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Where creativity battles costs

Updated: 2010-01-25 08:36
By Chitralekha Basu (China Daily)

Songzhuang artists' village has come a long way since its first painters arrived after being evicted from around Beijing's Old Summer Palace in 1994.

They settled in the village about 30 km east of downtown. Songzhuang has since swollen to cover about 100 sq km and can hardly even be called a village by now.

Before 2000, the government wasn't favorably disposed toward artists.

"But the village head was clever," recalls Zhang Jianjun, an artist and writer living in Songzhuang since 2001. "He foresaw that the artists would bring change and aid development."

When the art market peaked around 2005, some of the money went toward improving local living conditions. The rents rose, and facilities were improved, Zhang explains.

Today, the area hosts a state-of-the-art museum, several fortress-like private galleries, rows of studio-cum-residences, cafs, and framing and mounting stores. It's a dazzling example of fast-track development.

Artist Zhong Tianbing says huge tracts beside the main entrance are earmarked for high-end galleries, studios and an animation school.

The government wants to develop Songzhuang into a base for 25,000 artists. It hopes to create a flourishing creative industry with promotional events and organized art tourism.

"Commercialization is necessary if this place is to thrive," Zhong says. "It is another matter that more wealthy property owners and art traders will take up space, while the artists get sidelined. Songzhuang's core spirit is changing."

Contributing to Songzhuang's rise is the fall of other creative clusters. On Dec 19, the artists in the 008 Art Zone and Zhengyang Creative Art Zone lost their studio spaces. Hundreds of others in 13 art zones in Chaoyang district believe demolition is imminent.

Wang Diansen and his wife Liu Nan, both painters, moved to the village in 1999.

Wang is also an art marketer and real estate developer. He runs Front Art Gallery and Pioneer Team Restaurant, two of Songzhuang's hotspots.

The eatery's profits sustain Front Art, Songzhuang's first privately run gallery. Wang says he's happy to have earned a presence in the international art market.

He has also helped struggling artists, many of whom like the painter Yang Xiaobin, got their first break at Front Art before rising in prominence.

"The restaurant ... offers both food for eating and food for thought," Wang says. "It's a place for networking and meetings of minds."

Xu Yixin, who has designed several of the slick studios with built-in living spaces, recalls that the first few artists rented country homes from farmers.

Some of Xu's designs - sophisticated brick-lined structures with huge windows - illustrate his point. Art collectors and traders occupy some of his most charming buildings.

"It's tough creating a space where the art business and artists can coexist," Xu says. "One will have to make way for the other."