A little history and context:
You’ve probably heard of Shanghai. Over 25 million people live there. 40% of the population are migrants from other parts of the country, and an international population of over 200,000 make Shanghai one of China’s most cosmopolitan cities. It is China’s financial and business hub, hosting the world’s busiest port - where artists debark from their cargo ships after their Twenty Three Days At Sea residency.
Shanghai started out as a humble fishing village, growing into a major sea port city that controlled a large part of China’s trade and customs by the 18th century. During the Opium Wars, the British, then the French, Germans, and Americans all occupied different parts of the city, building walled concessions. In the 1920s and 1930s, Shanghai became a refuge for Russians and European Jews fleeing war in Europe, and was one of the only cities to accept WWII refugees. In 1937, during the Second Sino-Chinese War, Shanghai was taken over by the Japanese government in an occupation that lasted until 1945. The city has clearly been through a lot, but Shanghai’s 18th and 19th century history are part of what makes the city such an international presence. In 1991, Shanghai was allowed to open up to market forces, launching the breakneck-paced development of thousands of skyscrapers. The area east of the Huangpu River that divides the city in half is home to Shanghai’s iconic skyline, and was entirely built in the last twenty-five years.
The rapid development continues on today, as Shanghai continues to grow as domestic and international financial center. Local Shanghainese families in generational homes at the heart of the city are getting displaced by construction of shopping malls and office towers. This process of demolition and relocation, making way for these more lucrative establishments, is known as 拆迁 (chāiqiān), and when wandering in the city center, look close at older single story buildings and you are likely to find the “拆” marking its destruction.
Shanghai’s official language is Mandarin, but locals speak Shanghainese, a topolect that sounds nothing like Mandarin or Cantonese (it actually sounds a little like Arabic). Weather-wise, it’s really humid, pretty hot in the summer and fairly cold in the winter. The city’s architecture is an eclectic mix of traditional lane houses called shikumen, art deco buildings left over from the many occupations, and new glassy shiny things. The city is expansive, but the subway system is great and equally ever-expanding.Shanghai’s also a good city for biking since it’s relatively flat, and dozens of colorful dockless bike share companies popped up over the years. Along with the high numbers of city bikers, Shanghai streets are highly populated with courier service workers on mopeds delivering food and a massive amount of TaoBao (similar to Amazon) bought products. as long as you’re not trying to go over to Pudong. Oh and the pollution’s not *as bad* as in other cities in China (but it’s still not great, by world standards.)
In the past decade since the Shanghai Expo in 2010, the city’s had a veritable explosion of massive contemporary art museums and funding for the arts. There are also lots of commercial galleries, a growing number of nonprofit institutions, and and a pretty vibrant undercurrent of DIY and queer-friendly spaces. Shanghai is also the birthplace of Chinese cinema, and is home to strong fashion, design, and tech scenes.
“No other city is as enthusiastic as Shanghai; it never stops howling with intensity." - Heidi Bryce
We’ve broken down the city’s creative scene into seven areas to explore, arranged by decreasing density of art spaces:
Xúhuì 徐汇 & Lúwān 卢湾
These two districts encompass most of the former occupied concessions, which left behind a legacy of European-style architecture and winding, tree-lined streets. While some shikumen and lilongs are disappearing, others have been renovated and preserved (Shanghai StreetStories does a fantastic job at chronicling these ongoing changes). Many galleries and museums are scattered throughout this central area.
Independent art spaces: 1984bookstore
“I find it easier for the Shanghai public to digest performance and exhibition under the context of spectacle.” Katy Roseland, Basement6 collective
Jìng’ān 静安 & People’s Square 民广场
Jing’an has a more business-district feel compared to the former concessions. Skyscrapers and shopping malls alternate along big avenues. People’s Park, a centrally located green space, gives a bit of respite from the dense downtown. It encompasses the Grand Theater for performing arts, Shanghai MoCA museum as well as the MoCA Pavilion which shows more experimental work. The nearby Soviet-style Exhibition Center hosts many of the city’s art fairs, and the gigantic Jing’an temple is a Buddhist landmark to the north of the neighborhood.
Residencies: am space
Museums, Galleries & Art/Commerce : art labor, MoCA Shanghai, Shanghai Natural History Museum, K11 Art Mall
"We found our current space on Fengxian Road space after much searching. We really wanted to be in an affordable space in the city center with convenient transportation options." am space founders Lam & Yu Ji
M50, on Moganshan Road, is one of Shanghai’s largest gallery clusters, with over a hundred galleries of contemporary art occupying former textile factory buildings. Many cafés also took up residence in the area, because apparently, where there’s art, there’s coffee.
Residencies: Chronus Art Center
Notable galleries: Island6, A+ Contemporary, Vanguard Gallery, Antenna Space, A+ Foundation, Gallery 55
“M50 is a great neighborhood. Bustling during the day, nice and quiet at night.” Jeff Musser, former resident at Pantocrator (when the residency was in M50, it's since moved to Suzhou)
The Bund 外滩
The Bund lines the Puxi bank of the river. This is where Shanghai’s various occupying powers built banks, hotels, and massive art deco buildings that have now been converted into luxury hotels, high-end dining, and more banks. The Bund is one of the city’s major tourist attractions, providing space for long walks along the river bank, famous for its view of the Pudong skyline.
