Before my first visit to Beijing a few years ago, I checked in with a friend who travels there frequently for business to ask for her list of must-dos. The Chinese capital is roughly the size of the entire state of New Jersey, and with only a few days in town, I needed some help narrowing down the sprawl. When her emailed list arrived, it contained some of the usual suspects—the Forbidden Palace complex, Tiananmen Square, a good restaurant for Peking Duck, a day trip out to the Great Wall—plus a place I had never heard of: the 798 Art Zone. “It’s the hub of Beijing’s contemporary art scene,” she enthused, “and one of the most exciting areas in town.” So I ventured out to 798 (also known as Dashanzi) on that trip—and on every trip since, including a recent one. What I have found over the years is a place that celebrates creativity, brings to light some emerging aspects of the culture and—like China itself—is growing by leaps and bounds.
As China’s economy has taken its place on the world stage, so too have the Chinese become a powerful market for luxury goods, from fashion to cars to wine. Over the last two decades, the art scene has also grown in two ways: Not only are wealthy Chinese now snapping up major international works, but foreign collectors also have greater access to Chinese art and antiquities and an increased awareness of contemporary Chinese artists. According to Art Price, which monitors the market, in 2010, China became the world leader in fine art auction sales (a position long held by the United States), while Artnet.com reported that in December 2012, seven of the ten most expensive artworks sold at auction were by Chinese artists—and four of those artists outsold Claude Monet.
When the 798 District was first built, the idea of a Chinese luxury market would have been unthinkable. Constructed in the late 1950s in cooperation with the East Germans—and based on a German Bauhaus–style design—the Dashanzi complex housed dozens of factories and work/living units; at its height, it was serviced by upwards of 20,000 workers. In the 1960s, the complex was divided into different zones (one of which was Zone 798) and, by the early 1990s, the factories stopped production altogether. Around the same time, Beijing’s growing, post–Cultural Revolution contemporary and avant-garde art communities—which often had to work on the fringes of the city, away from prying eyes—were looking for new studio spaces. The high ceilings, large windows and abundant natural light of the form-meets-function factories made for perfect galleries and work spaces, so by the turn of the millennium, institutions like the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the U.S.–owned Timezone 8 Art Books publishing house were joining artists, designers, photographers and cafe and boutique owners in the Zone.
On my first visit to 798 some years back, I remember wandering in and out of small galleries and shops that, while featuring everything from traditional ceramics to trendy souvenirs, all seemed to share a similar edgy, independent vibe. This time, though, things were different. Thanks to an increased profile for the Zone, and minus any rent control regulations, many working artists have now fled for less expensive digs, making way for a host of boldface international players and a more upscale atmosphere.
For help making sense of the current 798 District, I turned to New York expat Megan Connolly, who, along with her sister KC Vienna, runs Beijing-based ChART Contemporary (chartcontemporary.com), which aims to bridge the gap between East and West through art and culture. An expert in Chinese art and a former gallery manager and Sotheby’s consultant, Connolly has seen the boom in China firsthand. Her company offers three different levels of private, custom-curated art tours based on levels of interest: Lasting two to three hours, “Curious” gives you a taste of contemporary art and culture (this is typically the most popular option, with business travelers looking to add a modern component to a history-heavy sightseeing day); “Committed” delves deeper into the topics, and is ideal for collectors, students or those with specific interests; and “Fanatic” connects dedicated art lovers and buyers with working artists and private collectors through studio visits and insider access to events and home collections. (ChART has also organized team-building events for corporate retreats, and offers experiences that focus on design and architecture.)
For Connolly, the must-sees of 798 vary depending on your tastes and what shows are happening (check with your hotel concierge for the latest listings), but some favorites include the Pace Gallery, whose cavernous, interconnecting galleries are well suited for showcasing large pieces. (On my recent visit, the walls were adorned with the meditative seascapes of noted Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto.) Italian-owned Gallery Continua is notable both for its edgy shows and its “architecturally significant space,” Connelly explained—which I experienced firsthand in an exhibit that had two-story-high stairs we could climb atop—while the excellent Ullens Center for Contemporary Art is often Connolly’s first stop for the variety of local and international names it features. After strolling through Ullens’ galleries—filled with everything from politically charged country-scene paintings to oversized, brightly colored plastic animals and “blood”-splattered stiletto heels—I made a beeline for the Center’s design shop, where those not in the market for art can stock up on design-conscious souvenirs like silk scarves emblazoned with city maps or speakers that fold, origami-style.
After our tour, Connelly and I chatted over tea and snacks at the Timezone 8 Cafe on the Zone’s main drag. As the sounds of Italian, French and British-accented English wafted around us, she counseled that some emerging artists to look out for include Zhao Zhao, an apprentice of the world-renowned Ai Weiwei; Gu Yeli, who refurbishes antique furniture with brightly colored wool; and Huang Xiaoliang, a photographer who explores themes of childhood and city transformation. “But what’s exciting is that along with the local artists, lots of international artists are trying to show here to entice the Chinese market,” she explained. “Plus, you might come across a Picasso or Warhol somewhere, since locals are looking for those types of pieces.” Connolly also recommended a visit to Cai Chang Di, an up-and-coming arts area about 15 minutes away from the 798 District, and she was full of savvy tips on how to purchase art and what makes the best investment. Though buying wasn’t on my agenda for that trip, the energy and excitement of 798 was definitely infectious—and given how fast things are growing, I made a note to start doing my research for the next time around.
Where to Stay:
• China World Summit Wing. 1 Jianguomenwai Avenue, Beijing. Tel.: 86-10-6505-2299; shangri-la.com
• The Opposite House. The Village, Building 1, 11 Sanlitun Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing. Tel.: 86-10-6417-6688; theoppositehouse.com
Where to Eat:
• S.T.A.Y. - Simple Table Alléno Yannick. 29 Zizhuyuan Road, Level 1, Beijing. Reservations recommended. Tel.: 86-10-6841-2211, ext 6727; shangri-la.com
• Duck de Chine. 1949, 98 Jinbaojie, Dongcheng District, Beijing. Tel.: 86-10-6521-2221; elite-concepts.com
Some tips from Albert Xu, Les Clefs d’Or member and Chief Concierge at China World Summit Wing:
Traffic in Beijing can be extremely heavy, with peak hours typically from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., and again from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. At these times, it can take close to 45 minutes to travel under five miles, so be sure to allot plenty of time between appointments.
If your leisure time is limited, our top three museum recommendations are the National Art Museum (there’s also a great Chinese lunch buffet restaurant in the museum’s back building); the Red Gate Gallery, set in one of the few remaining towers of the historic city walls; and the new, spaceship-like Beijing World Art Museum, which hosts traveling exhibits.