White Cubes in China: A Sociological Study of China's Emerging Market for Contemporary Art


Svetlana Kharchenkova

PhD defended at: 

University of Amsterdam


The Chinese contemporary art market is one of the world’s largest. Hundreds of art galleries, auction houses, artists, critics, and collectors engage in a flourishing art commerce in mainland China. Yet, as recently as the early 1990s, there were no intermediary organisations or stable market practices and conventions, nor were there shared understandings about how the art trade should unfold. In other words, there was no market for contemporary art. This dissertation addresses the question: how has the contemporary art market been emerging in China? Market emergence is a central concern of economic sociology. This study contributes to the understanding of this process by looking at the previously little-studied field of the contemporary art market in China.
This dissertation adopts a neo-institutional perspective in economic sociology, which is an innovative way to study China’s cultural industries and markets. In accordance with this perspective, I understand the art market as a field constituted by actors and structured by informal rules, practices, and shared understandings. For a field to come together, organisations and institutions – formal and informal rules and conventions that guide behaviour – have to be created. The neo-institutional perspective is useful as it allows us to look at the origin and establishment of organisational models, shared practices of valuation, and shared understandings in the market. It sees their emergence as an outcome of historical and cultural processes.
Economic sociologists often understand market emergence as a result of construction by powerful actors, such as governments, or as a result of mutual adjustment among (potential) market actors. Many markets and fields emerge in complex institutional environments, for example, they may be embedded in both local and transnational fields. Yet, sociological studies of emerging markets do not sufficiently account for how this embeddedness in such complex environments influences market emergence. This dissertation focuses on a market that is developing on the periphery when similar markets are already established elsewhere. It is one of the first studies to look at market emergence in a global perspective. The Chinese contemporary art market is therefore an important case, which allows us to gain insights into market emergence and market globalisation more generally. It also allows us to bring non-Western societies back into the realm of economic sociology.
This dissertation relies on extensive ethnographic and interview data. It draws on ten months of observations made between 2012 and 2014 in the contemporary art world of Beijing, which is the centre of China’s art world. It also draws on 180 in-depth interviews with artists, collectors, art dealers, art critics, auction house employees, and other market actors, as well as on historical and contemporary written materials, such market reports and auction catalogues.
This article-based dissertation consists of five articles that tackle different empirical questions regarding the emergence of the market for contemporary art in China. The chapters highlight different aspects of market emergence: international travel and valuation of commodities within and outside an emerging market (Chapter 2), the process of establishment of the main organisational forms (Chapter 3), the role of pre-existing organisations (Chapter 4), valuation institutions (Chapter 5), and shared understandings (Chapter 6) concerning an emerging market. Each chapter highlights links with the established contemporary art markets outside China. The chapters focus on travels of artworks, organisational forms, and institutions across countries, similarities with and differences from art markets abroad, and the roles of foreign actors and institutions in the Chinese art market creation. Thus, this dissertation highlights diffusion and the limits to diffusion of organisational forms and institutions.
Chapter 2 traces the process of assigning value to commodities by foreign and local actors, such as art critics and biennales, when a local market is emerging. It focuses on artworks labelled Cynical Realism and Political Pop, which are among the most readily recognised styles of Chinese contemporary art in China and abroad, and elucidates reasons behind their successful local and global circulation. It reconstructs an “evaluative biography” of these artistic styles, from the time when there was barely an art market in China, to the present day. The chapter examines how these styles were evaluated, and how their value (or lack thereof) was justified, by a variety of actors in China and abroad. It argues that their success was possible first, because of the diffusion of the category of contemporary art and the “regime of inspiration” associated with it. Second, their success was possible because different audiences with complex identities applied their own orders of worth to the works. This was partly enabled by the polyvalent character of the artworks and by their labels, which were understood in a number of ways. This chapter shows how, when a market is emerging, valuation can be performed abroad or with the participation of foreign actors first.
A new market needs organisations to mediate commerce. Where did the organisational forms now dominant in the Chinese contemporary art market come from, and how were they implemented? Chapter 3 details the mechanisms of how some of the main organisational forms – commercial galleries and auction houses – were first established in China in the 1990s. It argues that they were modelled on organisational forms that existed abroad, sometimes in minute detail. The so-called “institutional entrepreneurs” imitated foreign organisational forms because they perceived them as legitimate, which points to the process of mimetic isomorphism in the transnational field. This chapter discusses the institutional work required for the establishment of the organisations. It draws attention to the differences between the Chinese and foreign art market contexts, which had an impact on the isomorphic process and its results. It also highlights the role of individual agency, including the role of foreign nationals, in the establishment of organisations. It suggests that organisational forms in new markets can be constructed through imitation of organisational forms abroad. This can happen through the work of foreign actors, or those who have established connections in foreign markets. Foreign organisations can become dominant, at least in certain parts of a new market.
