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Arthur Solway


by Barbara Pollack
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Down a little lane in the glorious French Concession section of Shanghai, you find the James Cohan Gallery, hidden away from street traffic. It is located in the ground floor of a mid-century garden villa, a collision of Art Deco grillwork and Cultural Revolution calligraphy painted over its front door. Inside, you find veteran art dealer Arthur Solway, who has taken up residence in this city since 2008, exhibiting artists never seen before in China, like Alex Katz, Yinka Shonibare and Bill Viola.

Recently, Artnet Magazine’s Barbara Pollack sat down with Solway in his serene garden courtyard in front of the gallery to review his success in China.

Barbara Pollack: Many galleries have recently announced that they are opening spaces in Hong Kong, but you started out here early on, a pioneer.

Arthur Solway: I first came to mainland China around October 2006, because Bill Viola had an exhibition at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo -- just two hours away -- and I wanted to see if he could have a museum show in Beijing, or if such a thing was even possible at the time. Then I came to Shanghai and I immediately fell in love with the city. I had been in New York for close to 28 years; I was 49 and I thought it was time for a radical change -- so I decided to move here. I started talking to Jim [Cohan] about it, and we did the first ShContemporary art fair in 2007 -- but that was just the beginning.

You’re right about other galleries. Gagosian Gallery is now firmly established in Hong Kong, White Cube just opened its doors, as did Ben Brown from London, and David Zwirner has a colleague operating an office in Hong Kong. Others like Emmanuel Perrotin and Simon Lee are getting in on the action as well. It all happened fast, as many things do in this part of the world, but the competition and formation of a more active community is healthy for all of us and will only help to foster greater interest in western contemporary art and artists, and to widen the scope of activity. This is what I had always envisioned, and it’s what I set out to do. 

Indeed, your motivation has always interested me.

My father [the art dealer Carl Solway] calls me a missionary. We kind of knew at the beginning that the program was going to be about education, but we were optimistic. The consumer market here is enormous and it keeps growing steadily, increasing by almost 15 percent every year. In 2005, banks issued 13 million credit cards. Three years later, the number was 115 million. More than 120 million internet users are shopping online and China is the world’s second largest market for luxury goods. Would they be interested in western contemporary art? I thought they might be. I mean, the Taiwanese collectors have been buying western contemporary art for as long as the Koreans have -- which is to say for the last 25 years. And, generally, China’s culture is changing so quickly.

I had a personal motivation as well. I was interested in the culture, interested in the language, the literature, the music -- the whole thing. I had been married to a Taiwanese-American woman, the artist Amy Kao, in New York, and had visited Taiwan frequently. I felt comfortable and proficient enough in the language to be here, and Jim and I had been in the art business long enough that we had relationships not only in Korea, Japan and Taipei, but in Australia, too. So the Pacific Rim seemed like a logical place to have a branch. And I wanted to be in the front row, watching the nation change and, in some modest or meaningful way, contributing in some way.

Are you finding interest in contemporary western art among the mainland Chinese?

It’s been slow going, but we are selling things to mainland Chinese collectors. Beijing clients, Shanghai clients, Hangzhou clients -- it’s a slowly growing market. The country, you have to keep in mind, was closed for about 50 years, so the cultural changes here in the last 35 or so are mind-boggling.

Our market is also Chinese people who live abroad or divide their time between China and other parts of the world, as well as other collectors throughout the region. The scene is expanding across Asia. Indonesia has recently developed an active contemporary art scene, as has Singapore.

Nobody can dispute that China has transformed the world’s economy. The middle class is growing quickly here and one of the key reasons this is happening is external exposure. The Chinese travel now more than ever and it’s an enormous objective in their lives to go abroad and see things, experience cities, architecture, works of art, to be exposed to other cultures and to do the grand tours and visit events like the Basel Art Fair or Asia Week in New York. They weren’t able to do that before. Now they can and they have the resources to do it.  

You are showing a few Chinese artists?

Yes -- but not because they are Chinese. There were a few western galleries who came here primarily to export, to sell Chinese works to western buyers. But our brief was different. We represented Yun-Fei Ji in New York, for instance, even before we opened the gallery in Shanghai, and we got interested in Xu Zhen’s work and MadeIn’s work while we were here.

But it’s really about choosing artists for what makes them singular, what they do and have to say, and how they change the way we see the world. It is not about ethnicity. I see artists like Wang Xieda, who is a sculptor we have taken on here, and his work is a collision of both eastern and western ideas. What’s important is the universality of the work. Richard Long, for instance, was really exciting here. People immediately were able to grasp the work, to understand it. In the end, Chinese collectors are no different than anyone else.

What did you bring to Art HK 2012?

A good mix of work from our program. There was a new work by Richard Long, a painting by Shi Zhiying, a young female artist we have begun to represent, and a work by Yinka Shonibare. Yun-Fei Ji is having a show that opens at the Ullens Center in Beijing on June 2, 2012. It’s his first museum show in China and also the first museum show for one of our artists in China. So it made sense to bring him.

I hate to interrupt, but I have to say that seeing Yinka Shonibare in your gallery here was one of my weirder experiences in China. His work seemed so out of place.

I think that was our second exhibition. I was interested in showing Yinka here because I thought he fit into the whole notion or framework of the colonial and post-colonial ideology which, at the time, I thought was perfect for Shanghai. But that went right over peoples’ heads. I occasionally over-think something and get it wrong.

More recently, however, I talked to a curator from the 4-Cube Museum of Contemporary Art, in Nanjing, designed by Steven Holl and opening sometime this fall. I showed him Shonibare’s The Sleep of Reason, a work inspired by Goya. The curator said, “I did this show about Goya.” So his connection to Yinka’s work was through art historical knowledge and scholarship, not politics. For me, this brought to mind a kind of awakening and reaffirmation -- a realization that the longer I’m here, the more clearly I realize what I truly value.

BARBARA POLLACK is author of The Wild, WIld East: An American Art Critic's Adventures in China (Timezone 8 Books).