The people of Shenzhen are different from folks in other Chinese cities and they will tell you this themselves. The difference comes from the fact that most people are drawn to Shenzhen from other cities through economic or job opportunities and this creates the type of energy you can only feel in a city where people can start fresh, reinvent themselves and go boom or bust fast. New York is the Big Apple, Chicago is the Windy City, Rome is the Eternal City, Paris is the City of Lights – I have been wondering what a good nickname for Shenzhen might be and thought the Sponge (it absorbs the most adventurous people in China as well as torrential rain) or the Mixer (cement mixing trucks are ubiquitous in this city of human mixtures) or the Drain might work (shen zhen literally means deep drain – folks are sucked in here by a desire for prosperity, the “strong” survive and the “weak” get drained out).

Most folks do not come to Shenzhen for the culture or art scene but that might change faster than anyone ever anticipated. If it does it will be due in large part to one group of conscientious Shenzhen leaders who have not only been holding significant art fairs here since 2012, but have also been cultivating an art market and an art scene: the organizers of the Shenzhen International Art Fair. The art scene in Shanghai developed due to an infusion of culture brought by wealthy and sophisticated foreign residents. The same thing happened in Hong Kong. Beijing developed its art scene because of its experimental, cosmopolitan intellectuals (as well as a smattering of wealthy foreign gallerists) who were dazzled by what they learned of 20th century art in Europe after Deng Xiao Ping made it possible to learn such things.

Shenzhen, however, was started from scratch, 41 years ago, and was designed and developed as a commercial center. It has turned into a tech center and one of China’s four tier-1 cities, but all indications seem to point to a burgeoning contemporary art scene not dependent on foreign intellectuals, but hardworking Shenzheners who believe that folks in the Sponge are ready for non-traditional and meaningful visual engagement. As well as “real” galleries developing in Dafen (an oil painting village notorious for its copycat art sent to restaurants around the world), the rumor mill has it that the Design Museum in Shenzhen will be hosting some world-class shows in 2020.

So things have started popping in Shenzhen culturally and much of this momentum was generated by folks from the Shenzhen International Art Fair. They came up with the very first fair to present original fine art in this city of affluence. They have taken a quite practical and effective approach, aware of the relationship between the visual arts and economics and they are also aware of the fact that much contemporary art may still seem foreign to Chinese eyes and tastes. Thus, their fairs are quite eclectic, ranging from the traditional to the decorative to the experimental. Their price ranges go from the very affordable to the very expensive – there was literally something for everyone there in 2019.

They seem to have realized that a contemporary art scene like that in New York City or London is not naturally going to develop in a new Chinese city, regardless of the wealth and creative potential, and that much cultivation and hard work is necessary. They have not only run educational programs but they have also reached out to folks from sponsoring organizations and groups of collectors in the Shenzhen vicinity to help create a market to keep an art scene sustainable. This organization seems to realize, better than most in Shenzhen, that collectors and sales are key to a dynamic art scene.

They have also realized that cultivating interpretive skills and the ability to help potential buyers assess quality work and establish confidence in a buyer that his/her taste can be trusted is part of the mission of an art fair. The theme for this show was Art for Home – Be a Collector. A real, actual home was built within the Exhibition Center and was furnished along with works of contemporary art to demonstrate the extra dimensions to one’s life that contemporary art can bring in one’s living space. It is important to realize that the art which is taken for granted in New York and London is still very much a foreign transplant in this part of China and SIAF works to make folks more comfortable with art. Of all the organizers of all the fairs in Shenzhen, the folks with SIAF seem to get it, and have taken a long-term, nuts and bolts approach to enriching their city.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding and the proof that this was a successful fair was found in the numerous red dots seen throughout the gallery cubicles. This was a fair in Shenzhen where stuff was actually being sold by the 80 galleries representing over 600 artists from several different countries. As I walked around and chatted up gallery owners from Spain, Germany, France, Korea etc., all seemed to be of good cheer and positive. In fact, the sense of good will and cheerfulness around the Exhibition Center really distinguished this fair from others. People were actually smiling and looked happy, instead of being the bored and apathetic folks one sees all over the place at many fairs. Gallery folks were meeting and greeting each other, engaging the viewers in thoughtful conversations and tours were being led by a member of the organizing committee to enlighten folks on what the various galleries and artists were presenting. The atmosphere was electric and positive, like the overall atmosphere in Shenzhen.

Afterwards, on social media, a Shenzhen gallerist wrote: “The air is filled with the smell of business opportunities!” At this point I realized that given the entrepreneurial spirit of the people of Shenzhen, and the energy, commitment and drive which is commonplace in this city, it seems inevitable that Shenzhen will be competing with Shanghai and Beijing someday, soon.