By Rebecca Catching, originally published in China Now, the British Council platform for the arts and creative industries in China in 2017
On a typical China trip most art professionals trace the familiar pilgrimage route of Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong—perhaps tacking on a trip to Guangzhou or Shenzhen if an event warrants. But this kind of “greatest hits” approach misses out on the artistic energy of the periphery—cities where the cost of living allows for certain kinds of practices to develop outside of the grasping hands of the art market. There is everything from raw independent spaces with a DIY ethos to mature institutions with ambitious programmes. In creating this article, we approached informants in the contemporary art realm for suggestions and also reached out to the institutions themselves to find out what sets them apart. We hope you enjoy our findings!
No. 126 Huangjuepingzheng jie, 501 Art District, Jiulongpo District, Chongqing
Exhibition Space: 200 sqm
Audience: artists, art enthusiasts
Director/Founder: Artists Yang Shu (Director) and Ni Kun (Curator)
Backing: Yang Shu
Good For: Socially and politically aware artists looking to have residencies in China, curators interested in socially-engaged art.
In operation since 2006, Organhaus is a fairly mature non-profit art space, by Chinese standards; its maturity is reflected in its clear sense of self. Jointly operated by artists, Ni Kun and Yang Shu (both graduates of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute), Organhaus takes on the role of questioning the art system, and the capitalistic structures which buttress it. 
Organhaus is interested in these overlapping structures of capitalism, urbanism, industrial production and art production—themes that have emerged through their long-running series HW Factory Plan. This exhibition is held in and in conjunction with the Hewei Steel Factory—a manufacturer of steel furniture products. Director Yang Shu explained to us that the project was an attempt to re-examine the changing factory landscape, export slump, disappearance of SMEs, and the relationship between art, society and artistic practice. The artists engaged in a collective analysis and investigation of the factory site before they launched their first exhibition “How Long is the Road to the Factory” and later accompanied the factory to a trade fair in Shanghai, displaying their works alongside the factory’s goods.
Organhaus espouses a somewhat hermetic attitude, as Ni Kun maintains that “Self-marginalisation is the basis for maintaining independent expression.” Part of maintaining this independence is building transnational networks of like-minded artists. The Organhaus international artist’s residency could be described as one of the most established and active residencies in China with 14 residents a year, amongst them British artists, Ellen Balcomb, Jessica Power, Michaela Yearwood-Dan, Alexander Middleton, Sam Meredith and Joe Venning, amongst others.
Martin Goya Business—Hangzhou, Zhejiang
2F Sanjiang, Mingcuilanwan Club, No. 188 Jiulong Dadao, Fuyang District, Hangzhou
Exhibition Space: 250 sqm, 200 visitors per exhibition (space only open twice a week)
Audience: neighbourhood residents, art professionals, students and art enthusiasts
Director/Founder: Artist Cheng Ran
Backing: Cheng Ran, New Century Art Foundation, other foundations and organizations
Good For: Artists attracted to the raw ethos and aesthetic, curators hoping to get a sense of the forefront of the Hangzhou scene
The quizzically-titled space takes its name from the 2015 film Spy, more precisely, “Martin Goya” is the cat of an FBI agent—it might be worth mentioning that the founder of the space, contemporary video artist Cheng Ran, possesses an almost cultish devotion to the feline species.
The programming of the space seems to exude the same spirit of youthful pop-culture randomness as its name; the exhibitions have a raw underground feel which can be witnessed in their catalogue design which owes something to post-internet art.
Cheng Ran describes the space as “an artist-lead experimental platform exhibiting a new generation of artists”. “The difference between our space and a museum,” he explains, “is that we are open and flexible in terms of our exhibition planning. Unlike galleries, we don’t follow any commercial trends.” Like Organhaus, it has a distinctly anti-commercial bent, refusing “to be dominated by excessive commercialisation and meaningless trendsetting.” Rather, it seems to be grounded in the specificities of Hangzhou, a city that is home to many artists the presence of the China Art Academy. The space privileges exploration over fine finished products; one exhibition included over 200 artists showing small works and was not curated in any sense; the only guiding principle being participation. An informant for this story described Martin Goya as kind of “artist commune” that reminded him of “the glory days of Berlin”.
