Rebecca Catching

Art and Retail—
An Unlikely Marriage
Provides a New Funding
Model for Culture

In the West, we tend to think of shopping malls as fluorescent-lit wastelands,[i] full of soulless megastores and overfed consumers; we certainly don’t think of them as appropriate venues for high culture, but the success of various art malls in China should give us reason to pause. Land developers in China mixing art and retail, with the original intention of adding prestige to their properties, have inadvertently discovered an interesting funding model that the cultural industry would be wise to appropriate.

While museums in the west spend countless hours trying to solicit donations from collectors and sponsors and fretting over government cuts, land developers such as Shui On, the group behind Shanghai’s landmark retail complex Xintiandi, fund their programming through the rent and sales of their tenants. Long before the e-commerce had cast its dark shadow across the retail environment, China’s land developers recognized the importance of culture in maintaining brand resilience.

The relationship between real estate and culture in China has a history which goes back to some of its first contemporary art museums including the Today Art Museum (est.2002), the Zendai Museum of Modern Art (2005) and OCAT Shenzhen (2005) being some of the first museums which were “born of real estate,” acting as the “cultural anchor tenants” in broader communities of retail and F & B. It has now become the norm for real estate developers to dangle the prospect of a museum in front of the government in order to secure land for development—given that the government needs help meeting its goals to provide one museum for every 250, 000 people by the year of 2020. This has unfortunately led to the proliferation of a herd of white elephants or “mosquito halls” to use the expression of Taiwanese artist Yao Jui-Cheng—the kind of cultural spaces which are more often frequented by mosquitoes than the public, due to lack of proper strategic planning and the absence of viable revenue streams.

But the problem is not a matter of format of having “art in a mall” or an “art museum in a mixed-use newly-built community.” The problem is that the land developers are not diverting adequate funds from their profits in order to provide money for operating and programming budgets. Also, it tends to be easier to fund a series of pop-up performances, installations or events, than to fund whole museums which eat up valuable retail space, suck electricity, and require large staffs of upwards of 20-30 employees, without generating much profit.

This is where Xintiandi has blazed a trail, by being light and nimble, and focusing on very crowd-friendly programming, with clear KPIs regarding visitor numbers and a feedback loop which brings financial rewards the developer for high attendance, as Xintiandi takes a cut of their tenant’s sales. High art, this is not. Xintiandi does not have much of a collection, despite the purchase of several light installations and some lovely marble sculptures by Huang Zhiyang which can be found in and around the Xintiandi Style property in Shanghai, but, in a way, the decentered approach to programming somewhat fits with Xintiandi’s ambition as an ersatz version of the “quaint neighborhood, with street life and color,” the kind of neighborhood, which was ironically, at the time of Xintiandi’s construction, being snuffed out all over the city, by the forces of big property.

Still, Xintiandi, which opened in 2002, was a visionary project of Vincent Lo (Shui On Group chairman), American architect Ben Wood and Japanese architecture firm, Nikken Sekkei International, and is can be seen as a fairly competent attempt to restore a sense of place to China’s increasingly-homogeneous urban landscape. Its architecture was based on the “shikumen” lane housing found in the original Huangpu neighborhood which was torn down and reconfigured into a closely-knit warren of lanes and pedestrian walkways, beautifully ornamented with the grey and maroon brick, friezes and ornate balconies. Due to its pseudo-historical character, it attracted hordes of tourists looking to experience the sanitized shikumen (sans old ladies peeling vegetables or hanging laundry). This became a model which was rolled out all over China, by the Shui-On Group and its imitators, an updated, hip version of the so-called “old streets”—neighborhoods with “traditional architecture” selling “traditional snacks and goods”—which can be found in just about every Chinese city.

Xintiandi attempted to create a sense of place with its architecture, a sense of mystery with its labyrinthine structure, and even a Paris-style sidewalk café atmosphere in the more high-traffic areas—were tourists and residents would go to kan renao 看热闹 or people watch. Given that Xintiandi was trying to choreograph a certain brand of international upper-crust street life, as such, their programming is more about creating a sense of “happening” within the public spaces of its properties, rather than constructing a white cube in which art should happen.

Cindy Ye, deputy general manager of central marketing at Xintiandi, who has been in charge of brand marketing and PR events for Xintiandi since 2003, says that the cultural component (in particular a project with French street artist JR), was vital in re-branding of the space as a place for Shanghai residents. JR’s project helped show them that it was more than just a place to get elbowed by flag-waving tour groups. “People used to think that Xintiandi was just a tourist place, not a place for local people, but this [project] changed their perceptions. Actually, JR came to Shanghai for a solo exhibition at the Power Station of Art, but our project [inside out in 2014] got more attention and was extended to several public spots.” The installation added a photo-booth component to the artist’s signature formula of pasting black and white portraits on to public buildings, so visitors could have their photos taken and then pasted onto the building facades and on an open area of the square.

These projects are key in that they tap into a desire for participation in public life which is not typically addressed through state museums and both the interactivity and new media art has proven to be a successful way to generate both interest and social media mileage. For instance, Paul Cocksedge’s installation Kiss, as part of the “Merrykissmas Xintiandi” program in Shanghai in 2013, invited couples to stand on a platform in the square and kiss. The proximity of their lips triggered the Christmas tree behind them to light up.[ii] Returning in 2014 it attracted over 8,000 visitors, each kiss prompting a donation by the of 1 Euro to charities. Due to its popularity, “Kiss” has had successive iterations, the traditional tree being replaced by different kinds of light installations, which is perhaps fitting given that China should be able to celebrate the holiday in its own way. The success of Kiss, lead to a collaboration with the Fête des Lumières Lyon and the Amsterdam Light Festival to create an outdoor exhibition of light-based works entitled LUMIÈRES SHANGHAI. Says Ye, “LUMIÈRES SHANGHAI was an idea initiated by us, but with inspiration from the Fête des Lumières Lyon, which was one of our strategic partners as well as Amsterdam Light Festival. We have more than 20 art pieces in public areas in Shanghai. Some of these are being shown for the first time in Shanghai, including some commissions by young artists.” Stand out works from past years include Dutchanee Ongarjsiri’s “Fancy Garden,” totems of geometric shapes which change according to the wind, and Janet Echelman’s “1.26” floating nets of polyester fibre and colored lighting which fluctuate in response to the climate.

