The state of the arts in Shanghai: Gallery walks & self-guided tours

Culture, Travel | by David Perry
Posted: July 1st, 2011 | Updated: July 1st, 2011 | Comments

Shanghai's art scene, like that of China's at large, is a strange, often-frustrating, occasionally enchanting and almost-always fascinating cultural space. Galleries come and go, dealers look to make a killing with hot-commodity Chinese artists, artists struggle to please the market (and censors) enough to show work while also pushing their work in new—and not always commercially and politically "correct" directions—and all involved wait for things to really take off, often stymied by visitations by the Cultural Bureau and undermined by an art culture that has yet to develop a critical-minded foundation capable of supporting work that goes beyond State and Market-blessed notions of success.

Young Chinese artists, foreign curators, old-guard cranks, investors looking to flip work like they'd flip apartments, hangers-on, foreign artists, instant-millionaire art stars stuck repeating the work that made their names, uptight impresarios looking over their shoulders hoping that censors won't swoop in and ruin a good thing, Art Fair-goers, bohemians and trust-fund hipsters... much of the "scene" is about this particular historical moment's mix of oddballs and soi disant movers & shakers as it is about the actual work. Which is a pity, sure, but then again... good work itself might just outlive the moment and shape things to come.

In the next few weeks, I'll be hitting the streets of China's second city (at least when it comes to arts & culture; Beijing continues to reign as the undisputed champ of Chinese culture), checking out the latest arrangement of galleries and art spaces, from the commercial-minded to the more experimental in spirit, with an eye toward putting together a set of individual Shanghai gallery walking tours.

Geared towards the casual gallery-goer more than the aficionado, the tours are intended as loose guidelines for self-guided tours through some of Shanghai's most interesting—and walkable—neighborhoods. All of the walks should be doable within a morning or an afternoon, and all will include plenty of information on the neighborhoods where contemporary art—from throughout China and around the world—is finding a home in Shanghai.

Keep in mind that galleries are opening, closing and moving all the time, so if you've got your heart set on a particular gallery, it's always best to check its website—and better yet, call ahead—to confirm that they're still there and that they'll be open at the time you intend to visit.

Shanghai art galleries inhabit a fantastic range of urban spaces and, unlike the galleries of Beijing, many of them are scattered throughout easily walkable neighborhoods with plenty of places to eat, drink and shop.

Take the French Concession, where I'll begin with my first tours, where nearly twenty galleries have settled amid an eclectic mix of old villas, refurbished light industrial spaces, lane houses and small storefronts. Small, tree-lined pedestrian-friendly streets link up with larger thoroughfares like Huaihai Lu (formerly L'Avenue Joffre) and Huashan Lu, where a steady stream of taxis combine with a half-dozen some Metro stations to make transportation a breeze (a very crowded breeze at rush hour, it should be noted). By the end of it all, we'll have an updated Google Map pinpointing current Shanghai galleries and museums and art spaces of all sorts, and this post will grow with the individual posts on various art walks to, I hope, create a useful casual guide to any and all interested in seeing what the Shanghai arts scene is up to.
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