100 Kilometres—Chengdu, Sichuan
Address: Depends on hosting venue
Exhibition Space: dimensions variable, collaborating institutions (Art Museum of Nanjing University of the Arts (AMNUA), Liao Liao Arts Dissemination Institution, 7Tree and Donglai Studio)
Audience: exhibitions attract 2,000 visitors a year including art professionals, students, and art enthusiasts
Director/Founder: Artist Zhang Jin
Backing: participating artists (material fees), participating institutions
Good For: discovering the practice of artists in remote areas
100 Kilometers is more of a curatorial platform than a concrete space. It could be described as something of an artist-run centre in that the artists work together to organise and create each exhibition. The only guiding criteria are that the artists must be new to the space and the project must involve collaborations with artists from different regions. Locality, and marginalised regions are a differentiator of the platform. Says founder Zhang Jin “In September of 2017, 10 artists from 100 Kilometres participated in a show at AMNUA in Nanjing called ‘Polyphony’; this show was an attempt to organise and understand some young artists in the southwest China.”
The itinerant nature of the exhibitions reflects the origins of the space which grew out of Zhang Jin’s idea of taking Chengdu artists out of their comfort zones, literally, to various locales outside of a 100 km radius of Chengdu. The artists would hold discussions then return to Chengdu to jointly create exhibitions. The most recent exhibition in March “100 Kilometres—The View of the Wild, the Local of Apperceive,” involved two artists from Chongqing collecting metal parts from a recycling station and turning them into a multimedia installation,” says Zhang Jin.
Yinchuan MoCA—Yinchuan, Ningxia Province
No.12, Hele Lu, Huaxin Hetu Art Town, Xingqing District
Exhibition Space: 3 Floors, 6 exhibition spaces, over 3,000 sqm of exhibition space, 1,240 linear meters
Audience: 150,000 visitors annually, students, young artists, cultural enthusiasts, scholars and intellectuals, families from the surrounding towns of Yongning, Wangyuan, Zhizheng, and Tonggui.
Director/Founder: Liu Wenjin, Collector, legal professional, CEO of BEHL Minsheng Group
Backing: Ningxia Minsheng Real Estate, Ningxia Minsheng Culture Foundation
Good For: Organisations wishing to engage in exchanges which might relate to the history and direction of the collection
When there was first talk of this mammoth museum in the desert, many in the Chinese art circles were critical of the project given the 300 million USD price-tag and the location in a relatively poor and insignificant city in northwest China. It was thought that the museum was a lure to entice the government to release the land to Minsheng Real Estate and that after the villas were sold, Minsheng would not be able to maintain the operating costs. Yet with the government’s “One Belt, One Road” policy, Yinchuan, became much more relevant as a node on the Silk Road, a transit point between East and West. The museum’s primary collection of Qing Dynasty oil paintings, and the involvement of art historian and critic Lu Peng has helped to lend the museum a certain legitimacy according to art historian Joshua Gong. Amongst the collection, “Portrait of the Emperor Qianlong,” by Jesuit priest and friend of the Qianlong court, Giuseppe Castiglione, points to this theme of crossroads, and the exhibition “Accommodation of Vision: Early Chinese Western-style Paintings” displayed some new and important scholarship on this particular work.
The museum also has an important collection of maps, which can be seen in a post-colonial light in terms of the acts of the repositioning and re-centring of global power. These older collections may seem to have little to do with contemporary art but they have been framed in the context of postcolonialism and globalisation, thus updating the theory instead of the artwork. (Gong) Their first biennale made an attempt to open of an East-East dialogue with Indian curator Bose Krishnamachari and featured a line-up of international A-list artists along with local names. The second biennale, “Starting from the Desert: Ecologies on the Edge”, (June 9-Sept 19) was curated by Italian curator Marco Scotini, FM Centre for Contemporary Art (Milan) and “Disobedience Archive” and is comprised of four sub-themes; 1. Nomadic Space and Rural Space 2. Labour-in-Nature and Nature-in-Labour 3. The Voice and The Book 4. Minorities and Multiplicity.
The Yinchuan MoCA is the kind of space which seems to have surpassed the expectations of the highly-sceptical art world, but with the departure of the competent and open-minded Art Director Xie Suzhen, and the current biennale “Ecologies” which leaned a bit heavily towards the literal, one hopes that it can keep up its momentum.
