Notes on Alternatives in China

Some are artists setting up programs for themselves or their peers, others are fully-fledged companies offering a wide range of art services. All see themselves as “alternatives,” but what do they mean by that and how do they sit in relation to the Beijing art-world?

These brief notes on some “alternatives” in Beijing (and beyond) were inspired by a visit to one of the groups mentioned, TCA, which led me to question just what it meant to be “alternative,” what is “alternative” a reaction against and how do these organisations go about positioning themselves?

UPDATE: I’ve been alerted to a couple of other “alternatives” – Homeshop, and the golden tent. But I don’t know enough about them yet – working on that. Keep them coming!

Right from the outset using the word “alternative” leaves one open to all sorts of questions. “Alternative” is such a relative term that, to be understood and be useful, demands a pretty close analysis of the context within which it is used.

A characteristic of the art scene in China is the hyper-commercialised gallery-based system. The growth of the Chinese art market over the last twenty years, based around the hot-house development and promotion of the a generation of Chinese artists, has led to an unrealistic model for today’s Chinese artists – the changing economic environment over the past three years has revealed the unsustainable nature of this system. The most visible generator of this growth has undoubtedly been at the gallery level which has acted as the front line in the development of a particular group of artists. Obviously this is their job, and they have their place in the system and shouldn’t be criticised for being good at what they do, but this ability has almost been too successful, when coupled with an almost uncritical acceptance of the goods on the part of the buyers that led to a “bubble” in the market. The effect of the bubble and its collapse have not only affected the market, but also the reputations of those involved, and the reputation of particular formats of art which became indicative of the bubble.

So what does “alternative” mean in this context? These alternatives position themselves as trying to do things differently, but how that manifests itself in reality depends on whom you are talking to. For some “alternative” is positioned as against a discredited form of gallery system. A focus on the pursuit of sales is seen as symptomatic of something which has encouraged bad habits in the past. Another “alternative” is in being independent from funding partners which might be seen to direct the focus of the organisation unnecessarily. For each group their bug-bear is seen to have an adverse affect on production or programming in terms of inertia or control over the content: to position oneself as “alternative” makes an implicit or explicit assumption that in some way the “originals” restrict or subvert production.

Looking specifically at the consequences for Beijing, critic and curator Pauline Yao presents the situation thus:

At present, contemporary art has been largely defined by its commercial nature and increasing confinement to purpose-built art districts in the remote outskirts of the city. This raises many questions regarding art’s physical remove from the urban fabric of the city, not to mention the severing of an artwork’s ties to the very social and political conditions it is alleged to represent.

So, how do these “alternatives” present themselves in their specific realities? The following is a summary of the various published materials for a set of organisations that present themselves as “alternative” in some way, or could be seen as such. At the end of this piece, I’ve added a set of appendices which copy out the relevant passages from which this information comes from. This list is by no means complete, and simply reflects my own knowledge and experience. Additions and corrections are more than welcome.

Arrow Factory (Beijing)

The Arrow Factory

  • Personnel: Pauline Yao (curator, writer), Rania Ho (artist), Wang Wei (artist)
  • Non-commercial (small-scale sales take place as part of a show)
  • Non-product
  • Consistent location
  • Small physical size
  • No fixed calendar
  • Longer-term shows (more than one month) (including flexibility about closing dates)
  • Support
    • Self-funded, donations, some small sales
    • Dedicated page on website listing supporters (includes logos and links where available)
  • Comments:
    • Freedom from pressures of time and sales
    • Allows for longer projects
    • No public entry to the space, but uses the street in front as gathering space (enforces integration with the local area)

Vitamin Creative Space (Guangzhou)

  • Personnel: Zhang Wei, Hu Fang, etc.
  • Commercial
  • Consistent location
  • No consistent programme
  • Brand building for artists
    • Cao Fei/RMB City
    • Xu Tan/Keywords
  • Support
    • No information about external support on website
  • Comments:
    • Opposes “institutional funding” with commercial approach
    • Acting as “an ‘independent’ art space and as a ‘commercial’ gallery”

The Shop (Vitamin Creative Space) (Beijing)

The Shop

  • Personnel: (as with Vitamin Creative Space)
  • Commercial
  • Products:
    • Unique works, but also multiples, publications
  • Consistent location
    • Commercial premises in shopping and business district (albeit a relatively quiet corner of one)
  • No consistent programme
  • Extras:
    • Talks, events
    • Insertions into galleries/art fairs (Frieze (London), CIGE (Beijing))
  • Support
    • No information about outside support on website
  • Comments:
    • Takes on aspects of a shop, less of a gallery
    • Events more flexible and experimental
    • Image of being less precious (more affordable?)

