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Who are the art world's most influential players?
Fueled by the economic boom, new consumerist wave and a cultural reawakening, Chinese patrons are now among the contemporary art world's most influential players. Investors or collectors from the nation, whatever you may term them, are redefining the market. In this context, it is heartening to notice increasing visibility and prominence of contemporary Indian art in the new powerful hub of art collecting largely because of the comparable circumstances artists from both the countries face today, as the Cover Story of this edition points out.

Over the last few years, Chinese collectors are increasingly asserting their presence on international art auction scene. They are dominant in sales around the world, especially that of works by the famous Chinese artists. As a result, the value of works by several modern masters, such as Qi Baishi, Zhang Daqian, Fu Baoshi and Xu Beihong has skyrocketed. These modern artists’ work is apparently in the traditional Chinese style. Last year, they occupied four of the top ten slots in global rankings in terms of auction revenue, as indicated by Artprice. In the agency’s 2010 list Qi Baoshi trumped Andy Warhol. The former came in at second spot, edging Andy Warhol to third place.

The global art market is getting reshaped by the tastes and demands of Chinese collectors. A recent news report (China’s New Cultural Revolution - A Surge in Art Collecting) by Robin Pogrebin in The New York Times mentions: “The auction market is clearly responding to the new rising demand. Sotheby’s held its first ever exhibition last year for the private sale of works of art specifically for the growing Asian market.” Here are clear indications and observations that support the proposition of a new cultural revolution that is apparently sweeping across China:

•This year Christie’s appointed Chinese representatives in both New York and London to develop new clients in Asia and manage relations with Christie’s most important private collectors from mainland China and Asia.

•The current Chinese influx is fueled by the sort of new wealth that has made the country home to the world’s largest number of billionaires, according to the Hurun Rich List 2010, China’s version of the Forbes 400. The number of Chinese billionaires is expected to increase 20 percent each year through 2014, according to Artprice.

•Beijing-based artist Zeng Fanzhi’s oil-on-canvas diptych 'Mask Series 1996 No. 6' famously set the record for the most expensive contemporary Asian artwork ever sold, fetching US$9.7 million at a Christie’s sale in 2008. Forty-something emerging artist Liu Ye’s lampoonish 'Bright Road' fetched an artist’s record of US$2.5 million at a Sotheby’s sale in April this year.

•At spring sale of Sotheby’s, a Chinese buyer acquired one of that evening’s priciest paintings; it was ‘Femme Lisant (Deux Personnages)’ by Picasso, picked up for $21.3 million. At the auction house Lebarbe (Toulouse, France), a Chinese buyer with a $31 million bid happened to set a new French record in March for exotic Chinese art - a scroll painting from Beijing’s Imperial Palace. An anonymous telephone bidder, believed to be Chinese, paid a whopping $106.5 million last year for ‘Nude, Green Leaves and Bust’ by Picasso at Christie’s. It was a record for an artwork at auction.

The sudden surge in Chinese collecting is not merely a reflection of rising prosperity, experts feel, but also a sub-conscious reaction to the repressive Mao years during which the country was deprived of culture. For the countrymen, who watched art made out as a frivolous exercise except while put to didactic use, the new-found freedom to explore pure aesthetic pleasures, to repossess historical artworks and to flaunt recent affluence has indeed been a liberating experience! In some ways, the tide of art buying is an effort to make up for lost time. “For 5 or 6 decades, nothing happened in China,” observes the Asia Society president, Vishakha N. Desai, “That’s a big break! The last two and a half centuries were those of humiliation. They now feel an obligation to prize art again.” So they are placing their bets primarily on the art of their homeland.

No surprise, much of the Chinese artworks of the last many decades respond sometimes more subtly, sometimes more directly -to the regulation of artistic expression by the country’s leadership. From calligraphy to gunpowder, Chinese artists have a wealth of cultural elements untouched by Western artists to bank on. The socio-political challenges they face in their homeland has helped shape powerful, iconoclastic pieces, which can very well hold their own against more famous contemporary Western art.

Underlining the trend, Colin Gleadell of The Telegraph UK mentions in an elaborate essay: “Since China entered the WTO, its art market has grown at a staggering rate. It rose by 200 percent to some £2.1 billion per annum between 2004 and 2009, overtaking even France. Add the Hong Kong sales and there is a combined auction turnover of £3.6 billion, which is 14 percent of the global art market. During the global financial crisis of 2008-09, mainland Chinese buyers emerged as a dominant force. While America’s wealthiest lost 20 percent of their cumulative wealth, China’s increased theirs by 84 percent. Currently, there are more billionaires in China than in any other country, apart from America, and art is just one of the commodities they are looking to invest in.”

The world of art is slowly acknowledging the prominence of the Chinese art stars. For example, highly talented and controversial contemporary Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, is the first one from the Asia-Pacific region to receive special commission of the prestigious Unilever Series for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. His sizzling ‘Sunflower Seeds’ made up of millions of tiny works - each apparently identical, but unique - was a spectacle to behold. Equally great things are now expected yet from upcoming Chinese artists.

Events such as ShanghART, founded by Lorenz Helbling, testify the trend. A Swiss national, Mr. Helbling held the inaugural biennale in 1996. He recounted in an interview: When we opened a gallery, there was only one art museum and only one show every few months.” The scenario has dramatically changed with an explosion of galleries, studios, museums, and art events like ShContemporary. The growing interest in art is marked by institutions like The Minsheng Art Museum, The Rockbund Art Museum, the Zendai MOMA and the MOCA Shanghai.

To an extent, the Chinese regard art not only as a sound way to diversify their portfolios but also as a tested means to project status as they interact with international business executives. Importantly, more and more of them are making informed decisions driven by their own cultural lineage rather than blindly taking a cue from the West.