Sifang Art Museum—Nanjing, Jiangsu
9 Zhengqi Road, Pukun District, Nanjing
Exhibition Space: 3,000 sqm
Audience: 50,000 visitors, comprised of students, scholars, media, architecture professionals, millennials, age range:20-40
Director/Founder: Lu Xun and Lu Jun, Real Estate Developers and Collectors
Backing: Sifang Cultural Group
Good For: Land Art, Blue Chip Western Art, Unique Layout and Setting
Amongst a lush bamboo forest, 40 minutes outside of downtown Nanjing, are the grounds of the Sifang Museum. The site is dotted with over 40 buildings designed by international names such as Stephen Holl, David Adjaye, Mathias Klotz and Ai Weiwei. “I wanted to give the visitors a sense of retreat rather than going to a museum building,” Says founder Lu Xun of his site.
When we visited the building in 2015, there seemed to be an air of dereliction with a lot of the buildings being empty and closed to the public, but the exhibition, the collection of the founders, was installed in a professional fashion. The collection resembles a “who’s who” of contemporary art with works by Maurizio Catalan, Haegue Yang and Dahn Vo, with a few interesting land art pieces Xu Zhen and Yukata Sone.
Sone’s “Snow Leopard Garden” consists of nearly 100 tons of black and white marble embedded in the ground in the shape of a pelt, with carved snow leopards sitting nestled in the forests of the surrounding hills. A recent solo exhibition of Sone filled the space with marble sculptures from his tropical and amusement park series. Other exhibitions such as “Mountain Sites: Views of Laoshan” focused more on young Chinese artists using the various villas and other venues to create site-specific works as part of a residency within the parkland “in which they inscribe themselves into the structural, historical and social contexts of the local area,” says curator and director of exhibitions Liu Lin. Another lecture series, “Topography” involves walking through Nanjing, covering various historical architectural landmarks. The programming of the museum is not densely packed but perhaps that might make for an openness to collaborations.
Surplus Space, Wuhan, Hubei
No. 33 Baotongsi Lu, 403 International Art Centre, Wuchang District
Exhibition Space: 450 sqm, 86 linear meters
Audience: 4,000-5,000 annual visitors, including visitors from the art district, students and hip youngsters
Director/Founder: Artist Sui Qun
Backing: Sui Qun
Good For: Artists looking to collaborate or curators seeing to explore new talent outside the major centres.
Surplus Space, “Flower Smuggler”, Diana Tamane Solo Exhibition, exhibition view, courtesy Surplus Space
Located in a one-million-square-meter community in the old Wuhan Boiler Factory, Surplus Space is a small but substantial foundry of creativity within Wuhan’s 403 art district. The space was initiated by Sui Qun, a graduate of Hubei Fine Arts Academy and Beijing’s China Central Art Academy and despite its distance from the main centres, Surplus has received a disproportionate amount of attention including exhibition reviews by publications of note. “From the very beginning [Surplus] has always insisted on showing the most cutting-edge and experimental artists from China and abroad from the angle of artists and curators,” says Sui Qun. Surplus, she says “pursues in-depth explorations of society, culture, politics and the art system”. As such, the space has a stated commitment to supporting artists who have yet to be discovered by the market system. At the same time, they are also committed to education, through their public education platform “A3 Plan” held in conjunction with Hubei Art Academy, which has featured experimental performances by Feng Mengbo and Wu Na and talks by Pi Li and Wang Jianwei.
This interest in the social and political manifests itself in exhibitions such as Tang Kwok Hin’s Exhibition “Curtain of the Eyes,” which explores how humanity and individuality are being erased from Hong Kong’s streets by the homogenizing force of chain-store aesthetics. Meanwhile French collective, Agapanthe, examines the addictive nature of throw-away consumer culture, gear envy and the use of cheap and disposable construction materials which have fuelled urban development.
OCAT Xi’an, Xi’an, Shanxi
Beichitou Yi Lu Nan Duan, Yanta District, Xi’an
Exhibition Space: 1,080 sqm
Audience: 70% young people
Director/Founder: Karen Smith
Backing: Funded OCT Group the state-owned real estate developer, Overseas Chinese Town Enterprises.
