SURGE Art, previously known as ‘Affordable Art China’, was established in 2006 with the goal of making good quality art more accessible to the general public. Whilst the art market in China has grown immensely in the last few years, it still lacks the depth that more developed markets in the West have. Here in China, buying art is still seen as the preserve of the rich.
With this in mind, the works on sale at Surge Art Fairs all sell for less than 30,000RMB, which is very reasonable indeed when compared to the millions being spent at leading auction houses, both in China and abroad. Beyond merely selling art, SURGE Art provides a platform for emerging artists from all over China to showcase their work, not just to art enthusiasts, but industry professionals as well.
With this year's SURGE Art Shanghai just around the corner, we caught up with founder and director Tom Pattinson to find out more about the hidden intrigues of the Chinese art market.
You were established in 2006 under the name 'Affordable Art China'. Why did you decide to rebrand yourselves?
We have been operating in Beijing since 2006, and this upcoming fair will be our second successive year in Shanghai. We also have a fair in Chengdu later this year, and next year we plan to expand to other cities on the mainland, as well as Hong Kong and Taipei. So in practical terms, we wanted a name that was shorter and snappier, and a brand that is instantly recognizable.
It also reflects a change in our outlook. Whilst affordability is still very important to us, we do not want to give the impression that we are just concerned with price. We are equally focused on discovering new talent: it is about quality, not just bargains. Of course, it is great for people who bought, say, a Zhang Xiaogang painting at one of our fairs a couple of years ago, because now works from the same artist can fetch two million RMB at auction, but we would rather people come to our fairs and buy works for aesthetic pleasure, rather than seeing them purely as an investment that might appreciate in value.
"Whilst affordability is still very important to us, we do not want to give the impression that we are just concerned with price. We are equally focused on discovering new talent: it is about quality, not just bargains."
You have received praise for 'getting to grips with the market trend'. What, in your view, have been the major trends in the Chinese art market in the past few years?
Well, since 2006, I would say that the quality of works out there has improved enormously. The standard of teaching at the major art schools has improved, and more people are studying fine art than in the past, so this has had a positive effect on the Chinese art scene, as there are now so many talented young artists coming out of these institutions.
Not only has there been improvement at the technical level, but at the conceptual level, ideas have become more sophisticated. The new generation of contemporary artists are more international in outlook and as a result, the themes they explore are often more universal, rather than focusing specifically on Chinese issues, as was the case before.
Finally, contemporary art itself has hit the mainstream: whereas in the past the market was dominated by traditional works, now there is a wider awareness of Chinese contemporary art. One reason for this is the work of contemporary artists making a name for themselves in the commercial sphere, as designers or photographers for instance.
In art, as with a lot of things, it seems impossible to mention the Shanghai scene without comparing it to Beijing. Do you think there are any major differences between the two?
As a rule, in Beijing the focus can be described as more traditional, particularly in terms of medium. I think again the major institutions play a role. For instance, Guohua (traditional painting) has a strong presence in Beijing art schools, and this is reflected in the technical ability of the artists they produce. Meanwhile, the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou has a reputation for being more experimental in its approach, and a lot of the artists who study there go into installation, digital, or other new media. The characters of the two cities are also important. Being a more international city, the Shanghai art scene is arguably more modern and commercial, whilst in Beijing a lot of the works produced may have a more political concern.
The growth in the Chinese art market has been driven primarily by domestic demand, and this demand is mostly for Chinese works. Do you see this dynamic changing any time soon?
Well, it’s already happening. If you look at Hong Kong, the market is much more international than the mainland. Of course, Hong Kong is not subject to a lot of the bureaucratic restrictions that the mainland is, but it is also an issue of exposure. As the market matures, and Chinese buyers gain more understanding of foreign artists, demand for foreign artworks will increase. This is already the case with big international names, as wealthy Chinese want to buy the most expensive works, but in the future I think lesser known Western artists will also see increased demand.
"What we are seeing is the art market evolving, not stagnating."
China was the world's biggest Fine Art market last year, for the second year running. However, industry experts have become pessimistic about whether this growth can be maintained, since there are already signs that the market is slowing. What do you think the future holds for the Chinese art market?
What we are seeing is the art market evolving, not stagnating. Yes, there are less major sales happening, but this is not confined to art. It is a phenomenon that happens with any luxury product when the market becomes more sophisticated.
For example, just this year sales of Cartier handbags in China are down 54%. This is because consumer’s tastes are becoming more refined – whereas a few years ago wealthy Chinese were willing to buy the most expensive thing on the market as a status symbol, today people want to buy products that say something about their individuality and sense of personal taste.
So yes, movement at the top tier has slowed down, but it is the middle tier that will become more important in years to come. Today there are around 400 million Chinese people living in the middle income bracket, earning between fifteen and twenty thousand dollars a year. By 2025 there will be as many as 800 million people in this bracket. This is the new market that we are aiming for: people who will for the first time have disposable income to spend on things like art. So whilst the market will obviously change, I’m still optimistic for the future.
WORDS BY ARVIN MAHANTA & TOM PATTINSON
VIDEO BY PETER DIXON
IMAGES COURTESY OF SURGE ART