View from the rooftop of Guangdong Times Museum. Photo by Noelle Bodick for ArtAsiaPacific.


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In 2005 or thereabouts, many Guangdong artists began to relocate to Beijing, often in pursuit of exposure and sales. Then, in 2009, Wang Huang-sheng, director of the Guangdong Museum of Art, also headed to the capital to become director of the art museum at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. With his departure, interest in contemporary art began to wane at the museum, and its Guangzhou Triennial, once a power engine for Chinese contemporary art, was no longer pursued with as much ambition as in years past. It felt as if the buzz around the art scene was starting to fade. Without a flourishing market or sufficient funding from the government, or even a vibrant grass-roots scene, could contemporary art still grow from Guangzhou’s soil?

Today, the situation is far more positive, thanks to a combination of privately funded and artist-run organizations. The major institutions in Guangzhou engaging with contemporary art include the Guangdong Times Museum, the Libreria Borges Institute for Contemporary Art, Vitamin Creative Space and Observation Society. In addition, there are a number of self-organized, experimental spaces for younger artists, mainly around Xiaozhou Village on the city’s outskirts—for example, Sabaki Space, a small, innovative gallery established in 2008.

Guangdong Times Museum was completed in October 2010 with funding from Times Property, a real-estate corporation. Designers Rem Koolhaas and Alain Fouraux came up with the idea of inserting a museum into the 19th floor of a residential building on the edge of the city. Registered as a nonprofit organization, its mission is to stimulate new ideas and to connect art with the community, running a variety of lectures, film screenings and special programs. Each year the museum holds four major exhibitions—the recent show “Zizhiqu – Autonomous Regions,” curated by Hou Hanru, presented videos and installations by 16 artists from around the world that discussed the possibilities of freedom and independence in the current era. Compared to Beijing and Shanghai, Guangzhou’s political climate is liberal and, despite the controversial subject matter, the exhibition opened successfully, albeit with a low profile. Most encouragingly, despite the fact that visiting galleries is still not a very popular activity in China, the museum attracts local people living in and around the residential complex, helped by free admission, free children’s art classes and an annual community art festival. 

Libreria Borges Institute for Contemporary Art grew out of the bookstore Libreria Borges, which itself originated from the research of its founder, Chen Tong, on the work of French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman. The approach of Chen, an artist and art professor at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art, is to treat art as text and text as art, thus the Institute holds events centered on the research and exploration of literature, including exhibitions and lectures. In 2012, Chen and Beijing artist Zhu Jia initiated the Video Bureau at sites in Guangdong and Beijing. Its main goal is to compile the artworks and materials of video artists into an easily searchable archive, while also presenting regular exhibitions to the public.

Vitamin Creative Space, founded in 2002, is an influential gallery-cum-art space dedicated to nourishing the development of Chinese contemporary art through both close observation of everyday life and the ideas of traditional Chinese philosophy. Its support of experimental projects and its attendance at art fairs have helped introduce Chinese artists to the international scene. Another significant player is Observation Society, a collective founded in 2008 by Asia Art Archive’s Anthony Yung with local practitioners, which aims to support younger generation artists in Guangzhou and Hong Kong by mounting four to five exhibitions a year in an independent art space. 

Guangzhou’s location and layout are convenient, and costs are relatively low. Since the art scene and its market are small, artists, with few social obligations, can focus their attention on creation and experimentation. And, as the city is surrounded by the manufacturing facilities of the Pearl River Delta, it is very convenient for artists to get work produced. Guangdong was the first region in China to open up to the outside world, and, thanks in part to its proximity to Hong Kong, artists here have no shortage of information channels. Traveling across China is now easier, and the international art scene is becoming accessible in a way that was not possible before. Some young artists may continue to prefer to relocate after graduation, but those who stay will enjoy certain advantages. Unlike the bustle of Beijing and Shanghai, the city feels like an active base for art production, yet one that also retains a connection to real life. We are hoping that a new model will emerge that may even attract those artists who have departed back to Guangzhou’s soil.