Good For: Artists looking to collaborate with internationally-minded institutions and interested in the history of Xi’an, curators seeking to explore the talent of Northwest China
Lead by prominent British curator and art historian Karen Smith, OCAT Xi’an is a bright light of contemporaneity in a city populated with somewhat fusty and conservative state-run museums. Part of the OCAT museum network, OCAT is the only privately-run museum in Xi’an, a non-profit institution with both a board and an academic board—a not so common occurrence in China. Says Smith, “We are also committed to exploring relationships that might, or might not, exist specifically in Xi’an, between the art of the past and of now, using contemporary perspectives and practices”. Smith cites their ongoing “Portrait of Xi’an” project which featured British artist Dryden Goodwin in 2018, with a project supported by the Cultural Relics Bureau. “Another example is the fabulous faux archaeological research ‘excavation’ done by Paris-based Yao Qingmei, says Smith; “She created an entirely fabricated Neolithic community complete with symbols and artifacts (pottery, axe heads etc) . . . [and] a wholly convincing series of documentaries about this culture, with herself starring in multiple roles as archaeologist/worker/scholar”.
OCAT Xi’an is very much a site-specific institution, in that it takes the context of this ancient capital to heart, using it as a jumping-off point to explore art: “With the aim of exploring the ties between the art of history and now, we do a lot of talks aimed at helping people engage with topics. We always try to begin from an unexpected point of view. It’s the same with our shows. History is not immutable.” The museum has also taken an active role in supporting the nascent curatorial community, building the future foundations of curatorial knowledge through appointing local curators to curate shows of local artists as part of the “Xi’an Showcase” series. These curators carry out valuable research on the local arts community which will be collected in a publication about Art and Xi’an which features contributions from collaborators of the past five years.
Luxelakes A4 Museum, Chengdu, Sichuan
Luhu Art Exhibition Center, Tianfu Dadao Nanyanxian, (southern extension), Tianfu District,
Exhibition Space: 1,500 sqm, 1,000 linear meters, second phase of construction to bring the museum up to 3,500 sqm, due to open in 2019
Audience: annual 30,000 visitors. Mostly students, teachers and professionals, elderly 70+, military personnel, families, group tours including art trainings, kindergartens, seniors and university groups, viewership leans towards youth 18-24 (48%), 25-30 (23%), with many families participating in the iSTART program
Director/Founder: Sunny Sun
Backing: Chengdu Wide Horizon Investment Group, (Real Estate)
Good For: Artists looking to collaborate with an internationally-minded institution, curators seeking to explore new talent presented in a thoughtful and professional manner
A4 Museum, stands out as being a thorough and well-rounded institution, firing on all cylinders including research, residencies, engagement with local communities through education and a rich volunteer programme. “The museum has an intimate connection with the surrounding communities, and produces a large number of public art projects including over 100 public education events including the iSTART children’s art festival . . . in terms of public art we have engaged in lots of different attempts and experiments,” says Yvonne Shi, the director of the brand development department.
The space is very committed to nurturing the local art scene through projects such as “Loop—Photography and Video Experiments in Southwestern China since 2000”—an exhibition of experimental video artists from Southwest China, says Shi: “Through dialogue and creation we presented an analysis and comprehensive archive [of their work] presented in a systematic way within the space. Though the show launched in 2017, we have been following these artists since 2009 in continuous dialogue through collaborating on projects of different scales.”
A4 also has a strong commitment to international artists with a residency program which has been running for five years, and realises frequent collaborations with international artists and curators. To this end, a recent dual solo show featured “Martin Boyce’s” Hanging Garden and Chen Qiu Lin’s “Peppermint”. The museum works hard to pair foreign artists with Chinese artists working intimately with the artists throughout the process to create exhibition-specific work which also speaks to the greater community. Says Shi, “After the exhibition, artists from Chengdu and elsewhere all had very positive feedback, from the visitor numbers to the sales of the art derivatives, it seems that everything is pointing towards the popularity of this exhibition.”
