Interview – Elisabeth de Brabant

Since arriving in Shanghai in 2004, Elisabeth de Brabant has been a leading figure in the city’s art scene. Her eponymous Art Center helps provide a platform for Chinese contemporary artists to gain recognition both in China and abroad, and is a revered space for the exchange of ideas, dialogue, education and fostering new talent.

We recently spoke with Elisabeth about the city’s evolving art scene, the changing attitudes of Chinese people towards art and what the Art Center has planned for the coming months.

Can you tell us about your background. What led you to the art industry and Shanghai?
I come from three generations of art collectors. My family are passionate about giving back to society through the arts. They are heavily involved with some of the most important museums in the world, namely Museum of Modern Art New York, The Seattle Art Museum and The Tate Modern.

I inherited their passion for the arts, and although my education is heavily based in the fine arts, (Columbia University, Art History & Central St.Martin’s, MFA) I never felt the calling to work in art until I arrived in Shanghai. I have always been an avid art collector.

When we moved to Shanghai in 2004, I realized there was a very stimulated local art scene in Mainland China that wasn’t being seen in the West. It was fascinating and I wanted to gain a better understanding of this movement. It was the first time that I felt that I could contribute to an emerging art scene.

You established your gallery in 2008, can you tell us about your approach and philosophy and the artists you represent?
While my own gallery-art center was established in 2008, I have been actively involved with Chinese contemporary art and these artists since my arrival in 2004.

The social and cultural influences of different age groups in Chinese contemporary art are more distinct than in other contemporary art scenes. China is changing so rapidly, and as art mirrors society, it has been fascinating to witness this.

As I began to understand more, I felt that I was seeing a lot of similar trends in the art scene. I decided to open the Art Center based on a mission to find an alternative collective of artists. Artists who I felt would be the next step in the development and maturing of the art scene.

The Art Center aims to provide a platform for Chinese contemporary artists who express poetry and soul. My philosophy is that art should reflect the soul. There should be an internal dialog. As society becomes aware of its rapid consumption, there will be a stronger interest to nurture one’s body and soul through music, theatre and art.

The contemporary art scene has seen many changes over the past years, from your perspective, can you tell us about what you have witnessed, how you think the contemporary art movement has progressed and where you think it might be heading in the future?
The Chinese contemporary art scene is 25 years “young”. To witness the fast-track development of Chinese contemporary art has been pretty incredible. Artists such as Yue Min Jun, Cai Guochong, Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi …to mention a few, exploded onto the scene in the 90s, and are pioneers in the field. They have literally catapulted the Chinese art scene into the international arena.

It is normal that after a period of intense exposure, the movement mellows and matures, which is what we have seen here in very recent years. As for the future, Chinese contemporary artists from all over the world who were not involved during the explosion are now finding they have a voice and a following for each of their individual art forms. It is this direction that we develop and support.

Recently it was announced that Shanghai plans to open 16 large-scale museums and galleries by 2015, to rival Beijing as the cultural and artistic capital of China. On one hand, it is great news for bringing more art to the city and making it more accessible to the public, yet on the flip side, it feels almost like an artificial push to build up an “art city” that has not had the time to emerge naturally. What are your thoughts on this?
I think it is important that the Chinese government supports more openly art and culture in Shanghai. I welcome the challenge. There has always been a rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai, I hope that this gives to more artists better exposure, however I do hope it represents quality and not quantity.

Have you seen a shift in the way Chinese people view or appreciate art today as compared to a few years ago? Are there key factors which your clients take into consideration when deciding on a purchase and how do you advise them on what is most suitable for them or the collection?
Yes there is marked difference of how people regard art works; it is all very subjective, and it’s very difficult to generalize.

From our experience at the Art Center, the Mainland Chinese youth have always supported us and have always been curious. What is wonderful to see developing, is Chinese art collectors who were originally focused on more traditional art forms such as jade and classical Chinese painting are now more open to considering Chinese contemporary art.

The shift is very recent – only in the last few years – and I find it very encouraging, it makes me feel that our mission is having an impact. This indicates that there is a different dialogue and new direction of Chinese contemporary artists both inside and outside China. The buyers are changing because there is a marked difference in the type of artist that is now being shown in Mainland China.

The advice I try to give to clients considering investing in art is that they must love the work they are purchasing. While collecting art is an investment, it is essential to have connection with the artwork.

In your opinion, which Chinese artists are leading the way and helping to shape and progress contemporary art in China today?
There are too many to mention! Artists and leaders such as Li Lei, with the Shanghai Museum of Art and leader of the Abstract painting movement; Hung Liu, extremely celebrated in the West; Leng Hong who exhibits in only museums and institutions, to Zhang Huang who is evolving continually. Chinese contemporary artists live all over the world and are currently changing the definition of Chinese art as we see it today.

What makes an artwork stand out to you? Can you tell us about an artwork/s that is special to you?
An artwork is completely personal experience; it is an intimate connection. Each of the art works in my private collection represent their own history and impact, it is very difficult to compare them. I guess my Hung Liu oil paintings are extremely special to me, because they were the first pieces I bought after moving to China.

What are you working on at the moment and what are your plans for the gallery in the next year?
We call our space an “Art Center” because I believe a successful gallery should also be a cultural platform, not just a place to sell art works. We create academic programs like art lectures, master classes, and develop cultural events such as contemporary art film and video screenings, and art performances.

For 2012 we are working on several shows including Hung Liu, Leng Hong, Jin Jiangbo, as well as introducing a new Japanese artist and working on a collective show. We are creating a program for Pan-Asian artists, we are working towards including Korean, Japanese and other Asian artists in our art center. It is all about passion and conviction.

Elisabeth de Brabant Art Center
299 Fuxing Xi Road (near Huashan Road), Shanghai 200031