In Shanghai, as creative clusters become more popular with tourists, rent has doubled or tripled, effectively driving away many artists and gallerists who could not afford to pay much more money. Over the course of a few years, M50 has become an area filled with more coffee shops than a space for artists to make and show their art.
Artists tend to naturally flock to cool large spaces with inexpensive rent, establishing creative clusters. They tend to materialize in former industrial buildings because of the high ceilings, large elevators, and proximity to other artists. Within these creative clusters are also galleries that serve as a mediators between the artists and the public.
The local Shanghai government began temporarily leasing spaces in former industrial areas in the 1990s to artists. It was a win-win situation, the government was making money from unoccupied space while artists had a place to sleep and work for relatively little money.
Rebecca Catching ran OV Gallery at M50 for six years before becoming a curator at the Minsheng Museum, and an independent curator doing work of the Goethe Institut and OCAT Shanghai.
“Before, [M50] was this super grungy, dirty place with completely foul bathrooms—some had no door,” Catching said. “It was not really managed. They just rented the space to whoever, but it was really affordable. Maybe 3 RMB per sqm per day if I recall correctly. Now, probably 3000 RMB for a tiny little hot-desk or something.”
The space used to feel like a club with a big open lounge area, coffee, drinks, buzz, energy and “All of these young trendy people working on their various dreams,” she said. In the six years she worked there, Catching witnessed the space transform.
“Various tenants move in and change the character of the place but the overall structure remains the same,” she said. “New coffee shops such as Undefined set the new tone of the place with their emphasis on style and design.”
Many other repurposed spaces in Shanghai have opened as young, hip, and stylish places, as to attract more foreign visitors and investors. For example, 1933, a former slaughterhouse, was a victim of the developers’ lazy search for the right tenant mix, and is now filled with coffee shops when it has the potential for less commercial ventures.
“Typically, what a land developer does is take an industrial space, slap a coat of paint on it, put up a sign that says creative cluster and then hike up the rent,” Catching continued. “This does little to benefit the creative clusters.”
Often, art benefits real estate. Housing complexes that are built in the middle of nowhere offer free or discounted studios, “then once more mainstream tenants move in, they kick out the artists,” she added. “It’s a model which serves real estate and capital and does little for creativity.”
Martin Kemble, the director of Art Labor, is cynical in regards to the landlords in Shanghai. Since establishing his gallery in 2006 in the French Concession, he has since had to move twice because of the rising prices of rent, and is now located in Suzhou Creek.
“For our second space in the French Concession, the rent went from 10 thousand RMB to 60 thousand RMB a month, almost overnight,” Kemble said. When the lease came up for the first time, the landlord asked for 100% increase. He was able to bargain it to only a 50% increase. When it came up for the second time, the landlord asked for a 100% increase on the already increased rent. “That’s what shuts down and kills a lot of potential for the city,” Kemble added.
“Land gets taken over or bought by people who purely have financial interests and are greedy, and greed just gets them through, they don’t have a vision or creative impulses,” he continued. In his opinion, as soon as local ownership comes in, what is the most important is maximizing the profit and returning investments. “So they don’t really care who they’re putting in next to you,” he said. “They’ll stick the worst shop next to you when you’re trying to build a really good brand.”
Dr Xin Gu, discusses the Chinese government’s never-ending need to urbanize by using M50 as an example in her article, “The Art of Re-Industrialization in Shanghai.” In the years since M50’s establishment as the model for urbanization around Suzhou Creek and a model of a successful creative cluster, many of the original tenants have moved away to be closer to the cultural centers. She also denounces the art industry for cashing in; instead of maintaining the unique spaces. Galleries have now placed a stronger importance on attracting foreigners to sell more.
“Old boilers, switchboards, lighting, and bookshelves are now displayed as quasi-art objects to remind people of the connection between their art and this particular history,” Xin wrote. “But such informal, spontaneous preservation was soon to be absorbed within the cultural tourism economy of Shanghai, which had itself become more conscious of the usefulness of such industrial heritage.”
Steven Harris, director of M97 Gallery, recently moved from M50 to a former factory complex dating back to the 1940s in the JingAn district. The move was necessary, he said, as it could mark the beginning of a new decade because of space, the setup, and the stability of the spot, which was not guaranteed at M50. “It’s also very unique to have a space like this, so close to downtown and that hasn’t been demolished,” he said.
In some circumstances, the big white box space offered at M50 or similar spaces is too vast. Harris said, “It’s cool for 3-meter paintings and massive installations, but for small works on paper or photographs, it’s too much space physically,” and the viewer would not know where to look. “This space is pretty perfect for what I expect, what I need, and what I want the public to deal with when they come to visit the gallery,” he added.
Indeed, the space is intimate, separated and spread out through the former factory. In the first part is a traditional gallery space near the entrance where photographs are exhibited in a traditional way. Then visitors are invited to climb to the next floor where they cross a front yard, that leads them to the “Project Space,” where the artists adapt the hallway in their own way as to include the visitor. “We get inspiration from space, it has a wonderful flow to it,” Harris continued. “It’s like a labyrinth.”
The popularity of the creative cluster in Suzhou Creek led to the development of another creative center in the West Bund. Since 2012, the local government has participated in the repurposing of former industrial buildings into cultural centers. The West Bund area has been reaffirming itself as an important cultural space in Shanghai with the opening of the Power Station of Art in 2012 in the former Nanshi Power Plant, and the Yuz Museum in 2014 in the former hangar of Longhua Airport.
However, the Chinese government’s efforts to occupy former industrial space is not aimed specifically at historical preservation. For Monika Lin, Clinical Assistant Professor of Arts at NYU Shanghai, the reuse of the industrial space is done because it is cool, and other museums have done it, like the Tate Modern in London. She has noticed that most government entities open industrial style spaces whereas Westerners are more interested in the Art Deco buildings, like the Rockbund Art Museum.
This project began with my misunderstanding that gallery owners and artists cared about the space they occupied on a more historical level. The idea that the history of the space was important to them was soon challenged by the fact that the architecture of the space was the most essential aspect, and design and history is an extra “bang for the buck.”