On the Resilience of Art Collecting in China

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On the Resilience of Art Collecting in China

Ahead of Art Basel Hong Kong, we take stock on what is driving art collectors in the region

The mainland art world is keenly watching whether this year’s Hong Kong art week can buy the Chinese art market, which saw a rebound in 2023, as noted in The Art Basel and UBS Art Market Report 2024. Amid a hesitant economy and still-fresh memories of Zero-COVID policies, the art week may also shed light on what the Chinese and Asian art scenes will look like going forward.

‘The pandemic catalyzed deep-seated ideological and cultural contradictions between China and the West, leading to a gradual stratification among collector communities,’ observes Regina Zhang, one of the young collectors behind Nanjing’s Sixi Museum, established last year. Within China, some collectors focus on local art and others on joining the global art milieu; some increasingly specialize in particular styles and concepts, while others venture into new areas, like digital and virtual art. ‘Besides,’ says Zhang, ‘there has been a heightened awareness of the social and cultural impact of art.’

Chinese collectors are eagerly rejoining the global art jet set, travelling to fairs and other big events; a welcome reprieve from PDF purchasing, says Zhang Yunjia (no relation), the collector behind Suzhou’s Iris Art Museum. The return to in-person viewing has slowed collectors’ purchasing pace, she says: ‘Sometimes, after seeing the physical artwork, the idea of collecting it is abandoned, or the decision to collect is not made immediately, leading to a longer period of observation instead.’

Visitors in front of a work presented by Ink Studio at Art Basel Hong Kong 2023.

That resumption of travelling and collecting overseas is largely regional, says Kejia Wu, art historian and the author of A Modern History of China’s Art Market (Routledge, 2023). China’s frequency of flights to Europe and North American remain far fewer than pre-pandemic. People’s outlook about the future and the economy now shapes collecting habits, says Wu. ‘The macroeconomic outlook is not picking up yet. I believe it’s more of people’s sentiment about prospects that has the biggest impact on their spending behavior. It seems that people are trying to prepare for what might be coming, so they feel they probably should not spend as much.’

Last year’s underperforming sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong of works from the Long Museum collection, the largest single-owner sale out of China in a decade, also dampened spirits. ‘There seems to be a slowdown in terms of collecting until they see the economic prospects improve,’ Wu says. The sale, including works bought only a few years ago from galleries, was ‘a signal for other collectors who might be evaluating this situation. It probably will give them a second thought.’

Art professionals are banking on better business this year, Wu adds, ‘because sentiment was that in 2023 things did not pick up as much as people had expected.’ After China’s intense lockdowns and cancelled fairs of 2022, ‘last year things went back to normal.’

A visitor at Yavuz Gallery’s booth at Art Basel Hong Kong 2023.

According to The Art Basel and UBS Survey of Global Collecting in 2023, mainland collectors’ spending, while below 2019 rates, showed recovery from 2022. The survey, compiled by Dr. Clare McAndrew, found that worldwide high-net-worth collectors’ median expenditure on art and antiques in 2022 was USD 65,000 in 2022, a level maintained through the first half of 2023. Mainland Chinese collectors’ median expenditure declined in 2022 by 6% to USD 202,000, but in the first half of 2023 it rallied to USD 241,000. Research taken from the Art Basel and UBS Art Market Report 2024 notes further that the Chinese art market ‘grew in 2023 by 9% to an estimated $12.2 billion. However, the second half of the year was considerably slower, with projections of weaker economic growth and a persistent real estate slump weighing on demand and indicating that some of the outperformance in 2023 may have been driven by the unique reopening context.’

Despite lockdowns, downturns, and museum closures, Chinese collectors see hope in a maturation of the country’s art scene. A new, sophisticated, and adventurous generation of artists and collectors are emerging, bringing an enthusiasm for diversity in topics, backgrounds, and media. Dominant worldwide, painting particularly prevails among contemporary art sales in China. Mainland Chinese collectors were the world’s biggest spenders on paintings, with an average of close to USD 400,000, almost four times the worldwide average and up 20% from the reported level in 2022, Dr. McAndrew found. Mainland buyers also spent the most in several other media, but lagged in enthusiasm for digital art.

A visitor at Gladstone Gallery’s booth at Art Basel Hong Kong 2023.
Visitors in front of a work presented by Shibunkaku at Art Basel Hong Kong 2023.

‘Due to the global economic downturn, many collectors, including myself, have become much more cautious with our collections,’ says Zhang Yunjia. ‘You can see the fluctuations in the art market caused by a lack of confidence, and such fluctuations will continue for a long time.’

Regina Zhang says she collects both in China and abroad, mostly in Europe and the US, bringing works to China to exhibit at Sixi. ‘We are not chasing trends or seeking “trophy art”; rather, we aspire to play a role in reshaping the landscape… and offering a distinctive perspective. I do believe art collecting is a construction of cultural attitudes and a practice of responding to reality.’

Embracing Asian emigrant and diasporic art is part of how younger collectors are eschewing traditional East-West categorizations, in art as well as their own lives. ‘I feel that this is a generation of collectors who are sharp, engaged, well-educated, and committed,’ says Audrey Ou, CEO and Cofounder of Shanghai digital art platform TRLab. ‘Because of their own experiences – many have spent time across three continents – they are very comfortable navigating international perspectives.’ Geography is ‘only one part of the puzzle.’

A visitor at Liang Gallery’s booth at Art Basel Hong Kong 2023.
View of Empty Gallery’s booth at Art Basel Hong Kong 2023.

‘This is happening as a younger generation of Asian artists, who did not grow up in Asia, are looking back and discovering their roots,’ Ou continues. Her family’s Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) last year showcased emerging Asian diaspora artists, among whom Evelyn Taocheng Wang and WangShui are contributing new works to the main exhibition of this year’s Venice Biennale. RAM’s current program ‘Complex Geographies’ continues that examination of Asia as a global participant.

Wu observers how the travel-adverse Zero-COVID years brought collectors closer to artists and galleries in their own cities, particularly in supporting emerging artists otherwise often frozen out of an arts ecosystem focused on big names and Western imports. Zhang Yunjia emphasizes how her generation is developing the art scenes and launching museums in their second-tier home cities, such as Suzhou and Nanjing, adding a further layer to that diversification.

A visitor at Jan Kaps’ booth at Art Basel Hong Kong 2023.

‘I do feel the primary market will be staying quite resilient,’ says Wu, with collectors having a strong interest in Chinese contemporary artists reflecting on what happened in China during Zero-COVID. ‘They feel they’re collecting a piece of history.’ Newer works by newer artists means an ‘overall lower price point. So even if they’re collecting actively, it’s not going to generate the same kind of overall top line revenue.’

‘It is a good time to look at what artists are doing,’ Wu continues, with ‘recent contemplative, high quality art’ by artists such as Yin XiuzhenSong DongZhang Xiaogang and Qiu Xiaofei contrasting to how, in the US, political furors drive out commemoration of COVID experiences. ‘It was a universal pandemic, every single citizen experienced it and nearly all of us had it at least once.’ Only in China does she find works ‘about the turbulent times of COVID,’ which resonate globally. ‘I do feel that valuable, high-quality artworks are being made in China during this period of time. And people should pay attention.’

Visitors in front of a work presented by Sabrina Amrani at Art Basel Hong Kong 2023.

Lisa Movius is an arts writer based in Shanghai, covering most of Asia primarily for The Art Newspaper. Published courtesy of Art Basel. 

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