Chart Contemporary (various sites)

chART Contemporary

  • Personnel: KC & Megan Connolly, etc.
  • Commercial
  • Consultancy
  • Open House: Commissions
  • Education activities, organised tours
  • No consistent programme
  • Support
    • List of clients on website, emotional investment in the project encouraged by naming them “ChARTers”
  • Comments:
    • Business-like image
    • Website includes a press room, press kit, etc.
    • Professional: “Reliable and reputable, we provide our clients with the highest level of customer service and expertise.”

This City Art (TCA) (Beijing)


  • Personnel: Martin Barnes (artist), Oak Taylor-Smith (artist)
  • Artist-run organisation
  • Commercial (focused on wall-mounted prints/design/photography)
  • Public space, underpass, potentially anywhere
  • Ultra-short term (one night only)
  • No consistent programme
  • Support
    • No information about outside support on website
  • Comments:
    • Reproducing aspects of the gallery, outside of a gallery
    • Organised self-promotion/marketing techniques
    • Testing existing structures in new locations

INH-SZ 传承:深圳 (Shenzhen)

  • Personnel: Claire Louise Staunton (director, curator), etc.
  • Curatorial project
  • Non-profit, non-commercial organisation
  • Short-term location
  • No consistent programme
  • Support
    • Provides a list of supporters on website
  • Extras:
    • “Exhibition, performance, music and film programme, commission new artworks, foster collaborations between local and international artists and build a publicly accessible contextual library…”

Artist Projects

Artist projects sit in a different relationship with art making than do the organisations above. The following example straddles the division between the organisation and the artwork. It plays with the same concerns as the organisations above, but intends to push the meanings and boundaries of the concepts much further, given its position of relative autonomy from the systems they are addressing. A gallery is restricted in its activities in that it must maintain its reputation as a valuable part of its currency in the art world. Artists are in a position to critique without suffering many of the consequences to their reputation that a gallery lives or dies by. Money considerations are still present though, but the artist sits in a different relation to the generation of funds than the gallery and, if they are inclined to critique the gallery by playing out its role, are given more leeway to fail in that respect. The artist has a different set of priorities which change the rules that they wish to abide by.

Donkey Institute of Contemporary Art (DICA) (various sites)

Donkey Institute of Contemporary Art (DICA)

  • Personnel: Michael Yuen (artist), Yam Lau (artist)
  • Curator/artist project
  • Non-commercial
  • Non-product
    • Video, but potential for other things
    • Screening curated collections of video
  • No consistent programme
  • Moveable structure
  • Screen sized (+ donkey and cart)
  • Event based
  • Support
    • Provides a list of supporters on website
  • Comments:
    • The structure is a performance in itself
    • Various levels of curation (on-screen, on donkey)

Presentation and sponsors

Marketing and branding are important indicators of an organisations’ intentions – their presentation as more or less monolithic institutions and the level of professionalism they project to the world is a factor of their attention to these tools. Funding and support, the life-blood of any organisation, are also issues that they address in various ways and situate themselves in different positions in relation to.

Chart Contemporary promote their organisation in a consistent fashion, creating a strong brand as well as clearly positioning their sponsors as part of the project. Arrow Factory have less of an over-arching branding system in place, indeed their branding is somewhat subtle. They also include a page of supporters on their website, ranging from individuals to organisations. Vitamin, deliberately position themselves as reliant on sales rather than “institutionalized” funding: “In order to operate independently from institutionalized funding, [Vitamin] is active both as an ‘independent’ art space and as a ‘commercial’ gallery.” Arrow Factory, on the other hand, distance themselves from commercial considerations: “…we do not sell anything. We subsist on small contributions from friends, colleagues and ourselves.”


