Interview with Meg Maggio
What constitutes an ‘art district’?
In Beijing, any area where artists’ studio spaces start to propagate, galleries, along with both private and public exhibit spaces quickly follow. And hence very simply, art districts are born; more de facto than planned.
How many art districts are there in Beijing?
More than I can count!
How did they develop?
In the city centre, the cost of real estate escalated in the years leading up to the 2008 Olympics. Resulting in an artist exodus to the city outskirts where rents were cheap and bricks and mortar left over from Beijing’s vast Olympic construction plans were in ready supply. Artists’ spaces quickly sprung up all around Beijing’s periphery, in the same way that itinerant worker “villages” quickly sprung up to house construction worker families from far-away provinces.
Are they supported by the government?
Many start as impromptu housing and work space among artist friends, which then morph if they grow to a sufficient critical mass into an area co-opted by local officials, designated for “culture industry”. Others start as converted warehouse space, due to the make-shift storage facilities needed during the pre-Olympic construction years.
Is there a danger that the more that spring up the less significant they become?
No, Beijing is vast enough to support a large number of artistic communities.
Why are they so focused in Beijing as opposed to any other city?
Beijing is traditionally seen as the capital of Chinese culture, it seems normal and natural for art districts to continue to emanate out from the vast richness of the cultural legacy of the Forbidden City and other imperial arts repositories of Beijing’s ancient city center. Beijing is also a center of learning and education with many of China’s most elite universities including national theatre, film, music and architecture four year under-grad universities and graduate schools located in Beijing. The deep and diverse creative talent pool in Beijing tends to support culture nation-wide.
How important is location?
The Eastern part of Beijing has since the 1970s been designated as the part of the city that would be open for ‘international exchange and development’. However, the universities and museums are all housed in the city center and the west and northwest. Beijing is a very fashion and trend conscious city. For the last few years, the trend was to move out to greener suburbs and build large homes in gated communities. This is now changing and people are moving back into the city center. The Western part of Beijing has traditionally housed the leadership, the military and the elite of Beijing. It continues to be an attractive area for Beijingers to live and is unlikely to become open to foreign art communities in the same way of the eastern sections of Beijing. But, who knows, Beijing is a city of rapid development where everything is possible and nothing can be completely ruled out.
Obviously they attract a lot of international interest but what is the attitude of the local population to the art districts?
Local publicity and policy is that each community has to be improved to offer residents a higher standard of quality of life, and such improvements should always include a cultural component. Beijingers frequent museums, theatres, concert halls, and art spaces regularly and understand that culture is an important legacy of the ancient capital that is Beijing. The Forbidden City and its Museum are at the heart and center of this sense of being a cultural capital. The art districts are really an extension of this.