Other Kinds of Ambitions: From Artist Villages to Art Districts

By Alex Pasternack

Beijing's modern creative geography began, fittingly, with the closure of its artist districts. In 1995 police descended upon a village near the ruins of the old summer palace at Yuanmingyuan, in the northwest of the city, to evict the painters, writers and musicians that had taken up residence there. Like Dong Cun, or East Village, which had been raided a year earlier, the neighborhood had become a refuge for creative types from around China after the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989, a place to evade the bustle of the city if not the eyes of the authorities. Artists like Fang Lijun, Zhang Huiping and Yue Minjun, who would later command millions of dollars at auction, held exhibitions in which paintings hung from trees. ‘We were young, had no self-censorship’, performance artist Zhang Nian said in 2004. ‘The moment a creative idea popped up we put it into action. In a sense we felt we had found the destination of our ideal and faith’.

But the eviction of artists from Yuanmingyuan would usher in a new era of artist districts, built as much by the spontaneity of the artists as by the pressures of policy and money. The artists' exodus to the village of Songzhuang, 80km northeast of the city centre, coincided with a burst of interest in China by the international art market. A decade later, as Richard Florida's book on the ‘creative class’ circulated among some of China's policy-makers, areas like Songzhuang, and more famously, the Factory 798 area, came to be seen as hotbeds not for dissent but for the creative industries that could drive the nation's next stage of economic development. In 1995, the Beijing government would dedicate USD$140 million to the development of visual arts and the art market in Beijing, exempt art-related businesses from city taxes, and include art districts within its next Five Year Plan.

Once restricted to the city's physical and psychic peripheries, Beijing's upstart art villages today are an integral if largely unchartered part of the city's cultural geography. Formed less by accident than by governments, international organizations, investors, collectors and property developers, the city's artist districts are presenting new patterns of urban development and altering the space for artistic production. Three present models – from the fully commercialized (798) to the upstart real-estate driven (Pingguo, Gaobeidian), to the village setting (Songzhuang or Caochangdi) – indicate a delicate balance between the demands of the market, policy pressures and creative ambitions.

Factory 798
No district represents the potential and complexities of Beijing's artist villages better than the former factory 798, located in the neighborhood of Dashanzi. After decades of disuse, the factory became a temporary studio space for the sculpture department of the China Academy of Fine Arts in 1995. By 2002, artists and galleries from China and abroad began to divide and rent out the factory spaces, converting them into studios, exhibition halls, design firms, cafes and shops. Tall ‘saw-tooth’ ceilings created well-lit spaces that were ripe for studio and exhibition space conversions. The rare Cultural Revolution slogans that still linger on the walls, like ‘Chairman Mao is the red sun in our hearts’, lent an iconoclastic irony.

Adding to the irony has been the spectre of a decidedly un-Maoist property development that threatened to imperil the whole area. After raising rents dramatically and rapidly, the state-controlled owner of 798 curbed new leases in 2005, amidst rumors that the district would be turned into a high-tech zone along the lines of Beijing's so-called Silicon Valley, Zhongguancun. Ten years after the demise of the Yuanmingyuan village, a flurry of petitions and intervention by the Chaoyang district government, which designated 798 as one of the city's creative clusters and an Olympic cultural site, gave the city's bold new art district a dramatic reprieve. Ultimately, and most ironically of all, the prospect of 798's extinction – a threat that still lingers on if only in rumor – has only added to the area's allure.

That allure has fostered a new challenge to 798 – not the government's suspicions nor the developer's wrecking ball but its own commercial success. In a familiar narrative, 798 has shifted from a bohemian creative zone into a mere display case for creativity, where rents are too high for artists and everything is on sale. ‘I never visit 798’, says Ai Weiwei, the influential Beijing-based artist. ‘From the very beginning, it was going to be a shitty place. You're using art for the wrong reasons. It never really served in the way that art should serve a community. It simply became a carrier for other kinds of ambitions’.

Though gentrification may have choked the area's creative energy, 798 may still be seen as Beijing's best example of an urban art district. ‘Even if people don't like it within the art and architectural circles, we have to be very honest with the fact that it's an amazing success, not just in terms of the commercial side but in terms of its idea’, says Berenice Angremy, a curator who used to organized an annual art festival at 798. ‘This is a site that provided freedom of expression and exhibition. The art events that we produced here are still difficult to produce in other spaces’. One reason for its success was its relation to – and between its factory spaces, replication of – an urban context, which generated dynamism and connection with people outside the art world. ‘The idea became’, says Angremy, ‘not only are we public, but we have a quality of intellectual life that is urban oriented’.

