Is affordable art the next big consumer trend in China?

The short queue at the ticket counter for the Claude Monet exhibition is deceptive: Inside, the rooms are crowded with people studying paintings by the French Impressionist master. Stern-faced guards keep close watch on the proceedings, which are subdued and quiet except for the frequent bleep of an alarm when visitors lean too close to the priceless portraits and landscapes.

“Master of Impression – Claude Monet,” held in a gallery space at the upscale K11 shopping mall in Shanghai, attracted nearly 7,000 visitors on its opening weekend in March, with some people lining up for over three hours to get inside, according to the show’s organizers.

After hosting only a few blockbuster events in recent years, Shanghai is suddenly awash with major art shows. Japan’s Kusama Yayoi pulled in huge crowds at the MoCA Shanghai earlier in the year; Pablo Picasso and Victor Hugo will go on display in the coming months. The investors and organizers behind this movement are hoping it is the start of a huge new trend in middle-class art consumption.

Previous efforts to bring major art exhibitions to town have had mixed success. The last time Shanghai Tix Media, the organizers of the Monet show, attempted something on this scale, they ran up losses of about US$3.2 million, company director Xie Dingwei told local media previously. Pablo Picasso wasn’t big enough to pull the masses into the cavernous space of China Art Museum in 2011.

This time should be different. “We’ve done some research,” Xie told China Economic Review. “People around 18 to 30 usually spend money on leisure rather than buying art books or exhibition tickets. But this is changing now.” The investment in the Monet exhibition has been “huge,” Xie said, without disclosing exact figures, while noting the company is already working on plans to bring more such shows to China amid growing interest in fine art.

Xie is confident that the large, eager turnout for K11’s Monet exhibition represents more than a passing fad. “Recently, going to art exhibitions is becoming a fashion among young people, but I believe most of them go to the exhibition out of love and concern for art, or at least out of curiosity.”

His optimism is shared by many who have a stake in the development of the art world. The Shanghai government is redeveloping a five-mile area of the Huangpu River into the West Bund Cultural Corridor that will house the Long Museum and Yuz Museum. Both are privately owned by wealthy individuals looking to display their personal collections. More than 10 public and private contemporary art museums are already open in Shanghai; other big cities like Beijing are home to many more.

On a weekday visit to the Monet exhibition in early April, China Economic Review felt a palpable appreciation of the art among the crowd of mostly young, female, cultured Chinese visitors. Two female teachers in their thirties had taken the train into town from Suzhou for the day. Another woman, a painting student who belongs to a large group of art hobbyists and teachers on the mobile social app WeChat, had also come in from Suzhou. There were male admirers too. “I think young men really prefer the Western art,” said a youthful salesman from Guangzhou. “It’s a trend.”

Not everyone is convinced that this upsurge in interest will hold. “Fifteen years ago there were several exhibitions in Taiwan which caused a sensation, but nowadays if they want to hold these exhibitions, frankly, the curators will lose money,” said Hu Yixun, a professor who studies the art market at the Fine Arts College of Shanghai University. “The art exhibition market is saturated. If these kinds of exhibitions are continuously held in Shanghai, audiences will eventually feel nothing.”

Art is big business, and not just for museums. China has ranked as the world’s top art buyer for four years straight, accounting for over US$4 billion in sales in 2013, according to France-based research firm Artprice. But most of these purchases take place at auction houses, where wealthy Chinese collectors snap up high-priced artworks, treating them as investments.

If the current interest in art among the middle class in China becomes a genuine cultural trait, it could spur the emergence of a lucrative affordable art market.

Affordable art is mostly made up of contemporary artworks that are bought by individuals for their homes and has developed into a huge market in developed countries. Almost one in every four adults in the UK bought affordable art in 2012 worth a combined US$8 billion. About 70% of art bought in the West is affordable, according to 2012 data from Surge Art, a Beijing-based art dealer and consultancy. In China, the figure was 33%; the signs are that this proportion is set to grow quickly.

Rising wages are boosting the spending power of middle class art consumers. Around 66% of Chinese urban households had an annual earned income in the range of US$9,000 to US$34,000 in 2012, up from just 4% in 2000, according to McKinsey, a consultancy. That is projected to hit 75% by 2020. Increasingly, China’s new bourgeoisie craves goods of a more intangible kind.

James Roy, Associate Principal at Shanghai-based research company China Market Research Group, notes a strong shift in middle class spending over the past couple of years away from “stuff” and towards “experiences” – purchases geared to leisure and quality of life. Spending on movie tickets, dining and tourism, for example, has been soaring well above overall retail sales growth. Today’s Chinese consumers are also are more willing to invest in decorating their homes for their own comfort and enjoyment, even if they don’t plan on entertaining guests.

Art sellers have stepped in to cater to the growing sophistication and swelling bank accounts of this new consumer class. Leading the way is Surge Art, which sells contemporary Chinese art at prices ranging from around US$80 to US$4,830 (RMB 500 to RMB 30,000). Paintings, sculptures, photographs and other works by emerging artists can be ordered off SURGE’s website, which allows users to browse products by variables including size, color, and price.

Surge Art, formerly called Affordable Art China, launched the online store to complement its annual art fairs, held since 2006 in Beijing, and later expanded to Shanghai and Chengdu. The fairs, which are free for the public to attend, showcase the works of thousands of artists. According to Lercier Lei, Surge’s art director and curator, each fair attracts more than 10,000 visitors.

The large turnout at the fairs raises hopes that a new market for affordable modern art is taking shape. But it may be too early for such optimism. The massive overrepresentation of foreign buyers (half of those at the Surge Art events in Shanghai are foreigners and almost 30% in Beijing) implies tepid local demand, at least for now. Surge Art’s less than satisfactory online sales attest to the challenges that remain in convincing those Chinese with a new interest in art to take some home.

Putting a value on the affordable art market in China is hard. Surge Art was not able to provide sales figures from its events and none of the major market research companies contacted by China Economic Review calculate such data. But while the art being sold is affordable, it is not cheap. The average price range of the artworks sold by Surge Art is US$960 to US$1,280 (RMB 6,000 to RMB 8,000).

Nurturing genuine interest in modern art cannot be achieved overnight or even in a single generation. The challenge is harder when the artworks are so different to the native cultural norms in China, which has its own rich art tradition. But there are signs this trend could develop over the long term.

“I think it’s a process of education and popularization of art appreciation. People can learn to appreciate art gradually starting by following the trend,” said Hu, the professor at the Fine Arts College, despite his misgivings about the exhibition craze. “Can we assume that when this young generation reach their forties or fifties and have a middle-class income, they are very likely to become the main buyers in art consumption? Logically and optimistically, this should be the case.”

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