With the increasing globalization of the art market, America has seen a boom in the amount of Chinese contemporary art bought by collectors in the last decade. Curator Melissa Chiu says, “[I]n the U.S….when most people say Asian contemporary art, they really mean Chinese.” So, what’s driving this new trend in the art market?
Firstly, this international acclaim is beneficial for Chinese art which relies almost entirely on foreign funding, as the more avant-garde, alternative art scene in China is viewed as political dissent rather than art. It is only in the past few years that Chinese collectors’ buying habits have been more focused at home, intent on collecting only the best quality Chinese art and antiquities, with “quality” being the key word. As China’s economic and political power grows, Americans have also begun to value art that portrays a rawer, more realistic view of the culture, rather than the popular stylized Chinoiserie.
As one writer articulated, the cultural landscape of modern-day China has “few signposts.” When Swiss collector Uli Sigg became interested in Chinese art two decades ago, “nobody was collecting Chinese contemporary art even remotely or systematically.” Sigg decided to document the art production in China, creating a timeline across all media, rather than collecting according to his personal taste. Though many American collectors do have an aesthetic attraction to Chinese art, there is also a leading belief that collectors can capture this generation’s “cultural consciousness.”
American collectors buy a range of work, from sculpture, print-making, and installations, to the equally popular oil paintings and photography. The ‘first generation’ of Chinese contemporary artists, including Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, and Hai Bo, among others, are still very popular in the U.S. As collector Larry Walsh says, “People collect for many reasons, but the financial and psychological aspects of collecting always play an important part. I think the American buyers of Chinese contemporary art are those who have been collecting contemporary art. They see the beauty, significance and power of the Chinese artist.”
Auction powerhouses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s have gained a huge buying audience of Chinese art. Many Chinese collectors, in fact, buy Chinese art in America because of the security it provides. The Chinese art market is extremely volatile, and bidding at auctions in mainland China is often rigged. Galleries also follow the auction houses’ lead on prices far more than they do in the West. Last year, Asia accounted for nearly a quarter of global auction revenue, nearly twice what it was two years ago. Selling art at auctions makes up about 45% of the art trade by value, according to analyst Clare McAndrew. Through auction houses, Chinese artists are able to sell work for high prices with the promise of quality.
It is unmistakable that the avant-garde in China has found a solid presence in the American collector’s home and on the general art scene. The culture of the burgeoning country is perhaps the most fascinating to collectors. Having recognized this trend, Mill Fine Art is pleased to be presenting “Facing East: Contemporary Work from Four Chinese Artists in America,” on Oct. 12 of this year. We hope you can come and join in the discussion!
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