With encroaching commercialisation, some industry commentators are questioning the cultural value of China’s art districts.
On 4 November 2012, China’s Global Times reported on a rent dispute gone mad in Beijing’s famous 798 art district. Xu Yong, founder and manager of 798 Space, revealed in a recent blog post that the art hub’s problems go far deeper than just one skirmish.
798 Space shuttered
According to the Global Times, 798 Space, arguably the district’s most iconic gallery and one of its oldest-running galleries, was recently shuttered by the Beijing Sevenstar Electronics Co Ltd, 798 art district’s property management company, after a long-standing rent dispute.
798 Space’s lease expired at the end of 2011, and the management company wanted to dramatically raise the rent on the building. Gallery co-founder and manager Xu Yong continued to operate in 2012 believing the contract was still under negotiation, not expecting the property management to forcefully lock his gallery and shut down operations.
The de facto eviction came just days before 798 Space was set to host the opening banquet of the 5th European Union Film Festival. After a tense standoff, Sevenstar unlocked the doors only after Xu agreed to turn over the entire profits from the banquet to the management company, and turn over the property again immediately after the event.
Informal arrangements, growing disputes
[Editor’s note: The following account was written by Xu Yong in his personal blog, so his opinions should not necessarily be considered an authoritative, impartial view of the matter. The Global Times attempted to contact the management company for comment, but received no response.]
In a recent blog post, written in Chinese and titled “798’s Development Crisis and Deeply-Rooted Management System Problems“, Xu goes into great detail about the circumstances that precipitated the closure of the gallery. According to the him, after the 2008 financial crash, 798 Space and several other galleries made special arrangements with the management company to keep them afloat during the poor economic period. 798 Space would only have to pay half of its yearly rent from 2009 to 2011. Some conditions of the rent reduction were in the lease, while others were verbal promises.
At the end of 2010, however, Sevenstar demanded the year’s rent in full from 798 and several other galleries with which they had made arrangements. Xu continued to pay according to the previously agreed upon amount, despite receiving the same notification at the end of 2011. Xu notes that because of this payment issue, several other studios and galleries have been forcefully shut down, including one foreign-owned gallery.
When their lease ended at the end of 2011, Xu states that he proposed a meeting to discuss new lease terms about five or six times, but was ignored. To avoid tax complications, he continued to try to pay rent according to their old agreement, only to have it turned down on the grounds that they could not accept rent without a proper contract. Xu believes that this is the reasoning behind the shuttering of his gallery.
Pushing back on commercialisation
798 art district is no stranger to rent disputes. China.org.cn reported that as early as 2005 skyrocketing rent prices forced many of the original artist inhabitants of 798 to find less expensive spaces.
Last year, while profiling different Beijing art districts for Hyperallergic, artist and writer An Xiao commented on the area’s now notorious commercialisation:
The Chinese for 798 can also be translated as ‘798 Arts District’, but Wikipedia’s translation is ‘798 Art Zone’. In English, this makes it sound like an Art World Disneyland, which can feel highly appropriate at times. On weekends in particular, tourists foreign and Chinese alike walk around, take pictures with the outdoor sculptures and tote chic shopping bags filled with overdone design objects.
In a space so overtly commercial, the work is highly variable, and often not too challenging. One gallery director told me she can only afford to have one experimental, new media show a year. As the rents have gone up, artists have had to move out, and fewer and fewer maintain studios.
However, the recent rent disputes may betray a deeper problem at the core of 798’s development. In his blog post, Xu goes on to accuse Sevenstar and the 798 property management of fabricating rent disputes to force out what they see as “unwelcome renters”, namely small and medium size businesses, organisations like 798 Space that lack strong capital support and artist studios.
This, Xu believes, ultimately undermines the art district’s long-term prospects. He notes,
Actually, 798’s core value is in the development of contemporary culture and art. Yet if the current situation continues, not only will 798’s core values rapidly be eliminated (798’s too fast, excessive and rotten commercialisation is plain to see), but the real art in 798 will quickly disappear. Artists and art institutions will also continually disperse.
Xu believes that it was through the efforts of smaller organisations like 798 Space that 798 art district established itself as a fixture in the international contemporary art world. While they may not be as profitable as some businesses, Xu sees their operations as the root of 798’s social and cultural value, without which Sevenstar would not have an art district to profit from. By forcing them out, Sevenstar risks damaging 798’s ability to foster artists and creative industries.
Xu goes on to propose a reevaluation of the administrative rights of 798, recommending a shift away from factory-style property management to a model more befitting of a contemporary art district. He proposes several possible solutions, including imitating Western cultural development models that allow public or cultural foundations to dictate management rules or implementing a structure similar to that of Pier 2 Art Centre in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where the government acts as an intermediary between landlord and renters.
[Editors‘ note: One quotation that appears in this article was translated into English from the original Chinese by Art Radar.]
Have you been to Beijing’s 798 art district? What are your thoughts on cultural development in Beijing? Overly commercialised, or just a natural, healthy gentrification? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.
- Singapore Gillman Barracks 2012 opening: Optimism abounds – September 2012 – accolades for a new Asian art district, which controversially employed a top-down investment model
- The (potential) politics of art: China’s soft power push – August 2012 – contemporary art tourism spots like 798 great for government trying to promote a more tolerant image
- Foreign-owned 798 gallery expands into creative entrepreneur incubator – WSJ Scene Asia – April 2012 – some cultural development companies still thriving in 798
- Art districts in Asia: 5 top posts from 2008 to 2011 – June 2011 – part of our list series, the best of our articles that deal with Asian art districts
- Is Hong Kong’s current art climate failing local artists? Wall Street Journal discusses – January 2012 – high rents and over-commerialised spaces have long been the scourge of the Hong Kong art scene
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