How long can the Art Book Fair bubble last?

SHANGHAI – All weekend, a queue stretched down the road from the entrance to the Modern Museum of Art, a gleaming modern building in a park by the river 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 form of young urban in China, a deep urge for self-published art books, independent magazines, zines, and artificial consumer goods has taken hold and intensified year by year. In 2020, about 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 sold-out crowds, the fair is still seeking to establish a sustainable model, organizers say. Its focus is indie artists and hobbyists – a crowd that does not come with high turnover and can not afford high stand 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’s organizers, told Sixth Tone. Zhao said the fair is dependent on stand sales and ticket office to continue, both of which must be shared with the venue.

People line up for the 6th abC Art Book Fair Shanghai, October 2021. With permission from the organizer

People line up for the 6th abC Art Book Fair Shanghai, October 2021. With permission from the organizer

The participants say that the fair makes it possible for small projects to find an audience and get started.

“Tea”, a bilingual magazine about food and culture, launched its first issue at the fair, with articles on topics such as retro vegetable carving and the story of a Central Asian secret society dedicated to pilaf and revolution. This year, abC waived the stand fee of 500 yuan ($ 78) in return for the magazine bringing an art installation.

Founders Qin Kechun and Guo Hetian told Sixth Tone that they started working at the magazine in their spare time a year ago, after graduating with degrees in curatorial practice in the UK. Like most participants, they do not expect the project to make a living, but hoped to cover their publishing costs with sales.

Inspired by the Printed Matter’s Art Book Fair, held annually in New York and Los Angeles, the organizers of abC aimed to raise awareness of China’s small but lively indie publishing and art scene. The young organizers started as a non-profit group staffed by volunteers, and the young organizers quickly registered as a social enterprise and began to consider building a career. In 2018, abC began debiting suppliers and participants, and attendance broke 10,000 for the first time, Zhao said.

The success of the fair quickly lured more business-oriented players into the game, and almost every year since, there have been several fairs in several cities. Shanghai, known for its artistic atmosphere, hosts the highest number of art book fairs each year. The second most influential, UNFOLD Shanghai Art Book Fair, is scheduled for the week after abC Art Book Fair Shanghai, from 28 to 31 October. Many sellers at abC said they planned to be at UNFOLD, which charges higher stand fees but often provides an even larger audience with cheap tickets.

The founders of Te Magazine pose for a picture during the 6th abC Art Book Fair Shanghai, October 22, 2021. Wu Peiyue / Sixth Tone

The founders of Te Magazine pose for a picture during the 6th abC Art Book Fair Shanghai, October 22, 2021. Wu Peiyue / Sixth Tone

There are already complaints that the fair is sold out.

“Look at the stands that sell clothes and stickers. Can they be considered art books?” said a high school cartoonist and salesman from Wuhan to Sixth Tone.

The fair was dominated by independent producers, small publishers and graphic design companies. The main hall housed an entire company booth promoting a “creators” magazine sponsored by mobile phone maker Vivo.

Zhu Xin, a supplier whose designs include printed illustrations for functional objects such as pencil cases, said art book fairs should not be an ivory tower for art.

“It feels rewarding to see people buy things you design,” Zhu said. “City workers rarely have time to think about art. If I can deliver a creative idea through functional objects, why not? ”

While the art book market is booming, abC is cutting back in an attempt to hold on to its indie roots. Last year, they tried to increase the number of its annual events from two to three, but quickly realized that the quality was impossible to maintain. This year, the fair cut down the seller’s seats to combat the bazaar atmosphere.

Some artists hit reasonable congestion. The saleswoman from Wuhan said she heard salesmen at the July Beijing abC say they were planning to skip Shanghai to take a break from the trade show circuit.

“Every new business model has a demographic benefit in China, but the bubble can also easily break after chaotic expansion,” says Zhao. “It’s like when there were too many music festivals years ago – people didn’t feel like going that much for a while.”

Outdoor music festivals burned out even before COVID-19. The picture 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 began to complain that they saw the same numbers at every show and that it seemed like they had not had time to come up with new materials.

The number of events dropped 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 Tones sister publication.

Shoppers browser at 6th abC Art Book Fair Shanghai, October 22, 2021. David Cohen / Sixth Tone

Shoppers browser at 6th abC Art Book Fair Shanghai, October 22, 2021. David Cohen / Sixth Tone

abc organizers say their focus is on the indie publishing community they have nurtured and the professional image they have built over the past five years, rather than addressing a wider, but fickle, audience.

“We want to provide a platform for young creators to express themselves through words and illustrations so that society can have the resilience to stay longer instead of being washed away by capital,” Zhao said.

Zhao hopes to see creators build careers through communities like hers. Young creators, she said, “should not treat creativity like a disposable battery,” something to be used up in an intense outburst. She told Sixth Tone that when she attended Printed Matters in New York, one thing that struck her was that there were so many older artists exhibiting their works.

“Our mission is to promote an ecosystem where everyone wants to make self-publishing a lifelong career,” Zhao said.

Like the organizer and other attendees that Sixth Tone spoke to, label supplier Zhu said she does not make a profit and cannot assess how much longer she will be able to afford her passion. Last year, Zhu resigned from his job at an advertising agency after getting tired of the hectic business culture. Now she is developing her own brand and selling the items she made on Taobao.

“I will do it until I run out of creative energy,” Zhu said. “Then I will go back to the job market and find something unrelated to art.”

Editor: David Cohen.

(Headline image: A general image of the 6th abC Art Book Fair Shanghai, October 2021. With permission of the organizer)


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