Opening up the art market

By Lu Qianwen Source:Global Times Published: 2013-5-2 19:23:01

A scribble painting How Are You? priced at 15,000 yuan is exhibited at the 2013 SURGE Art Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of SURGE Art Beijing 

A scribble painting How Are You? priced at 15,000 yuan is exhibited at the 2013 SURGE Art Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of SURGE Art Beijing

While China's contemporary art can now easily make headlines in the global art market during the auction season each year, not everyone has the opportunity or means to offer bids at Sotheby's or Christie's. At the same time, not every artist has the good fortune to make it onto auction heavyweights' final lists, especially those who have just started out in the business.

For the Chinese art market, the past two decades have been dominated by astronomically priced works, while more often than not, affordable art works end up being neglected. Luckily, things are turning around, with new platforms emerging that allow affordable art works to meet more potential buyers.

Surging low-priced art

With the 2013 SURGE Art Beijing (which kicked off on April 29) just ending on Thursday, the seven-year-old art festival has gained increasing attention for its collective exhibition of low-priced art works around the country each year.

"We received 14,000 applications (for exhibiting art works) this year, and we narrowed them to the final 600 works from 200 artists through our five-expert judge panel," said Tom Pattinson, founder of the festival, "each judge has a vote and if a work gets three or more votes, it is put through to the final."

With the judge panel covering famous curators and artists from both China and abroad, including You Yang (vice chairman of UCCA,) Karen Smith, Liu Xiaodong, Bao Dong and Cao Difei, the value of those art works this year is also reflected in their prices. The highest price for this year's SURGE Art Beijing is 30,000 yuan ($4,866), higher than the maximum 20,000 yuan which had been the record for the past three years, and the average price is around 5,000 to 6,000 yuan, basically the same level as last year.  

"After seven years of development, we have gradually crept up to a maximum ceiling of 30,000 yuan for any work of art during the fair, and this is now in line with what is globally accepted as 'affordable,' which is around $5,000," Pattinson told the Global Times.

Pattinson explained that over the last eight years, people's understanding of contemporary art has grown. "They realize the value of spending money on a work of art that they can keep for life and that may well appreciate in value instead of a pair of shoes or a new handbag," he added.

Launched in 2006, the festival was then called AAB (Affordable Art Beijing) and aimed to fill the gap between the public's demand for art works that they like and suited their budget, and young artists' lack of opportunity to showcase their works. Changing its name from AAB to SURGE Art last year, the festival is now trying to build itself into a brand that puts more emphasis on quality. "We want to make it known for the quality instead of price of those art works," said Pattinson.

Galleries aside

Affordable art festivals like SURGE Art have been developing for more than a decade in other countries. In 1999, the first AAF (Affordable Art Fair)was initiated in London, making sure that art works in the exhibition were not priced at more than 3,000 pounds.

The last 14 years have seen the trend sweep across more than 20 cities including New York and Paris. However, despite their similar goals, each of those festivals has its own way of selecting art works, setting prices and charging commission fees.

"A big difference from our foreign counterparts is we work directly with artists, without galleries involved," said Pattinson, "most of the global affordable art fairs are operating in the way of selling their exhibition places to galleries who then choose on their own which works to exhibit."

"Galleries usually have too many restrictions, such as targeting specific collectors and higher commission fees, making it impossible to cover a wide base of artists and visitors," said Chen Linggang, who loves art and became a full-time painter in 2007.

Without galleries becoming involved in the process, artists working with SURGE Art can decide prices for their own works. "When I first attended the AAB in 2011, my four paintings were all sold at around 5,000 yuan per copy even at the preview stage, and this year I bought four works and expect them to sell at a price of around 15,000 yuan," Chen told the Global Times.

Deepening the market

However, while galleries are not part of the trading process during the festival, the platform does open doors for them to scout for potential artists. For example, after Chen attended the AAB in 2011, he was invited by a domestic gallery to become a long-term agent and establish a cooperative partnership.

"It allows your works to be seen by both domestic and foreign galleries, and is a helpful start for young artists," he said.

Any market produces both popular and high-end goods for different buyers, and the art market is no different. "But in China, only the top ones have been fervently chased in the past years," said Yu Tianhong, an art critic, "the art market in any place should have a system, like a pyramid, with popular art works for the public making up the bottom of the structure."

With a quickly growing middle-class, China's potential buying power for art works is huge. And from SURGE Art Beijing's previous years' results, most visitors and buyers are young people, many of whom are white-collar workers.

"Consumers with an innovative spirit gradually realize the value of collecting art works, instead of simply buying luxury goods," said You Yang, one of the experts on the judging panel for 2013 SURGE Art Beijing.

And to cater to this growing and awakening consumer group, SURGE Art is also expanding throughout the country. Last October, they held the festival in Shanghai for the first time. And late this year, the first SURGE Art will be held in Hong Kong.

"Chinese art markets now are (focused) at the very top.  We want to make it deeper, to introduce more quality and affordable art works to more people," said Pattinson.

Posted in: ARTS

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