Shanghai looks to West Bund and Art021 fairs for economic boost as fresh lockdowns leave buyers cautious

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The stakes are high for Shanghai’s duo of fairs—Art021 and West Bund Art & Design—which open tomorrow (until 13 November). They come after a year in which frequent lockdowns have nixed all prior fairs in the Chinese mainland, closed galleries for months at a time, and left buyers cautious. Covid-19 outbreaks following widescale travel due to the National Day holiday in October have now put millions in Shanghai back into building-level lockdowns.

Seven- to ten-day hotel quarantines are still required of all international and Hong Kong arrivals to the mainland, deterring all but the most determined dealers. The newest rules require travellers to Shanghai from most mainland cities to submit negative Covid tests for three days in a row before accessing public spaces like art fairs. Representatives from the art worlds of Guangzhou and Beijing, where testing and restrictions are ramping up with rises in Covid cases, may be particularly thin on the ground.

This poses problems for Shanghai’s dealers and collectors, who now more than ever are relying on these events to provide a much-needed boost to business. The fairs “play an important role in Shanghai’s global position in the art market, especially as they will be the only physical art fairs in mainland China this year, if they happen,” says Yuxin Zheng, the director, Asia of Dumonteil gallery, which has spaces in Paris, New York and Shanghai. It plans to exhibit this year at West Bund works by artists including Weng Jijun and Jean-Marie Fiori. “If the fair is cancelled, we shall probably reconsider our strategy and program in the near future for China.”

This year’s Art021, the event’s tenth edition, will bring together 134 participants, with a number of fashion ateliers and emerging dealers showing alongside established names like David Zwirner and Beijing Commune.

Meanwhile West Bund will feature 78 galleries, including 36 first established overseas, 11 of which have locations in mainland China. This marks a drop from the over 90 in the pre-Covid era, with a line-up broadened to include many smaller and newer. Major global galleries taking part this year include Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, Lehmann Maupin and White Cube. Meanwhile, 13 galleries from Berlin, Paris, Shanghai, Beijing and other cities will exhibit for the first time.

But despite enormous hurdles, the mainland’s enormous domestic collector base retains its appeal. “It’s not our first rodeo you could say—I was in a similar position last year,” says Lehmann Maupin director Tiffany Xu, freshly out of her latest arrival quarantine in Shanghai. “Year after year—even with the challenges brought on by the global pandemic—West Bund has provided us with the platform to grow our business and to introduce artists in a new geography,” this year the gallery brings work by artists including Nicholas Hlobo and Lari Pittman. “Our commitment to engaging with audiences in China is a determining factor, as is continuing to offer our artists the opportunity for visibility in China,” Xu says. In these times “the opportunity for in-person connection is especially valuable”.

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