FIVE YEARS is a long time in Shanghai. Way back in 2010, the city’s World Expo attracted seventy-three million visitors: There were thousands of new taxis, half a dozen new subway lines, and new art spaces like the Rockbund Art Museum, the retrofitted former Royal Asia Society building off the Bund, all banded together under the slogan “Better City, Better Life.” Now there are also better museums, or certainly more of them. Five years on, the Expo’s Chinese Pavilion is home to a one-million-square-foot government-run museum, and the once-deserted industrial zone on the other side of the river has been rebranded the West Bund Cultural Corridor, an area that has sprouted a handful of museums in just a few years. The Rockbund, which celebrated its five-year anniversary last weekend with a spate of openings and parties, leads a new unruly pack vying for influence in Shanghai, the wick, as it were, of this city’s museum boom.
Shanghai’s art denizens frequently invoke RAM as the new old guard, though it’s technically just past toddlerhood. Others are just learning how to crawl: The splashier Yuz Museum (collector Budi Tek’s outfit) and Long Museum West Bund (founded by collectors Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian) both celebrated their first birthdays within the past three months. Indeed, just before RAM’s anniversary, the Yuz mounted its second-ever exhibition, “Myth/History II: Shanghai Galaxy,” inviting local DJs to ring in the opening weekend.
“The landscape is changing. It has an even more international perspective,” said Li Qi, senior curator at the Rockbund. Of course, museums aren’t the only big change from 2010: There’s also WeChat, the social media site now indispensible to art-world networking. “I don’t even carry business cards anymore,” Karen Smith, director of OCAT Xi’an, told me.
The Rockbund’s own weekend-long celebration kicked off with an opening for Chen Zhen, “Without going to New York and Paris, life could be internationalized,” curated by Hou Hanru, artistic director of the MAXXI in Rome. An artist who died fifteen years ago might seem an ironic choice for a young museum’s birthday. But the exhibition, which focuses on the years Chen spent going back and forth from Paris to Shanghai in the 1990s, brought a note of poignancy to his death: He never saw the Shanghai his work anticipated.
At the opening I watched as Simon Wang of Antenna Space chatted with Zhang Ding, who spoke of his upcoming solo project at the ICA London. Heman Chong had come in from Singapore to see “hundreds of close friends” and to join the convening of Hugo Boss Asia Art Prize jurors the following Sunday. Dealer Leo Xu had just returned from Frieze New York—“I almost fell asleep at the table last night,” he laughed, taking it all in stride. The lull between Frieze and Art Basel meant a packed schedule for the Shanghai set: The next few days would see openings for Shi Yong at Xu Zhen’s MadeIn Gallery, Ding Yi at the Long Museum West Bund, and Zhang Eli and Christopher Doyle at the Aurora Museum, as well as an opening at the Sifang Museum in nearby Nanjing.
Around the corner, BANK, the studio of Mathieu Borysevicz’s MABSOCIETY, which opened about a year and a half ago, hosted dual solo exhibitions for Geng Yini and Heidi Voet. The latter moved to Shanghai four years ago with her husband, artist Michael Lin, who has also shown at the Rockbund. “Larys [Frogier, director of RAM] has raised the bar where it’s not just one of these real-estate vanity affair things,” Borysevicz said at the opening. “He’s done a program that’s really quite international yet inclusive of what’s happening in China.”
RAM’s packed but more modest opening reception on Friday night was followed on Saturday by a private champagne-and-caviar party and benefit auction in an adjacent building that was lit up like Vegas. “Unfortunately it’s my job,” Hou said jokingly of the swanky affair to ShanghART director Lorenz Helbling, adding, “I’m only here for twenty-four hours.”
Karaoke-empire magnate–cum–art collector Qiao Zhibing and his girlfriend Lihsin Tsai—who are now planning an art center in Shanghai—sat in the front row near artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who had flown in from New York just for the occasion. His was the first show the museum put on: “When I received this exhibition, the museum was still under construction,” he pointed out.
“We are very proud at Rockbund of the example we put forth,” Frogrier told the audience, introducing the whole team—roughly a dozen people—to applause. Bidding, birthday cake, and techno ensued, with the benefit auction raising an impressive eight million RMB for the museum. Neon signage glared a time line of five years’ worth of exhibitions while guests leaned on decorative pillows printed with the number five.
Everything in Shanghai looks better at night—for one, no sign of pollution. Guests gathered amid the swathes of neon-pink and plasma-blue stage lighting, essentially rendering my iPhone camera useless. “They say it’s because everyone looks better in the pink lighting,” said Tsai, as she and Qiao took off for the Ye Shanghai karaoke club. Who needs rose-colored glasses?