On a sultry July evening, a 200-strong crowd gathered in the courtyard of the newly opened James Cohan Gallery in Shanghai. The New York–based gallery, which shows several blue-chip artists such as Bill Viola and Yinka Shonibare, had just opened its space, located in a renovated Art Deco mansion in the city’s French Concession. The backyard of the mansion, which contained a Richard Long sculpture, was filled with a mix of the city’s expats and art-world denizens and was mostly a casual affair—that is, until Jay Jopling and his entourage appeared. Despite the muggy day, Jopling, the London dealer behind the White Cube gallery, was dressed in the art world uniform of a black suit and crisp white shirt. What was he doing amongst the hoi polloi of Shanghai?
According to the gallery, Jopling isn’t up to anything in China—but it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if he were. While the art world has been flocking to China for years for biennales and art fairs, 2008 is a turning point for cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, where some of the world’s most established galleries are setting up shop. The opening of Cohan was followed by Pace Wildenstein settling into a 22,000-square-foot space in Beijing’s 798 district in August. It soon will be joined by Gagosian, which is hunting for a space in Hong Kong. According to Asia managing director Nick Simunovic, Gagosian hopes to be up and running in “the near future.”
Without a doubt, all this movement is spurred by the hot Chinese art market. However, many of these galleries, such as Gagosian and Cohan, will not be showing much contemporary Chinese art. Instead, they will be bringing in their normal rosters of established Western artists to what Simunovic calls an “underserved” market. “Collectors don’t need Gagosian to see what’s going on in the Asian contemporary market,” he says. “New collectors’ access to the primary and secondary market for contemporary art has not traditionally been there.” For a powerhouse such as Pace, which already represents current contemporary Chinese art stars such as Zhang Huan and Zhang Xiaogang, the Beijing outpost is also about trying to tap into a new audience for its established artists, such as Chuck Close and Alex Katz. “The gallery will be international, covering both Western and Eastern art, but with a slight focus on Asia,” says Leng Lin, the president of Pace’s Beijing gallery.
Additionally, their arrivals indicate an increase in wealthy new active collectors in China and in other parts of Asia. After the successful 2007 launch of SH Contemporary, the art fair run by Art Basel veteran Lorenzo Rudolf, a number of galleries such as Cohan began to map out the market potential of Shanghai. “[The success for us at the art fair] reinforced that having a gallery here wasn’t such a far-fetched idea,” says Arthur Solway, the director of Cohan’s Shanghai gallery. “For a while, I had an increasing personal interest in China,” he adds. “At that point [in 2007], we decided that we were going to look for a space in Shanghai. The initial vision was to find an historic property, and put art in it.”
Solway arrived in January and in six short months opened the gallery in an Art Deco mansion a lane’s walk off of Yue Yang Road, the city’s main street. Faded Chinese characters are printed atop the main entrance to the gallery reading: “Let the Spirit of Mao Reign for 10,000 Years.” In addition to the space, the mansion houses an interior design office on its upper floors—a far cry from its former use as an army barracks.
Its location is distinctly Shanghai, just as Pace Beijing’s space has become reflective of that city’s art scene. Located in the Dashanzi area on the city’s Fourth Ring Road, the new gallery takes over a space in the Factory 798, which, in the last few years, has become the art district of the city, given its close proximity to the Central Academy of Fine Arts. The factory building, with soaring ceilings, was built by East German architects in the Fifties. Pace’s inaugural exhibition, Encounters, included artists as diverse as Takashi Murakami, Cindy Sherman and Yue Minjun, the Chinese artist known for his paintings of figures with large, smiling faces. Helmed by Leng, a renowned Beijing-based art critic and curator, the gallery’s programmatic mix between Western and Chinese artists has still not been decided. “Since we have just opened our gallery in Beijing, it would be a bit too early to predict at this point,” says Leng.
While Beijing and Shanghai have been unique places for expansion, the art and real estate landscape in Hong Kong is considerably different. Simunovic, who formerly worked in development at the Guggenheim Foundation, initially arrived in Shanghai with the intention of setting up Gagosian’s Asia operations. However, given the liberal tariff laws in Hong Kong—and the availability of a much more mature business structure—he shifted courses and settled in the former British colony, where the gallery currently has offices and is on the hunt for a showroom. But the scarcity of large spaces in the center of the city has made the search difficult. “We’re happy to be patient for something to come along,” he says. Gagosian shows the world’s biggest art stars, such as Damien Hirst, Richard Serra and John Currin, and routinely fetches top sums for their work. While the big collectors are all interested in important names, Simunovic observes that the interest is evenly keeled. “We want to be patient and methodical in China,” he says.
In time, given the size of the Chinese market, it is inevitable that more galleries—not just from New York or London—will follow. “The New York galleries will come here because they want to have the presence and they will want to be a part of China,” says Solway. “People [in China] have so much more than they used to have. It’s exciting for them.”