On Artist Residencies in China

by China Residencies
translated by Yang Zi 杨紫

There are thousands of artist residencies on every continent—even in Antarctica. They exist to give artists time and space to create, connect, explore, and often discover a new part of the world. While Europe and North America boast several residencies programs with hundred-year histories, residencies in China are younger, fewer and further between. Today, New York City alone has over 70 different active residency programs (source: Mapping Residencies, Issue #1); Beijing is starting to catch up with a dozen programs currently hosting Chinese and international artists (see more at China Residencies).

The oldest artist residencies in China emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, scattered all across the Mainland’s megalopolises and minuscule villages. In 1999, Ineke Guðmundsson, a curator from the Netherlands, founded the Chinese-European Art Center on the southern port city of Xiamen in partnership with Qin Jian, the multimedia department chair at Xiamen University’s College of Art. The following year, a poet from Sweden, Anna Mellergård, paired with the businesswoman Wu Yuerong to create TCG Nordica in Kunming. Meanwhile on the outskirts of Jingdezhen, a duo of American and Chinese ceramicists and professors, Wayne Higby and Jackson Li, dreamt of creating a haven for pottery-making in the Sanbao valley. Around that same time, Jay Brown left the US to work with the Nature Conservancy in China. He came upon a small town outside of Lijiang and stayed on to start Lijiang Studio by leasing an abandoned farmhouse from the elderly patriarch of a neighborhood family, who has since become a grandfather figure of sorts to the artists who come through to work on projects deeply rooted in the region’s ecology and the surrounding Naxi community. In Beijing, Red Gate Gallery’s Brian Wallace noticed that visiting Australian artists on Asialink-supported initiatives were wasting their creative time and energy finding places to live, work, and simply to get their bearings. He decided to rent a suite of studios and apartments to create a permanent place for these transient artists, officially establishing Red Gate Residency in 2001.

Over the years, as China’s art world has expanded at breakneck speed, new artist residencies have popped up all over the country as offshoots of commercial galleries, museums, universities, real estate developments and even luxury restaurants and hotels. As arts districts and creative zones mushroomed in and around major cities throughout the country, artist residencies became catalysts for international exchange in the newly developed 798, 501, and M50-type art districts. The artists Shen Jingdong and Coral Lu started up multiple residencies in Songzhuang, Nanjing’s Fangshan Art Zone, and Hohhot in Inner Mongolia. International galleries like Urs Meile in Beijing’s Caochangdi and Pantocrator in Shanghai’s Moganshan neighborhoods invite established and emerging artists. Massive new art spaces backed by real estate funding like Beijing’s Inside-Out Museum beckon experimental artists to the very edges of town. Residencies also collide with privately-funded art centers in Shenzhen, where Da Wang Culture Highland invites artists to stay in the middle of a mountainous nature preserve on a decommissioned water-bottling plant.

Increasingly, residencies are becoming facets of hybrid cultural tourism organizations, like the Schoolhouse at Mutianyu near the Great Wall, where a glassblowing studio and art gallery find their place alongside a restaurant, a guest house and an organic farm. The venue also hosts conferences, weddings, and occasional high profile visitors like Michelle Obama. Artists-in-residence at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel also share an address with globe-trotting tourists on the Bund in Shanghai, where two entire floors of the newly renovated Renaissance-style building are designed as live-in studios.

China’s regional and local governments are also starting to show interest in fostering cultural diplomacy—sometimes on a spectacular scale. The Guanlan Original Printmaking Base transformed an entire Hakka village into artist housing, and built an airplane hangar-sized workspace filled with state-of-the-art printmaking equipment. The town inaugurated the equally massive ChinaPrint Art Museum, and is currently preparing for the 5th Printmaking Biennial. Guanlan isn’t the only residency to focus on a particular discipline: The Three Shadows Photography center runs multiple darkrooms, The Pottery Workshop teaches highly-specialized throwing and glazing techniques, and both The Chronus Art Center and Tsinghua’s Art & Science Media Lab are dedicated to furthering interdisciplinary experiments between artists, designers, scientists and technologists.

Out of all these eclectic spaces, the small surge in community-oriented artist-run nonprofits popping up in residential neighborhoods throughout Beijing’s hutongs and outskirts is generating some of the most conceptually exciting residency projects. Relative newcomers like the Institute For Provocation and I:project space as well as short-term apartment-based residencies A307 and Apartment of Dreams Come True are starting to erase the outdated and unnecessary divisions between Chinese and foreign artists, and between the art world and the real world.

Overall, the field of artist residencies in China is quickly becoming professional. Although many programs in the Mainland are faced with challenges common to most arts organizations (raising money, coping with ever-rising rents and retaining talented, multicultural staff), as host organizations refine their missions and seek out creative, sustainable funding models, the caliber of opportunities available for artists will continue to grow.

A map of residency locations in mainland China. Image: Kira Simon-Kennedy.
A view of Guanlan Original Printmaking Base, Shenzhen. Photo: Kira Simon-Kennedy.

A view of Inside-Out Museum, Beijing. Photo: Kira Simon-Kennedy.

A view of the Lijiang Studio residency space. Photo: Kira Simon-Kennedy.
Artists’ studios at Red Gate Residency, Beijing. Photo: Kira Simon-Kennedy.
A studio at Red Gate Residency, Beijing. Photo: Kira Simon-Kennedy.
Residency studios at Inside-Out Museum, Beijing. Photo: Kira Simon-Kennedy.
Kira Simon-Kennedy with Jay Brown of Lijiang Studio and a local artist. Photo: Crystal Ruth Bell..
A view of TCG Nordica, Kunming. Photo: Kira Simon-Kennedy.
A view of studio space at TCG Nordica, Kunming. Photo: Kira Simon-Kennedy.

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