BEIJING – Shop owners, art curators, foreign visitors and local artists wave to curator James Elaine as he pushes his bicycle through a decommissioned military factory zone turned bohemian artist neighborhood here called “Dashanzi Art District,” or more typically, the “798 Art District.”
Once a collaboration between the Soviet Union, East Germans and Chinese, this 5.3 million-square-foot post-industrial space sprawls over many city blocks in a variety of concrete warehouses. It’s a paradise for a flourishing arts community and a Beijing outpost of the global hipster movement one finds in places such as Brooklyn, N.Y., Portland, Ore., and Berlin. Elaine explains that leading up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 the Chinese government loosened its oversight on the 798 (and incorporated it for their public relations purposes), which is now filled with cafes, galleries, museums and design stores.
Elaine is the grandson of foreign doctors who worked in a hospital founded by Southern Baptists in China’s Shandong Province. “I love China,” he said. “I love Chinese people, food, the culture. I just had a love for it because my mom (born in the northeastern Shandong Province) loved it.” And sometimes his two passions – his Christian faith and contemporary art – converge in interesting and odd ways. He started attending a new local Christian church that he found meeting in a hospital one day when he went to visit a friend, and it has become his church home.
The church is located within the arts districts in Beijing, but, like many evangelical protestant churches, many of the members are not particularly well-versed in contemporary art. “All over the world the Christian church is, for the most part, uneducated about and afraid of contemporary art,” Elaine said. “My church is newly planted and is strategically placed at the center of the main Beijing gallery and studio districts. But no one in the church is really aware of that.”
So he’s given several walking art tours, showing people different galleries, exhibitions and lunch spots. He plans to do more with the “Art Bridge” tour. American Christians in China cannot invite Chinese locals to church but can meet them on such tours for lunches. “I want to create a place, in a legal context, where our two basic communities can meet, share and get to know each other,” Elaine said. “That’s the bridge I want to be building: people to people, China to U.S., foreigners to locals, Christians to art, cultures to cultures.”
China’s Focus on Creative Culture
Perhaps strangely, China is looking to creative industries to sustain its economy. The Shanghai Composite stock market declined lost 32 percent of its value in June-July and the Shenzhen market (with more tech companies) was down 41 percent during the same period. In response, the government halted trading on 200 Chinese stocks, $1.4 trillion worth of shares, and bought shares to try to prevent price drops and it also planned to send $40 billion in stimulus spending to prop up parts of the economy that are slowing.
The communist party in China is also feeling pressure as GDP has declined to less than 7.3 percent this year down from 10.4 percent in 2010. With some saying the era of “Cheap China” and “Dirty Manufacturing” is over, the central government is focusing on expanding creative culture, adding 4,000 museums, galleries and art centers in the past five years and creating multi-million-dollar tech incubators and “creative clusters.”
The government is funding book fairs, film festivals and promotes artistic works by writers and artists of whom it approves. “China used to be a factory. Now, it’s a large market,” said Marina Guo, head of Arts Management at the Shanghai Theatre Academy. “We are trying to change it from an industrial economy to a creative economy.”
China’s bold ambition startles the West at times. And, certainly, Chinese companies face uphill battles to develop competitive manufactured products with Western peers or to create tech companies that rival Silicon Valley. Some suggest that China’s censorship and blocking of Western press reports and tech companies makes the country less creative in coming up with its own dominant tech startups, top museums and universities. At the same time, the religious identity within China is growing rapidly.
Experts suggest all religions are growing rapidly in China with Christianity growing fastest. The Pew Research Center estimates there are 58 million Protestants and 9 million Catholics in China. Researchers at Purdue University in Indiana say the Christian church is growing 10 percent per year on average since 1980 and could reach 250 million Christians by 2030, making China’s Christian population the largest in the world. Elaine believes religion as well as contemporary art plays a vital role in the evolution of China and its changing population.
“Artists are, in the beginning, on the bottom of society in all cultures but creativity has power to elevate and to change things, and things are changing in China,” Elaine says. “I think Telescope can play an important role in the art community in helping steer creativity to productive ends.”
Curating in an emerging art world
As an ambassador of sorts Elaine has fully immersed himself in the culture, as well as the Chinese art world, says John Silvis, a photographer and part-owner of the Outlet gallery in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, and a friend of Elaine’s. “He is the only curator, period, that I know of who is exploring and meeting artists in the far regions of China.”
Elaine left his comfort zone curating at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Drawing Center in New York City to move to China in 2008 to help develop the art scene there, first with the Hammer and then on his own. After several business trips to China, he realized he wanted to move there.
“The art world here was very stimulating to me,” he said. “My focus is emerging art, which usually means younger people, though not always. People, who are emerging, not exposed. And China had an emerging art scene, an emerging cultural scene, an emerging economy, was emerging politically, everything was emerging in China…it was very exciting to me.”
