Studio Culture in China
Artquest provides critical engagement and practical support to London’s visual artists and craftspeople, working with practitioners in London throughout their careers. (From Artquest site)
From the point of view of a foreign artist, the most striking difference in studio culture between the UK and China regards scale. Both the number and size of studios available affords artists more freedom and space than might be possible – or economical – at home. As Brian Wallace, founder of the Red Gate gallery in Beijing, has pointed out, the Chinese art scene has developed ‘from the ground up’; the comparative youth of the contemporary art scene in China, which has been active now for around 20 years, means that all frameworks relating to art are as yet at a raw stage of development. This, and a lack of state endorsement have resulted in a concentration of energy and zeal at a grass roots level. Evidence of this rapid expansion at a primary stage lies in the burgeoning artistic communities that have sprung up in various urban areas. According to curator and author Phil Tinari, the first of these ‘were like manifestos’; nowadays, some artists may still choose studios in far-flung communities based on the increased freedom they might have to show their work there. In Beijing, Beigao (North-East of the city centre off the airport expressway), Huantie (also to the North-East) and Songzhuan, for example, are the sites of hundreds of studios where both native and foreign artists live and work. In the more developed districts, which may include commercial galleries or art organizations, both native and foreign artists alike can benefit from being part of a network in terms of resources, commercial outlets, the exchange of ideas and curatorial or critical interest Molin Xie, an artist who recently returned to China after studying in Edinburgh and who now rents a studio in Huantie, has noted that for young artists like himself, finding a good-sized work-space in the UK can be prohibitively expensive. In Beijing, RMB per day per square metre is the usual formula for determining rents: at the time of writing, 1 GBP = 11. 3 RMB. According to research conducted in January 2009 by Shauna Dillavou, large-scale studio space on the fringes of Caochangdi – one of the major art districts in the North-East of Beijing – was the most expensive recorded at 6RMB. A typical lower-end rate would be 2RMB/day/sq m, so that a 100 sq m space would cost in the region of 530 pounds a month. In Huantie, Molin pays 2250RMB per month for his purpose-built 156 sq m studio, a price negotiated down from 2500RMB per month.
Types of studio vary. The older art districts are those more likely to occupy ex-factory areas; in 798, for example, studios make use of reclaimed warehouses in the disused Dashanzi manufacturing area in Beijing. During the early 2000s, however, a new trend developed based on what Dillavou has termed ‘interior real estate’ on the fringes of the city. Ground-lease holders – local farmers or villagers – realised that they could make a better profit from their land holdings by building studios on them and renting them out. What began as makeshift structures have evolved into good-quality, purpose-built spaces like Molin’s. Although studios like these are not ready-fitted for living in they can be made into live/work spaces, often with a loft area for sleeping in, and many artists live on-site.
Whilst this opportunistic environment has many benefits for both artists and landlords, there are issues relating to this kind of building of which a visiting artist should be aware. In the short term, profiteering by local people produces affordable, practical spaces. This type of studio may not be a reliable option in the long term, however, because they have been built without permission on government-owned land. It is difficult to assess the stability of these areas; in recent months both Huantie and Caochangdi were rumoured to be in danger of being torn down. Progress has been made, however: in 2008 and after much negotiation between arts leadership and Beijing city government, 798 was classified as a “cultural landmark”. The commercial viability and appeal for tourists of this large, longer-established site have surely contributed to its status, but land use disputes may still be a problem for smaller communities.
An important consideration for foreign artists concerns access. Native artists commonly find their studios by word of mouth, so the language barrier might inhibit those with no basic grounding in Mandarin; some artists hire students to liase for them and by way of initial contact. Katherine Don, an art writer and consultant in Beijing, has advised that an artist new to China and wanting to find a studio independently would need to be prepared to develop their own network and friends in the artistic community as a starting-point. In Don’s opinion, there is currently a lack of infrastructure in place to mediate between artists and landlords; more needs to be done to enable shorter periods of studio-rental (which might better suit artists visiting from abroad), as landlords are keen to secure long-term tenants and to keep pushing rents up. Brian Wallace has suggested the possibility of sharing: a new artist could aim on arrival to slot in and occupy a studio for a 2-3 month stint before committing to a longer lease. This would be possible, he says, because in areas like Beigao people work to different schedules: some are permanent residents, others come and go or stay only for a short time.
A good way to simplify these considerations would be to join a residency program, of which many are available. Res Artis (http://www.resartis.org/) is a global network of artist residencies of which China is a member. The application procedure for these residencies is usually a simple online process, and a portfolio is not always necessary. In Beijing, the Red Gate Gallery (http://www.redgategallery.com/ResidencyProgramShow.php) and Three Shadows Photography Centre (http://www.threeshadows.cn/en/programs.htm), for example, maintain consistent programs that welcome international artists. Red Gate’s program is also open to curators, writers and performers, and provides self-contained combined studio and living spaces in the Beigao district (they have 6 there). The gallery acts as a facilitator: living and accommodation costs are not covered so visiting artists should expect to subsidise themselves. It is possible, however, to apply for grants at home to assist with funding. Sculptor Philip Kennedy, for example, received an Arts Council award which helped pay for his residency period with Red Gate in 2003 (see http://www.philip-kennedy.com/beigao.htm for more information).
Overall, studio culture in China has much to offer artists from abroad. The size and number of spaces available and their relative cost set China apart from Western areas. The art districts and communities, particularly in Beijing where they are the most extensive, are engaging places: melting-pots of artistic media and people. Visiting artists may have high expectations, therefore, but must also be aware that the Chinese art scene and its infrastructures in turn are as yet not fully developed or necessarily well-prepared to receive non-native artists. There is great opportunity available as long as new arrivals are ready to make the initial contact and connections that will help them to get started. This is a step that many foreign artists have already taken, and related structures – communication, residency, exchange – are constantly evolving.
 Brian Wallace, founder of the Red Gate Gallery in Beijing, interviewed on 11th August 2009.
 Phil Tinari, quoted in Shauna Dillavou, Artist Communities in Beijing: An Indicator of a Growing Political Tolerance in China?, June 30, 2009.
 Interviews with Guo Jian; Pi Li, May 5, 2009, referenced in Dillavou, Artist Communities in Beijing, 2009.
 Gallery owner Pi Li, quoted in Dillavou, Artist Communities in Beijing, 2009.
 Dillavou, Artist Communities in Beijing, 2009.
 Molin Xie.
 Dillavou, Artist Communities in Beijing, 2009.
 Katherine Don, Director of Red Box Studio, Beijing, interviewed on 18th August 2009.
 Brian Wallace, interviewed on 11th August 2009.