Says Ye, “There is no indoor museum, so place-making is more important for us and all of our public areas become the mainstage. We focus on visual arts, performing arts music, F & B, culinary arts, and design which is always very important, [because of our involvement as a host of] fashion week.”

With a strong visual impact, these free public events not only help elevate the profile of the brand but also tend to create an uptick in sales, so that these initiatives help fund themselves. Says Ye, “Depending upon the scale of the event, we usually see a 10 percent increase in traffic at the minimum and for the events that are very successful we can see an increase of 20 or 30 percent.” Ye explains that, as part of their rent, the tenants in their properties pay a “promotion fee,” which is about 4-8 percent of the total rent, a basic “rental” fee and then a proportion of the sales of the tenants also go to Shui On. In this way, the developer is incentivized to create dynamic programming as they a) have to spend the promotion money given by the tenants, and b) actually benefit financially from the increased spending in shops. Sometimes Xintiandi also partners with tenants to produce a specific installation or event and may even bring in outside sponsors.

Programming is of course targeted towards different communities says Ye, “For instance, Hubindao (Shanghai) is focused on an international lifestyle and family; Xintiandi is a renowned landmark in the city and it is very international; it’s very edgy and is a good stage to test how global target audience will respond. As for Wuhan, Nanjing, and Chongqing, the way those audiences perceive art is different. For instance, we have the Xintiandi World Music Festival. World music is not mainstream in China, but in Shanghai, we can go for the best acts, for the other cities, they are not as good at appreciating world music, so we mix in Chinese bands so they will feel more comfortable.”

A project in the southern city of Foshan highlights this kind of adapted programming with an installation by contemporary artist Gu Wenda, which appealed to traditional Confucian values. Gu’s “Genetics and Metamorphosis, 2014” at Foshan Lingnantiandi, involved a group of students writing out the contents of the Classic of Filial Piety (a Confucian text), one character at a time on a series of red silk banners which formed a giant red and black silk installation, thus combining contemporary art with culturally familiar content.

By contrast, the art-themed retail brand K11, seems to be more focused on creating an association with the “high art” spectrum of the contemporary art world, though nonetheless showcasing some of the more colorful and approachable works by artists within the contemporary art ecology. Founded by art collector and businessman Adrian Cheng, K11 has a network across many Chinese cities including Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tianjin, Shenyang, and Wuhan. K11’s Chi Art Space in Shanghai produces fairly high-quality programming, with a commitment to showcasing young rising stars such as Chen Tianzhuo, Bi Rongrong, Cheng Ran, and Aajiao and foreign artists such as Katharina Grosse, Dumb Type, and Isaac Julien. K11 has also collaborated with curators such as Hans Ulrich Obrist, Khairuddin Hori, Amira Ghad and partnered with the New Museum and Centre Pompidou. It has been actively collecting art through its K11 foundation, much of which is displayed throughout the various K11 retail properties. With an active lecture series, and the publication of proper catalogues, K11 functions much more like an actual museum within a mall.

These days the incorporation of retail and cultural space is becoming a common model. For instance, Tai Kwun Center for Heritage and Arts in Hong Kong and the Sea World Arts and Culture Center (i.e. Design Society for which the V&A was a strategic partner), the Powerlong Museums (Shanghai, Hangzhou), and the Himalayas Museum are examples of contemporary art institutions which are either in major retail spaces or feature retail space as part of a cultural center. Tai Kwun, which is funded by the Jockey Club, manages to cover a large part of its facilities and operational expenses through the rental of the shop spaces, revenues from restaurant operators, and venue hire.

Recently while working on a museum planning project, in southern China, we were shocked when the client stated that they wanted 120,000 square meters of space for a planned museum—an area which is twice the size of New York’s Met. Though this seemed exorbitant, my colleagues informed me that a good proportion of this space would be used for other purposes, either rental or otherwise.

So, perhaps it’s time to rethink the concept of art in malls. Though there is a strong discourse of outreach in the West, about the need to reach the “non-visitors,” we somehow tend to think that putting art in a shopping mall, in a place with good foot traffic, where people will “just happen upon art,” is something which is beneath art. Perhaps what we fail to realize is that there are different kinds of audiences with different levels of engagement. For those who want a more in-depth learning experience, there is still the traditional museum, but in the meantime, retail spaces are doing a much better job than most government bodies in China in terms of providing access to interesting public art—some of them have even managed to find a way to make culture fund itself—which is nothing short of miraculous.

[i] Asia has a very different relationship to the shopping mall. For one, the design of Asian shopping malls is generally much more innovative, because there are so many which have been recently built. They are seen as valid places for entertainment, with cinema offerings and many desirable restaurants, rather than the average glum-looking food court.

[ii] The Today Art Museum did a similar kind of event for Valentine’s Day “Today We Hug,” where they asked couples, family members and friends, to hug for 13 minutes straight, to bring up the topic of relationships and emotional connectedness.