So the use of the term “alternative” is not necessarily anti- the commercialisation of the artworld. From the above examples it has a lot to do with providing more possibilities for art. The major objection to galleries seems to be that they are inflexible, unable to deal with certain types of work, and tend to force artwork into certain channels and forms.

The examples I’ve mentioned play a vital role in developing the art systems. The production of these “alternatives” addresses perceived problems or deficiencies in the system. Their existence is an important aspect in the critique of art and the critique of its dissemination. Experiments and new forms of presentation are important to provide depth and perspective to the art world and to take it away from an over-reliance on a single way of dealing with art and a single type of location in which to experience it. A healthy art ecosystem supports multiples avenues of experience. These multiple avenues provide the checks and balances that prevent one section of the system from presenting a distorted vision of art and its value.


Appendix 1: Arrow Factory

Arrow Factory is an independently run alternative art space in Beijing that is located in a small hutong alley in the city center. Arrow Factory reclaims an existing storefront and transforms it into a space for site-specific installations and projects that are designed to be viewed from the street 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Arrow Factory’s modestly sized space (15 sqm) occupies a former vegetable stand, signaling an economy of means that informs our practice and promotes artistic collaboration, exploration and experimentation across different cultural contexts and viewing publics. We are committed to presenting works by local and international artists that are provisional in nature, highly contingent upon the immediate environment and that form meaningful responses to the diverse economic, political and social conditions of our given locality and everyday lived experiences.

Arrow Factory, founded in 2008, was initiated as a response to the current conditions facing contemporary art production in Beijing. At present, contemporary art has been largely defined by its commercial nature and increasing confinement to purpose-built art districts in the remote outskirts of the city. This raises many questions regarding art’s physical remove from the urban fabric of the city, not to mention the severing of an artwork’s ties to the very social and political conditions it is alleged to represent. For Arrow Factory meaning making is an activity that occurs through interacting with the pre-existing givens of a site, and adopting a strategy whereby the social frame does not so much ‘surround’ as much as it becomes part of the work.

Arrow Factory shares the same name as the hutong alley in which we reside. We hold a temporary commercial business license, but we do not sell anything. We subsist on small contributions from friends, colleagues and ourselves. We do not hold openings and we operate modestly, spontaneously and flexibly. Our mission is simply to provide an alternative; a different context in which artists can experiment with pushing the relationships that radiate outwards from the levels of the individual, the neighborhood, the urban, the region, to finally, the global.


  • 现金赞助 Cash Donations
    • 匿名友人 Anonymous Donor
    • ArtHub
    • Peikwen Cheng & Shanti Christensen
    • 北京北青文化传播有限公司 Beiqing Culture and Communication Co., Ltd.
    • Joan Lebold Cohen
    • 贺潇 Fiona He
    • 徐峥 贾伟 夫妇 Mr and Mrs Xu Zheng and Jia Wei
  • 物品捐赠 In-kind Donations
    • 李松松 Li Songsong
    • Paper Restaurant
    • Roy Kesey
    • Magnus Lindblom
    • Frank Yu
    • Michele Matteini

    Appendix 2a: Vitamin Creative Space

    Vitamin Creative Space is exploring an alternative working mode, specifically geared to the contemporary Chinese context. In order to operate independently from institutionalized funding, it is active both as an ‘independent’ art space and as a ‘commercial’ gallery. Vitamin Creative Space is actively challenging the preconception by merging these two, which traditionally are opposed strategies for supporting and presenting contemporary art, raising the searching of new Chinese contributions both from artistic practice level and institutional level within the new global context.

    Appendix 2b: The Shop (Vitamin Creative Space)

    the shop is a public space produced by Vitamin Creative Space that takes a more organic view of art practices, surrounded as they are by daily processes. As a space of daily experimentation and time accumulation, the shop will eventually not only contextualize but also produce reality.

    Appendix 3: chART Contemporary

    chART Contemporary is a Beijing based curatorial lab dedicated to Bringing together art & people. Our overarching goal is to establish cultural bridges between the East and the West through programs and activities that promote contemporary art and culture. We actively maintain an extensive network of artists, architects, designers, collectors, galleries, museums and academics. We are cultural producers fulfilling a global need by creating an open platform for artistic expression through research, education and curatorial integrity.

