Chinese Millennial Collectors Were ‘Hungrier and Thirstier’ Than Ever for Contemporary Fare as They Took Shanghai Art Week By Storm

Several galleries reported sold-out booths on the first day of the fairs.

The ninth edition of ART021, Shanghai. Courtesy of ART021.

A woman in her 20s inquired about an artwork at a gallery booth at the West Bund Art & Design in Shanghai last week—dressed in casual-looking luxury sportswear, she listened intently to the dealer’s explanation about the piece, asking questions while flashing thick, dark eyelash extensions. The artwork had a price tag of $1 million. “Is that within your budget?” the gallerist asked. She nodded.

Such a moment was not an isolated case during Shanghai Art Week, which ran from Thursday to Sunday last week, where West Bund fair and ART021 Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair opened to swathes of local collectors. The two concurrent events were bustling despite stringent travel international restrictions, with West Bund at the West Bund Art Center hosting 120 galleries and ART021 at Shanghai Exhibition Center presenting booths from 134 exhibitors.

While most dealers and VIPS based abroad were not able to make it to the art hub on mainland China, it did not dampen the spirit of collectors from across the country and many galleries, with their Asian directors on the scene, reported strong sales, with some selling out their booths on the first day.

Initially, dealers thought the success was driven by a pent-up excitement of being able to see art in-person. But a closer look shows that this year’s selling fever was caused by something else: young millennials who were buying up hot names and emerging artists based both locally and abroad. “The energy is unprecedented this year,” said dealer Vanessa Guo, giving a nod to this younger generation. “There are so many new collectors who are hungrier and thirstier.”

Installation view of Galerie Marguo's booth at ART021, Shanghai, 2021. Courtesy of the gallery.

Installation view of Galerie Marguo’s booth at ART021, Shanghai, 2021. Courtesy of the gallery.

Young and Passionate

Guo, a veteran of the Shanghai fairs (she previously directed Hauser & Wirth’s Asia operations), exhibited at ART021 for the first time as an owner of Paris-based gallery Galerie Marguo, which she co-founded with Jean-Mathieu Martini a year ago. She commended this younger demographic’s passionate attitude.

“The eagerness to learn and to see more is incomparable,” she told Artnet News. Her booth, which featured an international line-up of younger artists including American Amanda Baldwin, Ziping Wang from, and Godwin Champs Namuyimba from Uganda, sold out on the first day.

Pilar Corrias also sold out its entire booth at ART021. “The fair has a very lively vibe,” said Vera Yu, its Asia director, who noted that even though the pandemic has transformed the way work is sold, art still sells better in-person—especially conceptual art, like Philippe Parreno’s mixed media installation and Sabine Moritz’s abstract painting, which were on view at the fair.

She noted that the largest difference between this year’s edition and the last one was the presence of “lots of young collectors who are in their 20s rather than established collectors.” She noted that both this fresh-faced demographic, who were educated abroad, as well as established collectors focused on traditional Chinese art, are becoming increasingly open to collecting international contemporary art in the range of $50,000 to $500,000. The gallery is planning to set up an office and viewing room in Shanghai next year.

A scene at West Bund Art & Design 2021, Shanghai. Courtesy of West Bund Art & Design.

A scene at West Bund Art & Design 2021, Shanghai. Courtesy of West Bund Art & Design.

Who Sold What in Shanghai

Attending the fairs was not a hassle-free experience. But it was also not the first time Shanghai Art Week took place under tight pandemic-related restrictions: Last year, IRL art events resumed in Shanghai after the first wave of coronavirus in China was contained while the rest of the world was still in pandemic lockdowns.

This year, fair-goers had to present a negative test result obtained 48 hours prior to arrival. Once inside, quick decisions were made for artworks priced around $200,000 or under, according to Dawn Zhu, Asia director of Thaddaeus Ropac. “[Collectors] are also very interested in works up to $1.5 million, and making decisions within a few days after doing their own research into the artist,” she added.

The European gallery, which has an outpost in Seoul, exhibited at West Bund and sold two 2021 works, Blessings (MES 1039) and Blessings (MES1038) by Malaysian-British artist Mandy El-Sayegh for $45,000 to $50,000 within the first hour of the VIP preview. Other sales included a work by Jason Martin for £65,000 ($87,282) and one by Yan Pei-Ming for €80,000 ($91,055). Works by Alex Katz and Georg Baselitz were also well-received, Zhu noted. The German art star will be featured in a yet-to-be-announced museum show in China next year.

