New York Galleries Set Up Shop in China

On a sultry July evening, a 200-strong crowd gathered in the courtyard of the newly opened James Cohan Gallery in Shanghai.

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WWD Scoop issue 09/29/2008
On a sultry July evening, a 200-strong crowd gathered in the courtyard of the newly opened James Cohan Gallery in Shanghai. The New York–based gallery, which shows several blue-chip artists such as Bill Viola and Yinka Shonibare, had just opened its space, located in a renovated Art Deco mansion in the city’s French Concession. The backyard of the mansion, which contained a Richard Long sculpture, was filled with a mix of the city’s expats and art-world denizens and was mostly a casual affair—that is, until Jay Jopling and his entourage appeared. Despite the muggy day, Jopling, the London dealer behind the White Cube gallery, was dressed in the art world uniform of a black suit and crisp white shirt. What was he doing amongst the hoi polloi of Shanghai?

According to the gallery, Jopling isn’t up to anything in China—but it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if he were. While the art world has been flocking to China for years for biennales and art fairs, 2008 is a turning point for cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, where some of the world’s most established galleries are setting up shop. The opening of Cohan was followed by Pace Wildenstein settling into a 22,000-square-foot space in Beijing’s 798 district in August. It soon will be joined by Gagosian, which is hunting for a space in Hong Kong. According to Asia managing director Nick Simunovic, Gagosian hopes to be up and running in “the near future.”

Without a doubt, all this movement is spurred by the hot Chinese art market. However, many of these galleries, such as Gagosian and Cohan, will not be showing much contemporary Chinese art. Instead, they will be bringing in their normal rosters of established Western artists to what Simunovic calls an  "underserved” market. “Collectors don’t need Gagosian to see what’s going on in the Asian contemporary market,” he says. “New collectors’ access to the primary and secondary market for contemporary art has not traditionally been there.” For a powerhouse such as Pace, which already represents current contemporary Chinese art stars such as Zhang Huan and Zhang Xiaogang, the Beijing outpost is also about trying to tap into a new audience for its established artists, such as Chuck Close and Alex Katz. “The gallery will be international, covering both Western and Eastern art, but with a slight focus on Asia,” says Leng Lin, the president of Pace’s Beijing gallery.

Additionally, their arrivals indicate an increase in wealthy new active collectors in China and in other parts of Asia. After the successful 2007 launch of SH Contemporary, the art fair run by Art Basel veteran Lorenzo Rudolf, a number of galleries such as Cohan began to map out the market potential of Shanghai. “[The success for us at the art fair] reinforced that having a gallery here wasn’t such a far-fetched idea,” says Arthur Solway, the director of Cohan’s Shanghai gallery. “For a while, I had an increasing personal interest in China,” he adds. “At that point [in 2007], we decided that we were going to look for a space in Shanghai. The initial vision was to find an historic property, and put art in it.”

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