Museums & Galleries: Rockbund Art Museum, Pearl Lam, OCAT Shanghai, Around Space, Shanghai Gallery of Art
“I got to the [Swatch Art Peace] Hotel, right on the Bund, in the eye of the tourist hurricane.” Heidi Bryce, former Swatch resident
West Bund 西岸
The local government encouraged investment into this area in the south part of the city dubbed the West Bund Art & Culture Pilot Zone, resulting in no less than five massive museums opening up to host biennales, major group shows, and retrospectives of local and internationally renowned artists and architects. These institutions are nevertheless still quite far apart, and some charge hefty prices for admissions so we wouldn’t recommend trying to go to all in one day! Many galleries from M50 have also recently opened satellites in or moved to the area.
Museums & Galleries: Long Museum, Yuz Museum, Shanghai Center of Photography, PowerStation of Art, Qiao Space, ShanghART, MadeIn Gallery
This is the part that’s brand new. Pudong feels a little strange, with is huge avenues and top-down planned urbanism that built the district on top of swamps from the 1990s onwards. Parts of Pudong look like North-American suburbs, and other parts look like generic cities that could be absolutely anywhere in the world. Some of the The World Expo Pavilions have been reconverted into museums, like the China pavilion. NYU Shanghai has a campus here since 2015, where the second most popular major is Interactive Media Arts (IMA). There’s a gigantic convention center right across from the Himalayas museum and mall complex, all build by the Zendai property developers.
Museums: Himalayas Museum, China Art Museum, (another) Long Museum, HOW Art Museum (with a curators residency), ICA at NYU Shanghai
“What still strikes me is the amazing change that has happened since my first visit.They equivalent of Manhattan has been built in Shanghai in less than 20 years. A massive subway system, some of the worlds tallest buildings... It really is a testament to human ambition and will.” Mark Rumsey, former Swatch resident
Far far out in the West of Shanghai, Songjiang is actually the oldest district of Shanghai and is home to many artist "villages". Not in the traditional sense of artists living specifically in arts districts but rather as first tenants in newly built business and commerce houses, or in common housing-compounds with studio spaces. Rent is cheaper than in the city center, one has lots of space and can focus on creating and working there. Visitors from the city center or elsewhere often go visit these studios on designated open studio days, which are self-organized amongst the artists.
As Shanghai continues to expand outwards, art spaces and museums are setting up further and further away from the city center. The north east part of the city, home to the campus of Fudan university and the Ray Art Center. McaM, a museum dedicated to performance art, opened in 2015, and to the north west, The shanghART Taopu complex is a series of massive warehouses and artists studios for contemporary art. SOWERART, a performance-based artist-run space and residency is at the northern end of line 11 (the line splits in two at the end, take the one to Jia Ding Xi station).
Zhujiajiao 朱家角 / Wuzhen 乌镇 / Chongming 崇明 / Jinxi 锦溪
There are numerous picturesque water towns built around networks of canals are within a few hours from Shanghai. Wuzhen hosts a theater festival and large-scale contemporary art exhibitions, as well as a museum dedicated to the poet Mu Xin.
Museums in Wuzhen: Muxin Museum, Silk Factories
“It’s primarily a commercial tourist attraction, with lots of shops selling candy and trinkets. There’s still a local presence, mostly sustained through fishing and traditional crafts, and lots of bed and breakfasts and teahouses in 500-year-old structures.” Brian Michael Reed, a former resident of the Himalayas residency in Zhujiajiao
The largest city in the province of Jiangsu, Suzhou is easily accessible by train from Shanghai. Often dubbed “Venice of the East,” the city also prides itself on its classical gardens, which joined the list of UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997, and its rich history of silk embroidery. In the past decade, art institutions have opened up throughout the city, with a large concentration of galleries in Pingjiang Lu 平江路 & ShiquanJie 十全街.
Museums: Kunqu Opera Museum, Museum of Suzhou Embroidery Art, Xiao Hui Wang Art Museum, Jinji Lake Art Museum, Suzhou Art Museum
"...fortunately, Luxu is a very authentic Chinese watertown, unlike the highly commercialized, tourist attractions of Zhouzhuang and Zhujiajiao. Luxu is also located at the border between Shanghai and Suzhou, so artists can easily travel to both cities, and both cities have a lot to offer in terms of art and culture." George Liu Zhen 刘震 of Untitled Space 无题空间
Fairs, Festivals & Events
September and November are busy months with waves of succeeding art fairs: Shanghai Biennale, West Bund Art & Design, Photo Shanghai, and Shanghai Fashion Weekend.
Many thanks to the Australian Embassy Beijing for their support in developing these China Residencies Artist City Guides! Our resources are works-in-progress and will be updated regularly. Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org with other suggestions and recommendations!