Wendy Xu, White Cube’s gallery director, Asia, said the London- and Hong Kong-based gallery sold works by established Western names such as Tracey Emin and Antony Gormley, as well as Asian artists who have an international following, including Christine Ay Tjoe, Park Seo-bo, and Liu Wei at West Bund. The fair completely sold out of its the solo presentation of Minoru Nomata at ART021.

Installation view of White Cube's booth at West Bund Art & Design, Shanghai, 2021. Courtesy of the gallery.

Installation view of White Cube’s booth at West Bund Art & Design, Shanghai, 2021. Courtesy of the gallery.

Lihsin Tsai, Hauser & Wirth’s senior director, said that, besides reuniting with long-time clients, the gallery was “excited to have met new collectors at the fair, including new collectors from the tech background who gained interest in art from the rise of NFTs.” Though there was no blockchain art on view, the gallery sold new artworks by Avery Singer and Rashid Johson, the former to a museum in Asia for an undisclosed amount and the latter to an Asian private collection for $450,000. A George Condo painting called Portrait of a Humanoid was sold to a private collection in China for $1.6 million—a retrospective of the artist is currently on view at Long Museum in Shanghai.

Lévy Gorvy’s reported great success on the first day of its Shanghai fairs debut, selling all 10 paintings by Tu Hongtao that were presented as a solo booth at West Bund, as well as more than half the works hung at the ART021 booth. Rebecca Wei, partner and chairman of Lévy Gorvy Asia, and Danqing Li, President, Asia Lévy Gorvy, added that the gallery also saw “interest” in the U.S. artist Pat Steir, who is having her first major solo show in China at Long Museum during the Shanghai Art Week.

David Zwirner nearly sold out the entire booth on the first day at ART021 with sales totalling nearly $4 million by the end of the week, according to the gallery’s senior director Leo Xu. Art by Katherine Bernhardt, Yayoi Kusama, Nate Lowman, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Rose Wylie found homes in the region, including museum collections in China and Asia, he noted.

Dealers from the region also did well. Beijing gallery ShangART sold work at the two fairs, including titles from a solo both of painting Sun Xun at West Bund. The Hong Kong-based Lucie Chang Fine Arts sold work at ART021 to collectors from the “X, Y, Z generations,” noting particularly strong sales of street artists like Eddie Kang, Snip 1, and Aruta Soup—which sold in the range of $10,000 to $20,000.

<i>It Was as if the Shadows Were Lit Up</i>, an exhibition of Tala Madani at Longlati Foundation, Shanghai. Courtesy of Longlati Foundation.

It Was as if the Shadows Were Lit Up, an exhibition of Tala Madani at Longlati Foundation, Shanghai. Courtesy of Longlati Foundation.

More Than Just A Shopping Spree

While art fairs and sales were major highlights of the week, Shanghai was saturated with a wide range of institutional shows and gallery openings, several of which featured Western names. Two unusual exhibitions of foreign artists inaugurated the Shanghai space of the Longlati Foundation, which was founded last year by Singapore investor David Su and Chinese artist Chen Zihao.

“When international travels become difficult, institutions should take up the responsibility to bring quality work and information from outside to the country,” Chen told Artnet News. “There are lots of local audiences who can still visit exhibitions.”

The foundation’s collection and exhibition programs are built upon direct communications with artists and galleries rather than auctions, noted Chen, despite the fact that some of the names, like Derrick Adams and Amoako Boafo, performed well on the auction block in recent years. He said a focus on the primary market, against the backdrop of the pandemic travel restrictions, has driven the fast expansion of China’s art market over these past couple of years.

Audiences are learning more about art history and the art market, Chen said, and becoming interested in not only Western names but also homegrown Chinese artists and Asian artists—as long as their work is good.

“Young collectors have risen up because they have a global vision, and the financial resources they have inherited from their family will play a key role in sustaining cultural development,” he said. These collectors who are starting out may focus on the act of buying art for now, but he has faith that they will “evolve from simply buying to building a collection that reflects their attitude towards culture.”

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