The Affordable Art Fair Beijing was conceived during a period of aggressive art speculation, when Beijing-based painters were fetching astronomical sums, and even young photographers, just out of college, were selling pieces for $10,000 US. ‘Working at the 798 art district I realised I couldn’t afford any of this beautiful art I was around,’ says fair director Tom Pattinson. ‘At the same time, I knew artists and small gallery owners with reasonably priced art available. I wanted to connect them.’
That was back in 2006, and over the past eight years the Beijing fair has doubled in size. This year, 600 pieces were up for grabs, culled from a whopping 10,000 submissions.
Many artists have also matured along with the fair. ‘Last year a young artist called Yang Rei took part in our event, the first time she’d ever shown publicly,’ Pattinson says. ‘She sold well and was picked up by Platform China, one of the most respected galleries in Beijing. Now she sells for ten times what she did last year.’
Arriving in Shanghai, the affordable art fair (renamed SURGE to outflank imitators) aims to show 400-500 works. Anyone can submit pieces for consideration – quality and originality are the two key criteria – but Pattinson says 90 per cent of the works come from full time artists and 75 per cent are from graduates of fine arts schools. Most pieces are by artists acting independently, but local galleries including Art Labor, island6, M97 and Studio Rouge are also participating.
Unlike traditional art fairs, there’s no charge to show works, with the fair instead taking a 25 per cent commission on sales. Prices range from a couple of hundred kuai to a maximum of 30,000RMB.
Sourcing work from around the region, Pattinson says he hopes to make SURGE Shanghai a local fair for local artists. He’s also looking for more local buyers. ‘We’re very keen to reach the domestic audience, and we’re doing education programs to introduce art as a lifestyle.’ And why is that? ‘We’ve traditionally had a lot of Western buyers, but in terms of spend, Chinese buyers spend more,’ Pattinson explains.
Pattinson believes that the rise of buyers from China’s burgeoning young middle class is sustaining the investment potential of Chinese art. ‘My theory is that every ten paintings you buy, one of those will go on to pay for the other nine, and a lot more probably,’ Pattinson says.
Of course, investment may be a false economy for collectors, including the fair director, who like their works too much to sell them. ‘I’ve never sold anything that I’ve bought myself,’ he says.
SURGE Shanghai 2012 is at River South Art Centre from Saturday 20-Sunday 21 October.