Shanghai’s Growing Contemporary Art Scene as an Urban Indicator of China’s Soft Power Development

Shanghai Biennale, October 15, 2008 | © Courtesy of Gary Stevens.
Shanghai Biennale, October 15, 2008 | © Courtesy of Gary Stevens.

As Shanghai becomes a prized destination for international art fairs, galleries and museums, such as France’s Centre Pompidou, which is to open a satellite space in the up-and-coming West Bund art district in 2019, China’s soft power grows too.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.

One can compare Shanghai’s proliferating art and culture scene, e.g., the opening in 2018 of the West Bund Art Museum designed by the star architect David Chipperfeld that joins what amounts to a burgeoning cluster of art museums, as Lisa Movius describes, to the heady years of New York as it has made its mark on the international map of the cultural production and consumption of art in the first half of the twentieth century and afterwards. This spurt of its local cultural scene development that has accelerated in the last five years can also be tentatively mapped on the re-centering of Asia in international relations presaged by Francis Alÿs’s depiction of the global map that imagines a world of transportation flows that internetworks Shanghai, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Singapore with the rest of the globalized world.

Put differently, one can surmise that the rise in Shanghai’s contemporary art scene follows in step with China’s soft power as its international aid becomes one of world’s more important and effective sources of assistance to developing countries at the time that Western countries struggle to shoulder the charitable outflows of funds out of state coffers. Similar to Alÿs’s map of regional transportation connections, China’s aid seeks to strengthen South-South ties, does not include interventionist conditionalities, emphasizes bilateral relations, and has multiple, flexible formats, as Ron Matthews, Xiaojuan Ping and Li Ling indicate. Similar to popular culture, such as blockbuster movies, high art can be seen as a component of soft power that more often than not depends on investment flows, such as Chinese media groups’ liquidity injections into Paramount Pictures that have been estimated to amount to 1 billion USD, as Eleanor Albert reports.

Likewise, international art exhibitions can increase cultural presence a country projects internationally, such as the multiple-venue German show Deutschland 8: German Art in China that took place in September-October 2017 in Beijing with the support of the foundation Stiftung für Kunst und Kultur. Especially in periods of global turbulence, art museums, cultural institutes and non-profit organizations become the sites where the changing terrain of international cultural relations is reflected upon, as Catherine Hickley suggests. For instance, countries or regional blocks can exercise soft power by showcasing works of art, extending international aid and increasing the international stature of their metropolitan centers, Artem Patalakh suggests in his article on the cultural power of the European Union. Shanghai Cooperation Organization also appears to promote China’s soft power by pursuing pragmatic aims in its international activities, as follows from Valérie Niquet’s review of China’s strategy in Central Asia.

From this perspective, the flowering of contemporary art institutions, events, and museums in Shanghai reflects the modernization of Chinese culture in the wake of China’s economic development that is also likely to entail the international expansion of its soft power, similar to the argument Xing Yu Zhu and Abdul Razaque Chhachhar present in their ethnographic study of the modernization of China’s policy toward Confucianism.

Featured Image Credits: Shanghai Biennale, October 15, 2008 | © Courtesy of Gary Stevens.

Cite this article as: Pablo Markin, "Shanghai’s Growing Contemporary Art Scene as an Urban Indicator of China’s Soft Power Development," in Open Culture, 25/11/2017,

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