At first, he didn’t know how long he would stay in China working for Hammer. So he started curating shows for galleries and museums in the United States and, later, started independently consulting some collectors on purchasing Chinese work, emerging work. “My passion was to be a cultural bridge for China to the West, to help these artists get out, sell their work, have exhibitions,” he said, “and to show the West what is going on here and that they better pay attention before it is too late.”
In 2012, Elaine opened Telescope, a nonprofit gallery in an emerging arts neighborhood on the outskirts of Beijing (even outside the 798) called Cao Changdi. “It’s closer to a real and older China,” Elaine explained. “It’s where village people cross paths with the international and Chinese art world. It is super interesting, at least to me.” On a day there last Summer, one young painter rolled up on a moped and another on a fixed-wheel bicycle to join Elaine for a shared dinner and to discuss upcoming shows. Their exhibits at Elaine’s gallery had helped expose their work to other art institutions in the West and led to other fellowships and exhibitions.
The small gallery (in a now defunct massage parlor) is tucked away on a dusty street teeming with mopeds, bicycles, fruit stands and tasty local eateries. It’s one of the few nonprofit galleries in China, a place where art is often being co-opted by capitalists and always at risk of being controlled by communists.
Elaine travels the country looking for breakthrough artistic talent from the art schools. Visual art is an area where some Chinese artists are finding international acclaim, while creative talents in other fields such as literature, journalism, contemporary music and film remain more stymied by government policies.
A nonprofit model
“There are always more artists than places to show and people to buy,” Elaine said. “But in China, there’s also no nonprofit system, no philanthropy — people don’t understand what it is, and they wouldn’t trust it if they did. So, I thought, on top of being an opportunity for artists by providing exhibitions, I could also create a model to teach artists and collectors alike about giving back to society through financial and other types of support, and to use my experience to help artists in envisioning, realizing and installing a show, as well as mentoring them professionally and in life.”
The first show he curated at Telescope included work by a young artist named Deng Tai, who died in 2012. “His dream was to be an artist and have a show,” Elaine said. Though his mother didn’t allow Deng to go to art school, she has donated over $6,000 to the gallery to help other struggling young artists like her son.
Elaine travels throughout China, visiting artist studios and schools. “But Beijing is the SoHo of China. Everyone wants to be here, and they all want to get their work out into the world,” he says. “They want to be a part of the international art community and conversation.” He ranks Beijing on the same league as other top contemporary art cities, such as New York City, London, Berlin and Los Angeles. Within China, Shanghai is a distant second. “China’s been closed for so long. It is hard for these artists to know where to go, who to trust,” he says. “They have a lot to say but just have to be more creative and careful how they say it” because of government censorship.
Dan Siedell, an art historian and presidential scholar at the King’s College in New York City (where I am also a professor), calls Elaine “an art world big-leaguer” for his work at large, powerful art institutions. He says Elaine is a “curator in the classic definition of the term” who works on the front lines of finding new artists from small studios and towns that might be interesting to collectors, dealers and galleries.
“He is one of those art world professionals who enables the work of artists to be made public, to be brought to the attention of people who care,” Siedell said. “And he is also one of those professionals who can discern trends across the art world community that others cannot see.”
Siedell said that, “like miners, dealers descend upon China, and the danger is that they just strip mine the communities for artifacts to sell to Euro-American clients or sell Warhols to Asian clients.” He sees Elaine is doing something different by cultivating a community, fostering and preserving a creative culture, and offering a humanizing presence in the new wild East part of the art world.
Elaine said he’s not partial to any one medium but to emerging art. “It can be messy and exciting and even revelatory at times.” He attends the graduate shows at CAFA (Central Academy of Fine Arts Beijing), traditionally a painting school, as well as other important art academies across China. Recently at CAFA he found four pieces he liked that were video and animation.
“Video, for some years now, has been really breaking out, as well as other less traditional disciplines, such as performance and experimental sound work,” he said. “In China, there’s a lot of stuff happening that’s new and fresh, Chinese and not so Chinese, traditional and breaking rules, and in all mediums.”
Although China is not seen as an individualistic society, artists are pushing ahead, sometimes in rebellious and maverick ways. The artist Ai Weiwei has become an enemy of the state, a dissident against his homeland. Other Chinese writers, bloggers and artists experience a similar status while either living within or outside China.
Elaine said he sometimes finds young artists angry at the isolation and censorship in their home country. Some of them want little to do with traditional copy-cat calligraphy and painting. “I hate to see artists basically throw away their Chinese past or identity,” he said. “But since China destroyed the will and culture of the people for so many years, there is not a lot for them to desire to hang on to. Many are tired and angry and just want out.”
Paul Glader is associate professor and executive director of the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute at The King’s College in New York City.