Art markets in China14.05. 2007 People
ONLY a few years ago, to be an avant-garde artist in China was to court trouble with the government. Now racy modern art fetches high prices at international auctions and chic galleries are magnets for tourists in Beijing and Shanghai. Cannily, the government is turning patron. For the past four years, avant-garde artists in Beijing have staged an annual festival in a cluster of disused 1950s-era factories. This year's festival, which ends on May 12th, shows how government censors are learning to live with art that pokes a bit of fun at the way China works. It also shows how capitalist China is affecting the artists themselves. The complex, known as 798 after the official code number given to one of its East German-designed military-equipment factories, has had an uneasy relationship with officialdom since fringe artists began setting up studios and galleries in the late 1990s. The landlord, SevenStar Group, a state-controlled conglomerate, welcomed the rent but had plans to redevelop the area. The artists were supposed to move out by 2005. By then, however, 798 had become a centre of trendy modernity, complete with bookshops, teahouses and restaurants. Demand for modern Chinese art, fuelled by wealthy collectors in China itself, pushed up prices internationally. The city of Beijing had pledged a new look for the Olympic Games in 2008. Officials saw 798 as an opportunity to show off its cultural vibrancy. SevenStar saw money-making potential. Early last year the city government named 798 as a centre of “cultural creative industry”—a priority, it said. Cynics say 798 has become a misleading showcase for liberal expression in a country subject to stifling censorship. But artists also have other things to worry about. SevenStar, which is sponsoring this year's festival, is pushing up rents. Struggling avant-garde artists are having to look elsewhere for cheap digs.