In 1994, Christie’s became the first international auction house to open a representative office in Shanghai. In the years that followed, the prestigious British auction house established itself as a pioneer in the Chinese art market, which, according to a recent report, just became the second-largest one in the world, making up 21 percent of the global art sales in 2017.
For Jinqing Caroline Cai 蔡金青, chairman of Christie’s China, the country’s growing appetite for art, largely backed by its exponential economic growth, constitutes an unprecedented opportunity to bring Chinese ancient and contemporary artworks to the rest of the world, as well as to introduce global art to Chinese art lovers and collectors.
Before she appeared at our second annual Women’s Conference: How Women Are Shaping the Rising Global Power on May 14, Cai talked to SupChina about the rapid growth of Christie’s China and the future of the Chinese art market.
SupChina: It’s been over five years since you joined Christie’s China in 2012. During your years there, the auction house launched its inaugural sale in 2013 and subsequently opened two new art spaces, in Shanghai in 2014 and Beijing in 2016. The rapid growth is truly impressive. How would you assess these achievements? What are you most proud of?
Cai: It depends on the topic, the market, and the industry to see how much we have achieved. It’s well acknowledged that Christie’s has had a long-lasting impact on the global art auction business and market, but I want to share a few personal moments that I’m extremely proud of. One of them is, of course, helping Christie’s to become the first international auction house to operate independent auctions in China. We had many auctions in the past five years and we continue building our galleries across the country. For me, the experience is difficult and challenging, but also rewarding and exhilarating, given that we are really on the forefront in this emerging market. The art market in China is very young compared with the global one, especially those in Western countries. Whatever we are doing here is setting new frontiers, benchmarks, and milestones for artists, for the local business, for collectors, and for the broad public. In our Shanghai salesroom, we combine international artists’ works and Chinese contemporary modern art. Many new records were set in Shanghai. Whatever we are doing, we are trying to bridge China and the rest of the world. I also feel lucky to play an important role here.
In the near future, we want to have more galleries and art centers in Beijing and Shanghai, because we believe that their presence will create a unique Christie’s experience for Chinese art lovers and collectors without going abroad. We have introduced a lot of art programs and education programs in the centers in Beijing and Shanghai, but our educational initiative really goes beyond these spaces. We are bringing our knowledge about art from all these types of arenas and different parts of the world to all over China. I personally have been to many second-tier cities where I had never been in my life before joining Christie’s. Recently, I traveled in Chongqing, Wuhan, Chengdu, and Jinan, where there were interesting discoveries for us. At the same time, we also met with great enthusiasm wherever we went, especially from local artists, educators, and collectors. This is very encouraging.
SupChina: What are the biggest challenges and restrictions that foreign auction houses in China have to deal with? What’s your unique way to overcome them or to minimize their impacts on the firm’s growth?
Cai: Building a new business is always challenging. While we have more than 250 years of history and heritage behind us, we are still relatively new in China. We started very small compared with local auction houses. But I think what we are really focusing on is trying to be innovative and to create a lot of new concepts and approaches.
One of them is Chinese contemporary design. Every single new concept we created took tremendous efforts in terms of research, artists, designers, catalogs, and marketing campaigns. We are excited about new challenges because they force us to think differently and get to know the market more intimately.
For a foreign auction house, another challenge in China is the restriction on trading cultural relics, which are protected by the cultural relics protection law. We, as a foreign business, are not allowed to trade art created before 1949, which keeps us off from quite a big chunk of the local market. But at the same time, on the bright side, it allows us to completely focus on 20th-century and contemporary art, which itself is the most dynamic, interesting, and active market. I feel for now, for the purpose of Christie’s Shanghai, it’s a good starting point to focus on the contemporary and modern art and design. We also try to bring more Western art to our salesrooms, to let Chinese collectors see firsthand works through our Shanghai auctions.
Another challenge is to grow the team and expertise. It’s always important to attract and keep the best talents in the market, both in terms of art specialists, marketing, communication, and social media. Christie’s is one of the best-known leading art brands and we want to excel in all sorts of aspects.
SupChina: What does the Chinese landscape of the art market look like now? How much has it developed, and what industry trends did you notice over the past few years?
Cai: The past five years are the most interesting period for Chinese art collectors, who are gradually growing out of their comfort zone, starting to collect Chinese contemporary art, and embracing global art. I think it’s a huge trend and it happens not only among collectors from the younger generation but also across all age groups, even among established collectors. Chinese collectors are really confident and they really see art as an important part of their lifestyle and investment.
Another aspect is that we’ve seen Chinese artists being more determined in their pursuit of art and more connected to the international trends. In the past, Chinese contemporary artists have been most well known for their political statements and China elements in their works. But if you look at some emerging artists born after the 1970s, you can see that their styles are more integrated into what we see on the global stage.
The third aspect is the emergence of the international art business in the Chinese market. In addition to us, there are many new galleries based in China. They are really active in organizing events with Chinese collectors. All of that has been really helpful in developing interests of Chinese collectors in global art.
SupChina: What is your vision for Christie’s China? What do you want to achieve next?
Cai: As the Chinese market continues to grow, I think there are a lot of possibilities. I think the top objective for Christie’s is to engage with Chinese collectors, either through Shanghai sales or global sales. We have 10 global auction centers, and the Chinese one has grown tremendously in terms of local art auctions as well as its overall contribution to the global revenue. So for us, how to expand our China presence and be able to provide better service for Chinese collectors is our top objective.
SupChina: How did you get into the world of art auctions? What does it take to be in charge of a world-renowned auction house like Christie’s?
Cai: I did consulting, venture capital, and communication before joining Christie’s. All of them are what I considered the most suitable choice for me at a certain point of my career, and I am really grateful for every single opportunity. Being at Christie’s combines a lot of the work I’ve done and my personal interests in art.
Leading Christie’s China is a demanding role. It takes a huge amount of energy, concentration, and personal commitment to fulfill this job. For example, I need to travel a lot to meet clients all over China and overseas. It’s quite exhausting sometimes, but I have to deal with this part of my life and be productive. After I took up this job, I learned to do some reading and catch up with the latest news in the global art world during long-haul flights. I’ve got to have an open mind and a strong physical ability as well. I need to deal with many last-minute changes, seeing them as part of my life. I also need to be a cheerleader to help my team overcome challenges and stay positive and optimistic.
China, as I said before, is an important market, but it is also a very challenging and competitive market. What we are doing here is very different from other parts of the world. We also need to help global colleagues, like those in London and New York, to understand the Chinese market. We want them to not only see it as a necessity to travel in China, but also to foster their commitment and understanding of China.
Meanwhile, I see an increasing number of women leaders and entrepreneurs who are quite active in the art business. I think women can bring special strength in the world of art because we have a flexible mind and are collaborative and socially active. I think there is tremendous potential for women to be influential in this market. For Christie’s, we always want to support more female artists and collectors who will shape the future of the art world, and it is also what I consider a very important part of my interests.