feature stories

Art and Retail—An Unlikely Marriage Provides a New Funding Model for Culture

In the West, we tend to think of shopping malls as fluorescent-lit wastelands,[i] full of soulless mega stores and overfed consumers; we certainly don’t think of them as appropriate venues for high culture, but the success of various art malls in China should give us reason to pause. Land developers in China mixing art and retail, with the original intention of adding prestige to their properties, have inadvertently discovered an interesting funding model that the cultural industry would be wise to appropriate.

While museums in the west spend countless hours trying to solicit donations from collectors and sponsors and fretting over government cuts, land developers such as Shui On, the group behind Shanghai’s landmark retail complex Xintiandi, fund their programming through the rent and sales of their tenants. Long before the e-commerce had cast its dark shadow across the retail environment, China’s land developers recognized the importance of culture in maintaining brand resilience.

British Council’s flagship programme Musicians in Residence opens its retrospective exhibition in RUIHONG TIANDI (瑞虹天地), one branch of Xintiandi in Shanghai, 2019

The relationship between real estate and culture in China has a history which goes back to some of its first contemporary art museums including the Today Art Museum (est.2002), the Zendai Museum of Modern Art (2005) and OCAT Shenzhen (2005) being some of the first museums which were “born of real estate,” acting as the “cultural anchor tenants” in broader communities of retail and F & B. It has now become the norm for real estate developers to dangle the prospect of a museum in front of the government in order to secure land for development—given that the government needs help meeting its goals to provide one museum for every 250, 000 people by the year of 2020. This has unfortunately led to the proliferation of a herd of white elephants or “mosquito halls” to use the expression of Taiwanese artist Yao Jui-Cheng—the kind of cultural spaces which are more often frequented by mosquitoes than the public, due to lack of proper strategic planning and the absence of viable revenue streams.

But the problem is not a matter of format of having “art in a mall” or an “art museum in a mixed-use newly-built community.” The problem is that the land developers are not diverting adequate funds from their profits in order to provide money for operating and programming budgets. Also, it tends to be easier to fund a series of pop-up performances, installations or events, than to fund whole museums which eat up valuable retail space, suck electricity, and require large staffs of upwards of 20-30 employees, without generating much profit.