Chapter 4 examines the local art organisations that existed before the market started emerging. It investigates the surprising fact that some pre-existing organisations, which were active in the Maoist era, persist even when the institutional environment has changed. It focuses on Chinese (and Russian) Official Art Organisations, absent in Europe and the USA, which are mostly associated with more traditional art forms, and explains why they did not disintegrate with the emergence of the art market. It argues that due to path dependency and institutional complementarities with the state bureaucracy, the Chinese organisations proved not only resilient, but also highly influential in the market. These organisations are used to establish and judge the value of art in the more traditional circuit of the market. This chapter draws attention to differences between art market systems across the world and suggests that “varieties of capitalism” may be found across art markets. It also points to where the boundaries of the field of the contemporary art market lie.
Chapter 5 seeks to contribute to understanding how valuation happens in new markets. For a market to emerge, it needs valuation mechanisms to exist locally. While Chapter 2 shows that valuation initially happened abroad, Chapter 5 investigates how the value of contemporary art is currently constructed and judged in China. It aims to solve the empirical “puzzle” of why new artworks and works from unestablished artists are auctioned in China, a practice considered illegitimate in art markets elsewhere. This chapter points to similarities between the organisational structures of the art markets in China and abroad, and differences in the concrete practices associated with them. It argues that auctions are used as so-called “judgment devices” to establish and judge value, because the market is new and lacks trusted valorising structures and experienced buyers. This chapter highlights that market actors that have a stable market presence, provide clear signals, and are easily available and understandable, may play an important role in market emergence. The case of the Chinese art market suggests that valuation mechanisms and devices to judge value can differ between emerging and existing markets. Yet, differences in practices between the emerging market in China and foreign markets may be temporary, and contingent on the local institutional environment.
Participants of an emerging market need to make sense of it. Chapter 6 focuses on shared understandings about an emerging market. It asks the question: how do the Chinese contemporary art market participants understand the development of their new market? This chapter suggests a novel approach to studying markets through metaphor analysis. Unlike other economic-sociological studies of market emergence, it focuses on emic perceptions and their consequences for actions in an emerging peripheral market. By analysing a guiding conceptual metaphor for the contemporary art market in China, it investigates how the market actors make sense of their market and its global position. It shows that the Chinese contemporary art market actors conceptualise it as a developing organism and juxtapose it with “mature” Western markets. The Western markets are perceived as “good” and legitimate, because they have existed longer. This metaphor enables China’s market actors to justify illegitimate behaviour, renders the market participants passive, and inspires them to act as learners and educators. It enables them to imagine the market’s future, both resembling and diverging from older markets. The conceptual metaphor of a developing organism, or a child, that market actors have for the market, suggests that they perceive market development to be not only a result of actions, but also of passivity and patience. Therefore, this chapter suggests theorising non-agentic elements of market construction, which are not sufficiently addressed in economic sociology. It discusses how globalisation is perceived by actors in a peripheral market, and shows that this peripheral market’s participants do not “self-orientalise”. It calls for studying emic understandings in other developing markets.
Chapter 7 presents conclusions concerning the central question: how has the contemporary art market been emerging in China? It explains how this market has been emerging by being incorporated in the transnational field of art commerce, and discusses the process of institutional diffusion and its limits. I argue that the Chinese contemporary art market is still emerging: it is characterised by disagreements about the legitimacy of certain market practices, such as the auctioning of art by unestablished artists. Yet, this dissertation shows that this market is also, to a certain extent, developed and institutionalised. Market actors, institutional structures to value art, and shared understandings about the stage of the market evolvement have developed. In many ways, the Chinese contemporary art market is similar to art markets in Europe and the USA. For instance, commercial galleries in China look like white cubes, and organise exhibitions in ways akin to their foreign counterparts. I argue that the similarity is due to the fact that the Chinese art market has been emerging as part of the transnational field of contemporary art commerce. The organisational forms and institutions were adopted in China as a result of their diffusion in this transnational field. However, this research has also identified limits to diffusion. For example, even though galleries look like white cubes, some of them promote their unestablished artists at auction, which is illegitimate in other art markets across the world. I found that the divergence is mostly due to the local institutional context and is related to the newness of this market. Barriers to the spread of the contemporary art market institutions to China lie in the lack of some elements of market infrastructure and lack of experience of local actors in China. As the widely shared belief persists in China that Western markets represent the best way to organise art commerce, and as local market infrastructure develops and local actors gain experience, further convergence with Western or international markets can be expected.
Some issues, such as to what extent new organisations and institutions adopt features of existing counterparts elsewhere, have remained unresolved in globalisation studies. Therefore, this research not only contributes to market sociology by highlighting the global dimension of market emergence, it also contributes to globalisation studies by elucidating the mechanism of transnational diffusion in market emergence and arguing that convergence should be taken seriously again. Overall, I argue that links with foreign markets, individuals, organisations and institutions are central for understanding the emergence of the Chinese contemporary art market. I suggest that market emergence can be understood as a result of transnational processes. When studying market emergence, it is important to look at where the models come from and at links between new and existing markets. As markets emerge in complex institutional environments, embedded in local and transnational institutional structures, market emergence should be analysed in a broader, global perspective.