• It’s impossible to do business in China, American art market grandee Arne Glimcher said of his Pace Gallery closing in Beijing, with trade war the latest blow
• Another gallerist whose space in Beijing recently closed also cites threat of tariffs, but a veteran art dealer in China says business has never been so good
Art dealers are usually unrelentingly bullish about China’s market potential.
Sure, China has a lot of restrictions on doing business compared with the openness of Hong Kong, but Western galleries (most recently Perrotin, Lisson and Almine Rech) have continued to open branches there to promote their artists in a market with the second-highest number of billionaires in the world, and to capture any growth in domestic transactions that may arise from tighter restrictions on capital outflow.
So you don’t often hear outright dismissals of the potential of China’s art market like the fiery comments made this week by industry grandee Arne Glimcher, the American founder of Pace Gallery.
In an interview with ARTnews, an American art magazine, Glimcher said Pace had recently closed its 11-year-old, 22,000 sq ft gallery in Beijing’s 798 Art District because “it’s impossible to do business in mainland China right now and it has been for a while”.
The last straw, he said, was the trade war between the US and China, which has seen the Office of the US Trade Representative threaten to impose tariffs on imports to the United States of artwork and antiques from China.
While new tariffs have been suspended, Glimcher said China’s existing taxes on art and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on conspicuous consumption meant “the mainland Chinese are not buying in China […] If they are, they [are] buying for their apartments in other places in the world and they come to Hong Kong anyway.”
In 2008, Pace was among the first Western galleries to open in mainland China, and it represents more local artists there than most of its international competitors. The gallery in 798 was overseen by Leng Lin, Pace’s Hong Kong and China president, and was a symbol of its commitment to nurturing collectors and artists in China such as Zhang Xiaogang, Yin Xiuzhen and Song Dong.
Zhang, who had a solo exhibition at Pace Gallery’s New York space in 2018, told the Post that he doesn’t expect to be personally affected by the closure.
After Glimcher’s comments were published, the gallery issued a painstakingly diplomatic statement that avoided saying anything negative about China and put the closure down to a new model of exhibiting art in China’s public art spaces and new museums instead of at its own space.
The 81-year-old Glimcher’s downbeat assessment of the China market is reminiscent of Lorenzo Rudolf’s vigorous criticism of the Singapore art market in 2018 when he was closing down art fair Art Stage Singapore.
Rudolf provoked a strong reaction from industry peers, who accused him of obfuscating the fair’s own mismanagement by putting all the blame on the city (although Singapore has yet to prove Rudolf wrong with the recent delay of Art SG, another art fair.)
Glimcher’s remarks have had a mixed reception in Beijing, where some galleries and auction houses boast of “business as usual” despite the trade war and the economic slowdown. But at least one of Glimcher’s peers is also pulling out of Beijing, citing similar concerns.
Pascal de Sarthe, whose de Sarthe Gallery operates in Paris and Hong Kong, and who represents many Chinese artists, said: “In August last year, we were forced out of our Beijing gallery space in Caochangdi, one of the two main gallery districts in the city.
“This allowed us to rethink how to do business in China and ultimately led us to the same conclusion as Pace – to operate only a private viewing room while maintaining our team, instead of reopening a new gallery space.”
“We should ask ourselves, are galleries – as a business model – obsolete in this environment?” he added.
De Sarthe said restrictions on the flows of money, and high import and sales taxes, had already “reduced tremendously” the secondary market in China for modern and post-war art by Western and Chinese artists.
Unlike contemporary art produced within China, works in those categories are more likely to be sourced abroad. In addition, he cited the risks of China and the US imposing further tariffs as a reason not to keep a gallery in China.
Veteran art dealer Meg Maggio, who splits her time between Hong Kong and Beijing and who set up her first gallery in the Chinese capital in the 1990s, doesn’t agree that the market has turned sluggish.
“There is no slowdown and business is not bad at all. I have never been so busy. Perhaps it is because I am on the ground and have a great local team.
“I have stopped going to international art fairs. I am only doing five fairs this year in China and Hong Kong. The domestic market is booming and more and more people in this massive country are becoming interested in art,” Maggio said.