The Art Market post-pandemic: an interview with Celine Zhuang, the Studio Gallery founder

The pandemic has brought significant changes in the art world. The art market has suffered from closures and new policies aimed at containing and limiting the spread of the virus. The galleries today are persevering and adapting in the post-COVID-19 world. I interviewed Celine Zhuang, founder of Studio Gallery in Shanghai, on the pandemic’s main consequences on the art market. Celine Zhuang opened her gallery in 2016 and started in 2017 an artist’s recidency program in Shanghai.

Introduction to the art market problematics after COVID-19

China is among the most important art market globally, and its shutdown to the world during the past months has influenced the balance of the delicate art economy. In addition to pushing galleries and museums to close their doors, the pandemic has led to the closure and postponement of significant art exhibitions, including essential art fairs, which are fundamental for the contemporary art market sector. Art fairs traditionally generate more than 60% of sales, which is why Art Basel’s, the most important world art fair, decision to cancel the Hong Kong fair scheduled for March 19-21 was a severe blow to the art economy. The 2019 Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report contended that nearly one-fifth of the USD 67 billion spent on art in 2018 was spent in China, making it the third-largest art market in the world.

Even if museums and galleries reopen, the consensus among health care experts is that social distancing is going to remain a part of contemporary life for the near future around the world, which means they will have to adapt. For example, The Power Station of Art (PSA) in Shanghai is once again open to the public and only admits up to 500 visitors every day and requires them to keep a 1.5-meter distance from one another. One way to allow broader public exposure without violating social distancing practices is to rely more on virtual galleries, art spaces, and auction rooms. Online viewing rooms seem to be an appropriate solution from a technological standpoint but can’t substitute the immediacy of a physical relationship with a work of art. Given the novelty of the situation, it is unclear whether virtual online alternatives will change from an economic point of view.

Power Station of Art, Shanghai

Let’s see Celine Zhuang‘s opinion about this situation.

– You are the founder of Studio Gallery in Shanghai, can you introduce a little bit your gallery?

Studio Gallery operates two independent entity spaces in Shanghai. Its gallery space focuses on presenting topical exhibition programs, keeps supporting and sponsoring various non-profit critical art projects initiated by its project space. The most important of which is the artist’s residence project. Studio Gallery takes the artists’ actual work experience, and real thoughts as its core value support the artist’s residence projects and topical exhibition programs. Through the reflection on the unbalanced environment of contemporary politics, economy, and culture in the context of globalization, the Studio Gallery is committed to building a platform for artists to express their actual working conditions and real thoughts. Through long-term exchanges and dialogue with international artists and curators, the Studio Gallerie continue to initiate various topical exhibitions, research-based educational programs, and publications.

– In the Midst of COVID-19, Chinese Galleries adapt and persevere: what are the consequences of the lock-down on the art market?

The most direct pressure is of course the high rental price of the space in Shanghai. This would bring huge pressure to every gallery. But also pushes everyone to think about new possibilities.

 – China has an important role in the world art sphere and many important western galleries started moving east seeking for new young artists. Does the Chinese Art market consuming more international artist or local artist ? According to you, how the pandemic will influence on that?

It’s pretty hard to tell, and just from my feeling, I would say nowadays, Chinese collectors would prefer more established western artists or young Chinese artists with a very international background.
For us, the biggest issue is the strict controlling of people coming into the gallery space. So we are not allowed to organize openings and events, and for the most challenging time, we even not allowed to have foreign guests in our space.
On the other hand, we were given a chance to do the exhibition even closer to the artist’s ideal concept, which brings people’s attention. So right after the pandemic lock-down, we received a lot more visitors than before.

– Do you think that the future of the art market could be online?

Personally, I am not a big fan of online shows or VR shows. I think online is just one way to make the client feel more convenient to buy, but most of the clients came to our gallery and then purchased the works through our online shop.

There will be some long- term changes in the art world after the pandemic?

I think so, and it will gradually appear. The pandemic literally stops the international exchanges; many overseas students have to stay in China; many foreigners in Shanghai face the hard decision: stay or leave~ etc. All these actual factors would finally form a new industrial structure in Shanghai.

– The Chinese market is more interested in a more conservative type of art? How is the demand for digital art, performance, or site-specific? The pandemic and the “virtuality” brought by the lock-down will change the concept of a “sellable piece”?

I think it’s a global problem. Always paintings and sculptures. But if we have to compare, I think collectors here would be more conservative towards contemporary art. Digital art is quite a “trendy” thing on the market. Many of the public spaces are looking for digital, interactive, light pieces. Performance art I am not sure, but it seems local museums quite welcome this form of art. This form of art would draw more attention when people join for the openings, but I think few people have an interest in this specific field. I would more agree it’s a strategic choice. All galleries are fighting to survive from this colossal disaster. That’s the important thing. Here in China, without a mature supporting system and healthy ecology, it is tough to grow and be sustainable as an individual gallery.

Studio Gallery, Shanghai
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