The Art of Keys: Profit and Loss in the Art Village Industry

By Adrian Hornsby and Neville Mars

The key quality of a warehouse, from the architectural point of view, is that it is cheap to build. Form indiscriminately follows function; function rarely demands much, and the resulting warehouse will typically present rock bottom costs per square metre of built floor-space. So from the developer’s point of view, if you can throw up a few warehouses, essentially for next to nothing, then move in a bunch of artists (instead of warehouse goods), and watch to see if land values soar, you have the kind of low-investment/high-return project that is real-estate alchemy. China’s urban explosion has been fueled in no small way by speculation and, recognizing these parameters, urban development in China has found a new category of asset in the idea of a manufactured artist village. Indeed, considering the commercial potential of the creative cluster, the fact that for-profit planned creative communities are now being pursued in Beijing is perhaps less surprising than that they were for so long left to the whimsical notion of organic formation.

It is a chance felicity that artists, with mostly low rental incomes, like warehouses, which offer low construction costs. Both the light and the space to work on large pieces are favorable to the practice of art-making. In addition, there is a curious ironic urban nostalgia for ex-industrial spaces (epitomized by London’s Tate Modern, the world’s most visited art gallery, which is housed in a former power station). Happily for the developer, this sentiment seems to carry through into industrial-style spaces, even when built explicitly for conversion into artist’s studios. It is almost pedantic to worry about the ‘inauthenticity’ of the ‘created’ creative community when the creatives themselves experience remarkably few problems. However, the elusive dimension of any creative cluster development project is a staple ingredient for its potential success: how to attract the art community, or an art community, to settle there? A notable strategy for dealing with this is to bring the art community into the development process itself. The key becomes the collaboration with the prominent Chinese artist.

Leading figures of the Chinese art world are regularly involved in real-estate projects, offering consultancy, partnership, and in some cases even leading new developments. Such polyvalence often seems surprising to Westerners more used to the idea of the creative artist at odds with capitalism and the company. Yet in China the artist-realtor-entrepreneur seems more congruent with economic and social realities. Modern, urbane, affluent, internationalized, the successful artist is in fact a surprisingly suitable role model for the new China, even ranking in the top ten preferred professions selected by parents for their children in a recent survey of Chinese middle class families.

Western anxieties over the correspondence between the Chinese artist and the commercial sector no doubt derive from the Western funding environment, in which art forms are heavily institutionalized, and firmly reliant on state support. Ironically, this model of the artist as a master of funding application forms, and a bureaucratically determined mode of aesthetics, is considerably more removed from the material conditions that lead to the emergence of the figure of the artist than we find in contemporary China. Historically, artists in Europe were almost pure entrepreneurs, trusting their own skill and innovation to sell concept products to fickle and competitive markets. Without subsidy, artists have traditionally incorporated commercial activity into their operations, with creative production being carried out in tandem with business projects. Notably, one of the most successful real-estate investors in commercial property in Renaissance South London, William Shakespeare, was also a play-write.

It would be a mistake to regard the prominence of real-estate speculation in the rise of China’s creative clusters as anything formally new. Rather, it is an expedient binding together of artists’ creative energy and self-reliance, and the financial pressures and opportunities presented by China’s booming new urban environments. What is more striking about these clusters, however, and ultimately more problematic, is how globalized they are. While the urban planning of creative districts or enclaves within the city is charmingly parochial in terms of the living communities they imagine, the trading community is unequivocally international. The last decade of super-heated sales of Chinese art, overwhelmingly to foreign dealers and collectors, has dominated China’s internal art market. The primary aim of sales to foreign buyers has informed the spatial design of creative communities, which invariably aspire to make Western visitors feel comfortable in otherwise foreign settings, and to attract Western direct investment. In fact if the artist-developer is able to start selling his warehouses or warehouse lots to Italian galleries or shoe stores, the alchemy has manifestly worked. At the same time, this Western focus has informed creative production, bending the Chinese artworks themselves toward the tastes of prospective buyers, who in an oddly tail-eating fashion increasingly seek to buy back their own Western fantasies of Chineseness, albeit off the tip of a Chinese brush. And as foreign sales represent the ideal, their aesthetic permeates the ambitious domestic market.

Clearly, creative communities are powerfully refashioning China’s image both overseas and at home. And it should come as no surprise that they have attracted the attention of central government, who are taking serious policy measures and infrastructure development that seeks to harness creative output in order to further enhance national economic and cultural power. Simultaneously the effect of the creative community on land values draws the eyes of local officials, who have a continuous proprietorial interest in property sales and the factors influencing them, especially where foreign money is involved. The implications of this for the creative community itself – and property developers – is that as soon as an area becomes hot, it becomes potentially too hot. Political pressures brought on by the government’s twin aims of ideological control and financial reward threaten to co-opt creative spaces entirely, and in so doing potentially crush the unique entrepreneurial drive to which the art district owes it existence. Beijing’s 798 provides an early paradigm: the disused warehouses of the 1990s became the flourishing international art district of the 21st century – only land values brought in chains and hotels, and cultural values brought in scrutiny and guidance. The early figureheads of 798 have left, and the Chaoyang government now oversees site management through its business partner the Seven Stars Group. Subsequent and more explicitly planned art villages are in turn catching official interest. In the new Chinese city, it is the Chinese artist-entrepreneur who is able to unlock the innovative potential of creative clusters; ultimately though, it is the Party that turns the key.

Adrian Hornsby is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and semi-fiction across multiple formats. His penetrating interests in urbanism, macro-economics, and dark identities have resulted in numerous articles and stories, the book The Chinese Dream (2008), co-authored with Neville Mars, and four internationally produced plays.

Neville Mars moves between architecture, planning, research and art installations but has a clear focus on charting dynamic urban environments. In 2003 Neville founded the Dynamic City Foundation (DCF) based in Beijing and outlined a comprehensive research for China’s urbanization for the year 2020. The work is published and available on-line on the platform