By Hutch Wilco
Arising from the context of the United States and the artist-run initiatives that developed in New York in the 1970s, the definition of “alternative art space” is commonly a venue, other than a commercial establishment, shaped by artists for the public presentation of artworks, including those of “non-traditional” media such as video, performance, and digital technologies.
Such an understanding of what constitutes an alternative space is complicated in many non-Western countries by the absence of public funding for the arts; under these conditions, alternative platforms often conduct their activities in a manner not entirely dissimilar to dealer galleries. This is the case in China, where alternative spaces generate income via art sales, rely on the personal funds of organizers or the largesse of a patron, or bloom and disappear like a night flower (granted, this is a global phenomenon: examinations of alternative spaces across Europe, the US, and Oceania, such as Jasmin Glaab’s essay “The Swiss artist-run scene 2020” (2020), Emma Bugden’s 2020 thesis focused on New Zealand, and Emma Coffield’s research concerning the United Kingdom, “Artist-Run Initiatives: A Study of Cultural Construction” (2015), show that the average life span is just over four years).
In Shanghai, there was a notable burst of alternative practice at the turn of the millennium, with the West Suzhou River Road’s “Red Houses” becoming a hub for then-unknown artists and curators, as well as the site for the infamous “Fuck Off” exhibition curated by Feng Boyi and Ai Weiwei. The ripples of such seismic activity are still felt—many of the artists, such as Yang Fudong, Ding Yi, and Xu Zhen, who emerged in that period are prominent today—while starting an alternative space has become a legitimate career path for curators to transition into institutional roles. However, as critic Ying Zhou commented, the grassroots scene in Shanghai at the time was quickly transformed, as these informal sites were removed for new developments while sanctioned cultural hubs, like M50 and Red Town, were established by local authorities. Alternatives were subsumed in “the state’s appropriation of contemporary art as an alibi for demonstrating its open-mindedness.”
This gentrification has hastened in recent years, with policy in 2011 encouraging private patronage, and with government commitments to become a “museum country” by 2035 yet again emphasizing the role of the private sector. Certainly, the pace with which private and public museums have been built—official numbers show an average of one museum opened every two days between 2016 and the beginning of 2021— hasn’t abated since the pandemic. This is particularly true in Shanghai, where several new institutions have opened since 2019, West Bund Museum and the Museum of Art Pudong being the latest. Yet it would appear that during the pandemic, the city has also seen opportunities for alternative spaces to develop, with a confluence of returning Chinese graduates with arts management experience, available commercial spaces, and cheaper rents.
Among these new initiatives are 33ml Offspace, Is A Gallery, Positive Art Research Centre, Fu Kan, and the Brownie Project. Concurrently, spaces that have long championed alternative exhibition models, such as MadeIn Company and Yell Space, have withstood the pressures that the pandemic has exerted. How alternative initiatives survive in the pandemic period is a matter of individual strategy. Xu Zhen, artist and director of perhaps Shanghai’s oldest artist-run space, conveyed as much: “The government’s policy on financial support for nonprofit contemporary art organizations in China is still being refined and continuously explored. Therefore, the survival of nonprofit spaces in China still depends on how they figure out their own solutions. I personally think that the best way is to earn money on your own, and use what you earn to open a space that you like, and to promote art and artists that you identify with.” Xu Zhen’s model, which incorporates a multitude of enterprises—MadeIn Gallery, MadeIn Art Education, MadeIn Art Museum, and the forum Art-Ba-Ba— represents ostensibly the most business-focused of Shanghai’s alternative spaces. Others, like Huang Kui’s Yell Space, have survived largely through long-established strategies: low-cost operations and the support of a close circle of friends and artists. During the pandemic, Huang relocated Yell Space to a warehouse in a less central district with cheaper rent. He maintains that the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns had very little impact, save for pausing expansion plans and international projects. Ventures that subsist, like Yell, on modest, non-commercial resources are increasingly rare, however: “[In] the current environment, especially in China, especially in Shanghai, contemporary art is increasingly controlled by capital. Contemporary art itself has gradually transformed into market decorations in the face of big capital. Experiments have become less and less, and the growth path of young artists has become increasingly narrow,” said Huang. Emphasizing, art, design, and typography, Is A Gallery has also relied on the support of friends since opening earlier this year in a space inside the Shanghai Printing Technology Research Institute. Founder and director Li Zhongkai explained that this model allows the niche platform its experimental edge: “It’s true that the [Western] definition of ‘alternative art space’ is not common in China and that there is not much public funding for such a space. Luckily, the gallery is supported by my friends, so Is A Gallery is privileged to be able to explore and define the concept of an alternative gallery in a local context. We operate on a four-themes approach, which means the gallery alternates exhibition programming between themes of design, multimedia/photography, traditional media, and education. This programming structure is rarely seen in Chinese galleries, and we intentionally use it to address a need for multidisciplinary thinking in the art and design space.”
Li stressed that the pandemic was an opportunity for alternative spaces to reflect on their local situations and provided “new ideas about how to run a space, about audience experience, community engagement, and the dynamic between the space and the city.” Is A Gallery, like others, has emphasized its online presence, and in the absence of international travel during Covid-19, has been organizing live artist talks and interviews online. One of the newest additions to Shanghai’s independent arts scene, 33ml Offspace aligns closely with the notion of “alternative art space” that emerged in 1970s New York. Situated in a nondescript, sub- urban apartment building, the gallery is the joint project of several recent graduates, including artist Xia Han. Frustrated with a lack of opportunity, they pooled their finances and found a cheap studio space with a large, unused basement. 33ml offers young artists a free place to live and work while they develop their exhibitions; it also facilitates sales and develops merchandise. In return, artists pay for the costs of mounting the show. Xia said: “This year we did a painting exhibition and sold it. It was the first time that our space had income to offset the rent. I don’t think there is any problem with selling paintings. I chatted with several other independent space managers, and we agreed that without long-term, stable sponsorship, commercialization may be the only way out for independent spaces.” Xia elaborated that sponsorships where stakeholders surreptitiously control the space or works “is not what we want.” When asked about the future potential for independent practices, most artists and organizers responded positively. Xia observed that since the pandemic, many artists and curators who studied and worked overseas had returned to China, and as a result, more alternative spaces were opening. Despite the difficulty of surviving without government funding, organizers generally agreed that the relative freedom of operating without the oversight that outside funding would require was preferable. This hardship, Xia suggests, leads to new models and developments. Xueer La, from the Brownie Project, an independent space for emerging artists with a focus on technology and education that opened just as the pandemic hit, agrees. “Realizing art projects is physically harder thanks to [Covid-19]. However, the online art world suddenly became unprecedentedly wild, diverse, and decentralized. More art-related individuals, collectives, organizations are empowered to express and present themselves, which is sensational. It’s like an open-mic night. And I think the pandemic somehow awakened the demand for art within a larger public.” For Xu Zhen, the important thing is not to comply to any existing definition of “alternative art space,” but to experiment with different paths and create a multitude of opportunities. “A young person, because of impulse and ideals, spends money to rent a space, in order to show the public art that he or she considers awesome. This act itself is very beautiful. Because the space doesn’t just produce exhibitions, it also gives space for discussion, guidance, mutual influence, the circulation of ideas and values, the exchange of different classes as well as mutual encouragement...In this sense, alternative spaces in China in each period will encounter different difficulties and advantages. But I firmly believe alternative spaces are the fortresses that artists build for themselves . . . it doesn’t need to last forever, but someone will always do it.”