How Long Can the Art Book Fair Bubble Last?
SHANGHAI — All weekend, a queue stretched down the road from the entrance of the Modern Museum of Art, a gleaming contemporary building in a riverside park on the east bank of the Huangpu River. The blockbuster show? The sixth abC Art Book Fair Shanghai. With a lineup of 145 Chinese art publishers and individual creators and 41 international publishers, this year’s abC Art Book Fair attracted more than 10,000 visitors.
Among a certain kind of young urbanite in China, a profound craving for self-published art books, independent magazines, zines, and arty consumer goods has taken hold and intensified year on year. In 2020, around 15 cities held art book fairs, from Shenzhen on the border with Hong Kong to Inner Mongolia’s Ordos, known for coal-mining, cashmere, and real estate speculation.
The abC Art Book Fair, which debuted in Beijing in 2015, can take much of the credit for launching the trend, drawing the kind of horde usually associated with new iPhones or discounted televisions.
But despite sellout crowds, the fair is still looking to establish a sustainable model, organizers say. Its focus is indie artists and hobbyists — a crowd that doesn’t come with high turnover and can’t afford high booth prices.
“Unlike art book fairs in Western countries, we lack government funding and institutional support to provide a consistent venue,” Zhao Mengsha, one of the fair organizers, told Sixth Tone. Zhao said the fair relies on booth sales and box office to keep going, both of which have to be split with the venue.
Participants say that the fair makes it possible for small projects to find an audience and get off the ground.
“Te,” a bilingual magazine about food and culture, launched its first issue at the fair, featuring articles on topics like retro vegetable carving and the history of a Central Asian secret society dedicated to pilaf and revolution. This year, abC waived the 500 yuan ($78) booth fee in return for the magazine bringing an art installation.
Founders Qin Kechun and Guo Hetian told Sixth Tone that they began working on the magazine in their free time a year ago, after graduating with degrees in curatorial practice in the UK. Like most participants, they don’t expect the project to provide a living, but hoped to cover their publishing costs with sales.
Inspired by Printed Matter’s Art Book Fair, held annually in New York and Los Angeles, the organizers of abC aimed to bring attention to China’s small but lively indie-publishing and art scene. Starting as a non-profit group staffed by volunteers, the young organizers soon registered as a social enterprise and started to think about building a career. In 2018, abC started charging vendors and attendees, and attendance broke 10,000 for the first time, said Zhao.
The fair’s success soon lured more business-minded players into the game, and almost every year since has seen more fairs in more cities. Shanghai, which is well-known for its artsy atmosphere, hosts the highest number of art book fairs each year. The second most influential, UNFOLD Shanghai Art Book Fair, is scheduled the week after abC Art Book Fair Shanghai, from Oct. 28 to 31. Many vendors at abC said they planned to be at UNFOLD, which charges higher booth fees but often delivers an even larger crowd with cheap tickets.
There’s already grumbling that the fair is selling out.
“Look at those booths selling clothes and stickers. Can they be considered art books?” a high-school-aged cartoonist and vendor from Wuhan said to Sixth Tone.
The fair was dominated by independent producers, small publishing houses, and graphic design firms. The main hall included one wholly corporate booth, promoting a magazine about “creators” sponsored by cell phone maker Vivo.
Zhu Xin, a vendor whose designs include printed illustrations to functional objects like pencil cases, said art book fairs shouldn’t be an ivory tower for fine art.
“It feels rewarding to see people are buying things you design,” Zhu said. “Urban workers seldom have time to contemplate on fine art. If I can deliver a creative idea through functional objects, why not?”
While the art book fair market is booming, abC is cutting back in an effort to stick to its indie roots. Last year, they tried to increase the number of its annual events from two to three but soon realized the quality was impossible to maintain. This year, the fair cut back vendor slots to fight the bazaar atmosphere.
Some artists are hitting fair overload. The vendor from Wuhan said that she heard vendors at the July Beijing abC saying they planned to skip Shanghai in order to take a break from the fair circuit.
“Any new business model has a demographic dividend in China, but the bubble might also easily break after chaotic expansion,” says Zhao. “It’s like when there were too many music festivals years ago — people didn’t want to go so much for a while.”
Outdoor music festivals were burning out even before COVID-19. The box office for outdoor music festivals tripled from 2011 to 2017, rising from 161 million yuan to 580 million yuan, according to Jiemian. But with constant festivals, fans started to complain that they saw the same acts at every show, and that it seemed like they hadn’t had time to come up with any new materials.
The number of events fell from 269 in 2017 to 257 in 2019. Among 170 music festival brands, only 13% have been held continuously for more than five years from 2002 to 2019, according to The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication.
The abC organizers say their focus is the indie publishing community they bred and the professional image they built over the past five years, rather than catering to a broader, but fickle, audience.
“We want to provide a platform for young creators to express themselves through words and illustrations, so the community can have the resilience to stay around longer rather than be washed away by capital,” Zhao said.
Zhao hopes to see creators build careers through communities like hers. Young creators, she said, “shouldn’t treat creativity as a disposable battery,” something to use up in one intense burst. She told Sixth Tone that when she attended Printed Matters in New York, one thing struck her was there were so many older artists showcasing their works.
“Our mission is to foster an ecosystem where everyone wants to turn self-publishing into a life-long career,” Zhao said.
Like the organizer and other participants that Sixth Tone spoke to, sticker vendor Zhu said she’s not earning a profit and can’t estimate how much longer she will be able to afford her passion. Last year, Zhu resigned from her job at an advertising agency after becoming fed up with the hectic business culture. Now she is developing her own brand and selling the objects she made on Taobao.
“I will do it until I run out of creative energy,” Zhu said. “After that, I will go back to the job market and find something unrelated to art.”
Editor: David Cohen.
(Header image: A general view of the 6th abC Art Book Fair Shanghai, October 2021. Courtesy of the organizer)