China’s first modern art gallery turns 20

The Beijing-based Red Gate Gallery, billed as the oldest privately owned-and-run gallery in China, celebrated its 20th anniversary Saturday with “20 Years – Two Generations of Artists at Red Gate,” a sweeping retrospective of nearly 30 new and established artists.

According to founder and owner Brian Wallace, the exhibit is the perfect encapsulation of their experience over two tumultuous decades at the vanguard of China’s contemporary art scene.

“Though the technical definition of a generation is 25 years, everything moves so fast in China,” Wallace told the Global Times at Saturday’s vernissage, which featured an appearance and toast by the Australian ambassador, among other luminaries.

“We decided that 20 years was just the right amount of time to commemorate a ‘hand-off’ of sorts from one generation of artists to the next.”

Included in that former group are such big-name maestros as Lü Peng, curator of last year’s gargantuan Reshaping History, and Tan Ping, deputy chancellor of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), who told the Global Times that Red Gate has exhibited “incredible tenacity” amid a constantly shifting environment in China, both economically and in terms of regulation and censorship.

“So many of these 798 [Art Zone] galleries just pop in and out of existence,” Tan said. “They come on the scene with so much pomp and pageantry, and then three years later they’re gone. Who can last 20 years?”

Where politics are concerned, Wallace said that official pressure comes and goes, but that the overall environment for artists has become “much more open” over the past several years.

“Most artists are very subtle and understated when it comes to political statements,” he said. “Because we’re located in this very traditional Chinese locale” – the Dongbianmen Watchtower, the last remaining outpost of several Ming Dynasty-era (1368-1644) fortifications in Beijing – “we work very closely with the Bureau of Cultural Relics, and we’ve always maintained a good relationship with them and with authorities overall.”

Wallace, a soft-spoken 54-year-old native Australian, chalks up the establishment of Red Gate’s unique place – literally – in the Chinese art world to good circumstance.

“At that time, young artists didn’t have any options for showing their work, except for temporary rental spaces at places like the Ancient Observatory, the Temple of Longevity and the Confucian Testing Center,” he said.

“When we were looking to set up a gallery [in 1991], we first inquired at the Observatory, who turned us away but told us to ask at the Watchtower, which had just reopened to the public at that time.”

Wallace said that back then, the principal challenges were mostly financial (“there was basically no market but thankfully things were very cheap”), though a steady trickle of sales, including some to a fellow Australian during Red Gate’s very first show, ensured their survival as the lone contemporary art gallery in Beijing – and, likely, all of China.

“For a long time, we were it,” he said. “A few years later, you had Chinese Art and Archive Warehouse and Courtyard Gallery, and then in the early 2000s, 798 started becoming what it is now.”

798’s emergence was part of the explosive boom in Chinese contemporary art that characterized much of the past 10 years, an era which Wallace described as providing “healthy competition” for Red Gate but which did eventually precipitate a major market crash alongside the 2008 financial crisis.

“The art market almost always follows the general economy,” he said. “Nowadays you see lots of collectors just buying art as an investment strategy – regardless of whether they know or even like the art – which is risky.”

Such lofty concerns, however, are hardly on the mind of Chen Chen, a 25-year-old photographer and CAFA student who was nominated by Tan to take place in 20 Years – his first-ever professional showing.

“Red Gate has such an important position in the contemporary art world,” Chen said.

“It’s always hard for artists to know if they should make the sacrifices needed to pursue their craft as a career – but seeing my work here now, I know it’s what I really want to do.”

The exhibition runs until August 24.

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