Powerlong Art Center, Hangzhou, Zhejiang
5F, 3867 Binsheng Lu, Binjiang District
Exhibition Space: 6,500 sqm, 13 exhibition halls
Audience: ages 20-40, university students and middle-class visitors
Director/Founder: Xu Jiankang, collector president of Baolong Group
Backing: Baolong Group (real estate, tourism and IT)
Good For: Artists, new media and others, curators seeking to explore new talent from Hangzhou
One of the many museums built within the catacombs of a commercial shopping mall, Powerlong seems to be espousing the model popularised by the K11 franchise. Though it is our natural tendency frown upon such a marriage of art and retail, this placement is in a sense a good outreach strategy, says deputy general manager Peng Zhongming, “Powerlong is built within a shopping mall to facilitate a kind of integrated art experience positioning itself as a link between art and life, as a professional, experimental space”. The newly-opened space places their international artist residency at the core of the brand, exposing Hangzhou to talent which usually doesn’t make it further inland than Beijing, and this and a certain populist bent, with a late closing time (9 pm virtually unheard of in China), aims “to provide more opportunities for art experiences for the amateur art enthusiasts and regular people,” says Peng.
The first exhibition “Invasion of the Future” involved over 50 renowned multimedia artists and 200 works, claiming to be Hanzhou’s biggest multimedia art exhibition to date. “9 Tomorrows,” a section within the exhibition (based on the Isaac Asimov book) used the future as a jumping-off point to explore topics such as AI, technology, cyborgs. Meanwhile another section of the exhibition, “Be Present,” “takes perception as a starting point, to explore the current position of humanity in face of the surrounding issues of technology.” For instance, the collective “Noise Aquarium” uses animated images of plankton to explore the question of how human-generated noise pollution affects these minute organisms, thus forcing the viewer to confront our anthropocentric biases.
United Art Museum, Wuhan, Hubei
No.16 West Yezhihu Road, Hongshan District
Space: 3,000 sqm, 1000 linear meters, 3 floors, 11 exhibition halls
Audience: 300,000 annual visitors, mostly students and art enthusiasts
Backing: Optics Valley Union Group (property development, engineering, and real estate, under the umbrella of the Hubei Provincial Department of Culture, nonetheless a private museum and independent legal entity
Director/Founder: Huang Liping
Good For: institutions looking to mount an exhibition in a major Chinese city within a professional, climate-controlled environment, known for academic exhibitions of the “old masters” of Chinese contemporary art
With international caliber facilities for the exhibition and storage of artwork, the United Museum has a strong level of professionalism in terms of their hardware, academic commitment and the overall quality of exhibition design. Though its programme might be seen as somewhat conservative compared to what is happening on the coast, they are nonetheless committed to producing well-researched academically-oriented exhibitions which help lay the foundations of art history for the Wuhan public.
Recent exhibitions include many names familiar to western audiences, for instance, Xu Bing, Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun, and Zhang Dali”. Xu Bing’s exhibition, held in conjunction with Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, exemplifies their commitment to art history and research. “The exhibition included a large number of sketches, plans, and proposals, amongst them which make up Xu Bing’s artistic pathway”, says Sun Jiangshu, Collections Manager, “It included many hidden or unfinished works or works which were still in an experimental phase, some which may have been difficult to categorise as art of design. These fragments are left behind for us to trace the path of Xu Bing’s creative trajectory.”
 Ni Kun: “Art became a link in the economic chain, especially in newly urbanizing areas . . . it became is forcefully tied up in the country’s capital systems and policies. This is very frightening because it makes the task of maintaining one’s objectivity all the more difficult and passive. The capitalization of art is really in principle a problem similar to the gentrification which exists within the urbanization process, which becomes an opposable force. Gentrification is also a bourgeoisification, where art becomes dominated by capital.” From: “Self-Marginalization” Speech on “Cross-Border Dialogue: China, Europe, Brazil – Developing Cities in the Context of Curation and Art Practice” on June 7). 自我边缘化是保持独立表达的基础——6月7日在”跨境对话：中国，欧洲，巴西－发展中城市语境下的策展与艺术实践”的发言 倪昆)
 Joshua Gong Zhiyun, “The problematic contemporaneity of the Yinchuan MOCA”, Artzip, last accessed May 31, 2018 http://www.artzip.org/problematic-contemporaneity-museum-contemporary-art-yinchuan