At the end of April, two large tents costing 3 million yuan ($470,000) were set up in the heart of Chengdu’s commercial center to create a bespoke venue where artists, art lovers, dealers and collectors gathered for the first major contemporary art fair held in Southwest China.
From April 25 to 27, the Art Chengdu International Contemporary Art Fair transformed the downtown area of Sichuan’s provincial capital into an art expo that saw 31 prominent Chinese and international galleries present the best of their contemporary art-paintings, photos, sculptures, installations and videos-by established and emerging artists from around the world.
Famously known for its panda sanctuary and spicy cuisine, Chengdu is also home to a burgeoning contemporary-art market that many industry insiders believe is set to boom.
The three-day fair was designed to complement the city’s growing art scene, which has seen the number of private museums, art galleries and studios mushroom in recent years.
Art Chengdu’s founder Huang Yu says the fair provides a platform for the city’s many affluent collectors looking to improve their understanding of the international contemporary-art market.
The 37-year-old is also a keen art collector, who started buying pieces a decade ago. He held a show of his collection of contemporary artworks featuring 66 artists at a local museum in 2016, before coming up with the idea of staging a major art fair in Chengdu. This was inspired by the raft of art fairs springing up in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, where they met with warm receptions from collectors and art lovers alike.
“Many of my friends from Sichuan province have the money to buy art, but they don’t know what to buy and where to buy,” says Huang, explaining why he has gone to so much effort over the past two years in setting up an annual art fair in Chengdu.
He Duoling, an established Chengdu-based oil painter, says there are lots of potential buyers in the city who used to focus on ink paintings due to a lack of knowledge about contemporary art.
“The art market here is in urgent need of education. And the fair is a good channel for collectors to learn about art from an international perspective,” says He. One of his oil paintings was sold by a local gallery for 5 million yuan to a local collector at the fair.
While Chengdu is home to many established artists due to the proximity of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in the nearby city of Chongqing, many local collectors still have to fly to Shanghai and Beijing, which remain the core cities of the Chinese art market, to buy artwork.
Zhou Chunya, a prominent oil painter based in Chengdu whose works can often fetch millions of yuan at auctions, says that while many of his big collectors come from Chengdu, they are often forced to buy his works elsewhere since the local art market is not as diversified or as active as other large cities.
Several of Zhou’s works presented by galleries from other cities were sold at Art Chengdu, with the most expensive one fetching 1.8 million yuan after being bought by a young local collector.
“More young buyers are turning to contemporary art. The art fair is very good at offering an educational platform and helping to open buyers’ eyes to new kinds of works,” says Zhou, adding that Chengdu collectors are usually very low profile.
As the cultural and economic center of Southwest China, Chengdu has long been known for its tourism, manufacturing and high-tech industries. And the wealth these industries has generated have propelled many onto the pages of Forbes magazine for their extravagant luxury purchases. And that’s another reason the fair has attracted so many art dealers looking to expand their market base.
London-based gallery Sadie Coles HQ attended Art Chengdu in the hope of finding new faces and collectors. On the first day of the fair, several works by New York-based artist Urs Fischer were sold to some “young locals”, says Lieselotte Seaton, the gallery’s sales director.
Speaking of her impression of young Chinese buyers, Seaton says they are usually ages 25 to 30 and are more willing than most to acquire works by artists of the same generation.
“Compared to collectors in the United States and Britain, it’s the younger generation that is driving the market for contemporary art in China,” she adds.
Art critic Zhu Zhu explains that many collectors from Chengdu born after the 1980s have international educations and are well-versed in the contemporary-art market. While this may explain why they gravitate toward modern art more than their parents’ generation, Art Chengdu still provides the chance for art lovers of every age to expand their knowledge, he says.