    Redefining The Black & White Box Model

    Open House embodies chART Contemporary’s mission of bringing together art and people through curatorial initiatives that educate, stimulate and support the production of new work by emerging artists. Open House is inspired by marketing tools used by local real estate developers to sell property based on showrooms that are designed to reflect the living standards desired in China today. Open House evolved from the American marketing concept where doors are opened to the public for an afternoon and potential buyers, renters and lookers are invited to visit a property. While the concept has different characteristics in each country, Open House has a commonality where anything is possible and the world is yours for the taking.

    The Open House series presents a site-specific project for one afternoon in a space that is for rent, sale, abandoned or slated for demolition. The Open House series gives people an opportunity to interact with contemporary art beyond the black and white walls in a gallery or museum. There is no equivalent of the American concept Open House in Chinese, but the term yangbanjian, which means showroom, conveys a similar feeling where real estate is on display for public consumption.


    • Aspen Art Museum
    • Cincinnati Art Museum
    • Citigroup
    • Cleveland Museum of Art
    • Columbia University
    • Condé Nast – Traveler Magazine Gertrude Contemporary Art Space
    • Gertrude Contemporary Art Space
    • Hong Kong Art Museum
    • MIT
    • NYU
    • Saint Ann’s School
    • Seattle Art Museum
    • Sotheby’s
    • The Clark Art Institute
    • The Metropolitan Museum Of Art
    • The New Museum
    • The New York Times
    • World Monuments Fund

    Appendix 4: This City Art

    公共PUBLIC’s intention is to integrate everyday urban environments directly with their work through a desire to be resourceful and independent in the current climate, yet still achieve and evolve as visual artists.

    Alternative art capturing the spirit of cities, created and exhibited for unique events in unusual spaces.

    TCA make art influenced from direct experiences of cities. Two foreign artist living and working in Beijing, seeing the city in unique alternative ways that come from being a visitor.

    To make genuine events which promote their Art, and media friendly stories to bring awareness to their creative process.

    To participate in art based events and projects which engage subjects, locations and people in New Ways.

    Appendix 5: INH-SZ 传承:深圳 (Inheritance-Shenzhen)

    Proposed as a temporary and potentially mobile project space, the mission of INH-SZ 传承:深圳 is to demand urgent questions about the art history and visual culture of the new and migrant city. Accessing such issues as history making, voluntary displacement and exile, economic migrancy, identity and gender politics through artistic and curatorial practices – Inheritance Projects hopes that this is only one element of a permanent engagement with the impermanent city.

    INH-SZ 传承:深圳 has an open door policy with an unobtrusive but active public programmes, inviting the local population to see in a local context, the artistic practices of artists who live and work in the city. There will be workshops with Shenzhen schools and universities, research and development of local artists and unstructured happenings involving the nearby residents and merchants. It is fundamental to INH-HZ 传承:深圳 that the habitants of Bai Shi Zhou and wider Shenzhen have the opportunity to experience art without feeling patronized or excluded in order to recognize the artistic heritage of the young city.


    Appendix 6: The Donkey Institute of Contemporary Art (DICA)

    The Donkey Institute of Contemporary Art (DICA) is an initiative dedicated to supporting experimental contemporary art on the back of a donkey. Established in the Beijing summer of 2009, DICA demonstrates a donkey’s spirit of steadfast oblivion. The DICA and the donkey counter all forms of calculated intelligence, promotion and profit-making within the market place of contemporary art. They do so with the slowest possible speed, the most idle tactics and wandering work ethics.

    Obstinate, dumb and proceeding on blind faith, DICA meanders throughout cities to meet its potential audience, whoever that might be. Yet, DICA makes no claim or appeal for recognition in these encounters. The institute lives by the charm and rhythm that is unique to the donkey’s soul. In this sense, DICA is the most inhuman and radical fulfillment of the avant-garde. It posits an almost complete sort of “standing-still” that refuses to concede to anything. For its inaugural meandering exhibition, DICA will present video works on portable monitors attached on the back of the Donkey.


    • CPU:PRO
    • Yuanfen New Media Art Space
    • REJON
    • Kate Lu
    • Bao Xiao
    • Laoban Soundsystem
    • Our donkey
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    Notes on Alternatives in China by escdotdot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

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