 798, which occupies a former military factory complex, became the third most popular tourist destination in Beijing. By the time it had succeeded, however, the more exclusive galleries and many of the more serious artists had already moved to more remote art villages, including Songzhuan and Caochangdi, where F2 is located.

Brian Wallace, who runs the Red Gate Gallery in an ancient guard tower on a remnant of the city’s original Ming wall, noted that 798 seems to be evolving from gallery space to retail space. But Wallace had no doubt that China will continue to inject enormous creativity and professionalism into the contemporary art scene.

"Art is a career path in China,” Wallace said. “It is like being a doctor or a lawyer.”

The recession’s impact on real estate speculation connected to art may be a different story. Beijing’s dazzling Today Art Museum, the city’s first independent museum focusing on contemporary art, will probably succeed. But a flashy nearby gallery complex known as 22 Art Plaza International, which had intended to capitalize on the museum’s attraction, stands largely empty.

Fryns said F2 and other leading galleries prefer the more remote location at Caochangdi, because the space is reasonable, and there is a lot of it. A collector who has flown to Beijing, ready to spend a million dollars or more on a painting, has no difficulty finding the location.

“We don’t get the drop-in crowd, the casual passers-by, the young couple with cameras, but that is not what we're looking for,” Fryns said.

And Fryns is convinced that in the long term, the best art will continue to hold its value. “There is very little quality material coming on the market today,” he said. “People are holding on to what they have. There are a lot of newly wealthy Chinese billionaires. Once they have bought everything else, a certain number will turn to contemporary art. They will want to collect the best work that is Chinese, and there is a limited supply of that."

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