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Gallery Weekend Beijing offers welcome relief after six very quiet months for Chinese retailers

Even reduced due to travel and shipping restrictions, this summer’s Gallery Weekend Beijing (GWBJ) was a welcome burst of activity as the only major event in what turned out to be a very quiet semester for Chinese galleries.

While art venues in the Chinese capital have been closed much more briefly and quietly than in the commercial center of Shanghai, the gradual closures and looming anxiety have fomented a dour mood among collectors. Beijing’s main 798 art cluster officially closed for most of May, although some gallery owners were able to access their premises if they were not locked in their homes. “We actually closed the gallery from mid-April, then reopened for a week, then closed again in May,” says Sammi Liu of her Beijing-based gallery Tabula Rasa, which also has a space in London. “We were understaffed. [due to quarantine], and since there were strict restrictions to enter 798, it was quite deserted. I felt there was no point in keeping the gallery open if people didn’t want to come. I would say it has been difficult for business; people are not in the mood to appreciate or buy art. We only opened one salon in the first half of 2022.”

Liu, who is also on the academic committee of GWBJ, adds, “However, I think we are lucky to have six months free rent from 798, which really helps.” Lockdown rent support for galleries has been largely at the discretion of landlords In the smaller gallery center of Caochangdi, art spaces reopened later and, as in 2020, missed Gallery Weekend.

This year, 22 galleries and five institutions from Beijing joined GWBJ, which closed earlier this month after being postponed until May. Notable among the most notable were Liu Yefu at Magician Space, Liang Yuanwei at Beijing Commune, and the Inside-Out Art Museum’s special project documenting late 20th-century Chinese art circles. Seven galleries joined the GWBJ Visitor Sector, up from eight in 2021 and the 12 that originally signed up for 2022. Concentrated in two adjacent buildings this year, the sector was easier to navigate than last time.

Speaking of both the GWBJ program and the broader art market, GWBJ Director Amber Yifei Wang said, “Despite the complex and volatile transportation situation, exhibitors were still confident.” Along with the five galleries that dropped out, others have changed their exhibition plans due to domestic and international art shipping delays. As Wang says, “The transportation situation this year is not optimistic, which has also caused our existing and potential participating galleries to encounter many obstacles in carrying out their exhibition projects.” It anticipates an increase in growth next year “when the transport situation returns to normal”.

With lower rates than other major art fairs, GWBJ offers visiting galleries the opportunity for a month-long exhibition in 798. Area highlights included Chou Yu-Cheng at Kiang Malingue; Rirkrit Tiravanija and Thomas Bayrle at Gladstone Gallery; and Daniel Crews-Chubb at Timothy Taylor.

It was Almine Rech’s first time at GWBJ and the gallery recorded strong sales for works by American abstract painter Andrea Maria Breiling – her first exhibition in China. According to a spokesperson for the gallery, which has space in Shanghai, participating in Gallery Weekend Beijing is a key step for Almine Rech to “further open up the northern Chinese market”. They add, “Each year, we exhibit artists from our gallery in Beijing in different projects, from institutional exhibitions to art fairs.” This year “everything went well […] Due to restrictions on international travel and the recent upsurge in epidemics in China, the majority of collectors are from Beijing.”

Since the start of this year, domestic travel conditions have been constantly changing, with trips to Beijing often requiring a quarantine of two to seven days upon arrival, conditions that only eased in late July. “Despite the continued impact of travel restrictions, we have surpassed VIP arrivals from last year, indicating that the number of potential local Beijing collectors continues to grow,” Wang said. The total number of visitors exceeded 120,000. Online, organizers set up a 3D viewing room and partnered with video app Douyin and influencer platform Little Red Book.

This spring was set to be Beijing’s first attempt at a cohesive arts season, overlapping GWBJ with major fairs JingArt and Beijing Dangdai, which were eventually canceled or postponed due to closures. Wang says that, in future editions, GWBJ “will not aim for absolute overlap with other arts events in terms of timing.”

“Having an art week is crucial, especially in the age of Covid,” adds Liu. “Art Week gives the public the motivation to get out and be social and appreciate art.”

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