Finding Beijing's Not-So-Hidden Art Treasure

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A few years ago a handful of renegade artists staked their claim just outside Beijing, away from the eye of the authorities. Now 798, as the area is called, is a bustling arts zone supported by the Chinese government.


OK, you get bored with the Olympics in Beijing. How about some of the other tourist sites, about the new China? Places like the 798 Art District. This was actually the third most popular foreign tourist site in Beijing last year. Jamila Trindle reports.

JAMILA TRINDLE: In a renovated factory district out toward the airport, another gallery is opening. First, artists turned these old warehouses into studios. Then, in the past five years, there was a second transformation, from artist colony into swank gallery and shopping district.

Mr. LENG LIN (President, Pace Beijing): At this moment, you can feel a lot of energy happening here. In the near future, you know, Beijing will be definitely an art center in the world. Mr. LIN: A lot of important, you know, collectors will travel to Beijing, and they'll make the opening shows, and to let them see, you know, what's happening in Beijing.

TRINDLE: It's not just collectors who want to see what's happening. Tourists were on the streets, sipping coffee, popping into galleries and buying souvenirs. There are world-class galleries but nestled between them, you can find just about anything: Tibetan handicrafts, Mao T-shirts. There's even a taxidermist with sheep heads mounted on the wall who offers to stuff your pet for posterity.

But before the tourists came, 798 was just a few artists trying to keep the factory owners from evicting them. And at one point, the government was even planning to tear the whole place down. Huang Rui was one of those early settlers. He recalls what happened when he tried to start an art festival.

Mr. HUANG RUI (Beijing Artist): (Through translator) The local factory owner and the local government official were in complete control. They could just make decisions, so they just announced: We're canceling your art festival. Mr. RUI: (Through translator) But when this place became an art area, everything became about economics. Bigger galleries replaced smaller galleries. A big arts center took the place of many small galleries and restaurants. Mr. HUANG DU (Independent Curator, Beijing): (Through translator) This cultural industry or art industry is the same as the rest of the economy and follows the Chinese economic model. So the government just thought, oh, this is in our interest. So they accepted it and started promoting it.

TRINDLE: This commercial outlook has led many to wonder whether 798, like the rest of the art market in China, is too commercial to still be creative. Wu Shao Yen (ph) is one of the curators of a new international art center in the area.

Ms. WU SHAO WEN (Art Curator): (Through translator) Now, I think they're controlled by another power, the market. It interferes with their creativity and limits their freedom.

TRINDLE: Or the increased commercialism could mean 798 is becoming more professional. That's what Leng Lin thinks. He's opening the new Pace gallery that will include both Chinese and foreign artists. This is what always happens, he says. Artists move out, and the place becomes more established. Think SoHo or Chelsea. This kind of established art area can be really good for Beijing and for China.

Mr. LIN: To see the international art, not only from New York or from Berlin's place or from London, but also, you know, it's very most exciting. From Beijing, you can see the world.

TRINDLE: It's no longer the grungy creative center, but 798 is a place to see what China has to offer the rest of the art world. For NPR News, I'm Jamila Trindle in Beijing.

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