From Caochangdi to Pingguo
A distinct alternative to 798 lies a few kilometers northeast in the village of Caochangdi. The difference is signaled by the prevailing architectural style: modern, sober grey-brick courtyards whose imposing walls seem to turn their noses to tourist groups and local villagers. Though the buildings – many designed by or copied from Ai Weiwei – bear a scant connection to the surrounding community, they speak to the needs of the local artists in a way that 798 no longer can. ‘I don't want to be in the retail business’, says Meg Maggio, the founder of Caochangdi's Peking Fine Arts gallery, who compares 798 to New York's SoHo or Chelsea, and Caochangdi to the Lower East Side. That is an exaggeration: the galleries and nearby animation and film studios seem alien next to the neighborhood's bustling back alleys. The area is still very much a thriving village, catering to a local population, not bohemian tourists. It is the quality of galleries like Boers-Li, Do Art, Platform China, and Three Shadows – not their location – that draws visitors.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, where art is increasingly linked with upscale lifestyles, real-estate developers are reshaping the city's art geography, using galleries as a branding tool for their commercial and residential projects. One stand-out is the Today Art Museum, established by developer Zhang Baoquan at the site of his massive Pingod (Pingguo) apartment complex. The museum is housed in a former brewery that has been converted by Yung Ho Chang and Wang Hui. Nearby, an ambitious art district called 22 Art Plaza is set to contain some two dozen galleries. The neighboring apartment complex has become a fashionable address for upper-middle class businessmen and artists. Pingguo may be one of city's first upscale ‘art villages’.

Real-estate developers can be ‘a positive force making new things happen in China’, says Beatrice Leanza, a curator for the Moon River MOCA, a $4.4 million museum connected to a resort-development project east of Beijing that includes apartments, a golf course and an 'art club hotel’. Through hotel revenues and venue rentals, the museum aims to become a registered non-profit museum, a designation that would be a first for an arts institution in Beijing. ‘Philanthropy can come out of these new personalities’, says Leanza, who previously helped a Chinese furniture entrepreneur consider founding a new art district in the Gaobeidian area. Promise, she says, may even lie in the ‘barbaric, aggressive politics of profit’.

Art Urbanism
Yet the success of Beijing's new and existing art districts may hinge on a shift of how investors and government officials define profit. Leanza calls for ‘a different approach to the temporality of the process’. That is, ‘how long it takes to get back your investment, and in what kind of forms it can come back to you’. Such a patient and ‘creative’ approach to developing art clusters may encourage more than just the arrival of new galleries: it could mean more dynamic urban spaces that help generate creativity. ‘The question is how one can still negotiate new ideas and creative ideas within an economy of scale’, says curator and critic Hou Hanru, ‘not how much one can maximize capital or benefits’.

That approach may be the forte not of private entities but governments. Already art districts may be affecting how officials perceive the city's urban development. Rather than razing historic areas and building oppressively large neighborhoods from scratch, as has been common from Mao until the Olympic era, art villages have led to an acceptance of new urban typologies: the reused factory, the mixed village, the upscale residential hybrid. If Factory 798 began its life in the 1950s as the sober product of central planning, it has become a dynamic art district due largely to accident, and the lassez-faire encouragement of the government.

At Songzhuang, the old artist colony born partly out of government evictions elsewhere, the local government has updated China's formula of collective production, encouraging thousands of artists to move into the community using tax incentives and cheap land. In 2006, it spent more than $1.3 million on a smart 2,500 square-metre art centre designed by architect Xu Tiantian. It has also reportedly tried to entice Paris' Pompidou Centre with free land, and given land to artists. ‘Many houses in Songzhuang used to be illegal’, says Xu. ‘Now they're going to be memorials after they die’.

One of the local government's latest initiatives is its support for an independent foundation and archive meant to nurture young filmmakers. While avant-garde Chinese films, typically documentaries touching upon tender social issues, tend to fall foul of the authorities, in this case the local government has opted to seize upon the creative and future market potential of this underground current. The initiative exposes the tensions in China's drive for creative development and highlights the ambiguous ground on which artists' villages are now situated, in the grey area between political and market forces. ‘In a way it's an experiment to see how far it will go’, says Xu. If her museum, like the artist village growing around it, has not received the outside attention paid to the more centrally-located 798, it has thrived nonetheless with the support of decentralized government policies that work with existing conditions.

‘The government sees that this new complexity can generate more interest, have economic effects, somehow create a community and a social texture’, says Hou. ‘It can bring the city together, make the city more interesting’. Over a decade after the shutdown of its two major art villages, Beijing's art districts now thrive between the twin pillars of Beijing's commercial ambitions and creative desires. Aside from galleries and artist residences, new modes of urban development and art creation are growing in these villages too. What other ambitions these districts nurture will determine what the next decade will bring.

* All quotations are from interviews conducted by the author, with the exception of the quotation of Zhang Nian.

Alex Pasternack is a writer on architecture, environment and culture. His articles have appeared in Metropolis, A+U, Icon, Time, Newsweek, Urbane, and the Far Eastern Economic Review. He received his bachelor's degree in History and Literature from Harvard College.