Prior to becoming one of Shanghai’s premier art communities, the M50 district was an industrial hub that dates to the late 19th century.
Over the last 35 years, China’s urban population has risen from less than one-fifth of the country’s total to more than half, which means an additional 500 million people are now living in cities. The social transformation is even more astounding: These once drab industrial areas have become cultural hot spots.
Case in point: Shanghai’s thriving art scene in the M50 district has exploded and shows no signs of slowing down. Since the early 2000s, artists have gravitated to the relatively commercially untapped area that gets its name from its actual address, Moganshan Road, and the street number of one of the buildings within the complex. In a similar fashion to how aspiring artists transformed New York City’s SoHo neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s into the city’s unofficial art capital, many up-and-coming artists in Shanghai are doing the same in M50.
“The M50 Arts Complex is a set of artist studios, architect studios, designers and film workshops, set in what is now considered a very cool, but what must have been 20 years ago, a quite decrepit and decayed industrial complex,” says Richard Barkham, global chief economist at CBRE, who visited the district in 2011.
Prior to becoming one of Shanghai’s premier art communities, the the M50 district was an industrial hub for cotton milling that dates to the late 19th century. Due to the drop in the supply of raw materials, Shanghai’s economic efficiency decreased, thus causing the area and properties to fall into disuse. Thanks to the relatively cheap, derelict land, many artists started moving in.
“This is not unusual in the cities around the world that art and artists colonize the low-rent area,” says Barkham. “In China, it started working. I think a lot of artists jumped on it and it quickly became established as a kind of art center.”
A blend of organic and commercial growth
Today, the defunct textile mills and warehouses are now a cluster of galleries and art studios where visitors can explore Chinese contemporary art. With more than 100 galleries in the area, the creative district is teeming with budding artists. The central location is ideal for those who are just starting out because it positions them to sell their pieces in an area that’s low-cost, yet accessible to the masses. This ideology and set up is exactly “what generated SoHo and Tribeca,” says Barkham.
Art aficionados can visit M50’s galleries to get a taste of the city’s cutting-edge modern art. However, not all of it is confined to the more than 100 galleries and studios popping up in the district—a lot can be found in unassuming spots. “There are a lot of paintings on walls, which are done to a very high standard, and it’s a way of organically spreading,” says Barkham. “To me, the real art is almost in the street art that’s spilling out from the center.”
Sparking the city’s arts and culture boom
While M50 has been credited as the catalyst for Shanghai’s art explosion, West Bund is on a fast-track to becoming the city’s main attraction when it comes to arts and culture.
With more than 100 galleries in the area, the creative district is teeming with budding artists.
Covering a total area of 9.4 square kilometers in the southwest part of the Xuhui District, including 11.4 kilometers of shoreline, Shanghai West Bund is an urban branding and development project that aims to build upon the cultural and commercial foundation of the Xuhui waterfront, according to the district’s website.
The government-funded area has been developed to cultivate China’s cultural scene while aiming to bring domestic and foreign leaders together in the fields of art, media, fashion, design, and innovative finance to create a world-class waterfront that will attract tourists and locals alike. The area is home to the Long Museum, Yuz Museum, as well as the Shanghai Center for Photography. It also has several big projects in the works and hosts several arts fairs and other cultural events that were unheard of just 15 years ago.
While West Bund’s arts boom has boosted Shanghai’s collective cultural scene, it threatens to overshadow and wipe out the place that started it all: M50. For example, ShangART Gallery, one of the driving forces of China’s contemporary art movement, was located at M50 since the early 2000s, but has since moved its site to the new development.
Benefits of culturally-rich developments
For some, commercializing art scenes might be controversial, but there are plenty of advantages for real estate developers.
“The arts can be very good for development. Arts and cultural development makes the city more livable, more habitable, and ultimately more valuable,” says Barkham. “It’s one of the things in the long term—to be successful [real estate], cities must provide livability. This is a big step in that direction. China’s cities have come a long way in 20 years. Art and regeneration, that’s been a theme for about two decades and this is successfully done.”
Whether you prefer the M50 district or the bourgeoning arts scene in West Bund, there’s no denying that Shanghai is on its way to becoming one of the art capitals of the world.