A little history and context:
You’ve probably heard of Shanghai. Over 24 million people live there, though 40% of the population are migrants from other parts of the country, and an international population of over 200,000 make Shanghai one of China’s most cosmopolitan cities. Shanghai is also China’s financial and business hub, hosting the world’s busiest port - where the artists debark from their cargo ships after their Twenty Three Days At Sea residency.
Shanghai started out as a humble fishing village, growing into a major sea port city that controlled a large part of China’s trade and customs by the 18th century. During the Opium Wars, the British, then the French, Germans, and Americans all occupied different parts of the city, building walled concessions. In the 1920s and 1930s century, Shanghai became a refuge for Russians and European Jews fleeing war in Europe, but the city was then occupied by Japan until the end of World War II… Shanghai’s been through a lot. In 1991, Shanghai was allowed to open up to market forces, launching the breakneck-paced development of thousands of skyscrapers. The area east of the Huangpu River that divides the city in half is now home to Shanghai’s iconic skyline, and was entirely built in the last twenty-five years.
Shanghai’s official language is Mandarin, but locals speak Shanghainese, a topolect that sounds nothing like Mandarin or Cantonese (it actually sounds a little like Arabic). Weather-wise, it’s really humid, pretty hot in the summer and fairly cold in the winter. The city’s architecture is an eclectic mix of traditional lane houses called shikumen, art deco buildings left over from the many occupations, and new glassy shiny things. The city is expansive, but the subway system is great and equally ever-expanding. Shanghai’s also a good city for biking since it’s relatively flat, as long as you’re not trying to go over to Pudong. Oh and the pollution’s not *as bad* as in other cities in China (but it’s still not great, by world standards.)
In the past few years, since the Shanghai Expo in 2010, the city’s had a veritable explosion of massive contemporary art museums. There are also lots of commercial galleries, a growing number of nonprofit institutions, and and a pretty vibrant undercurrent of DIY spaces. Shanghai is also the birthplace of Chinese cinema, and is home to strong fashion, design, and tech scenes.
We’ve broken down the city’s creative scene into seven areas to explore, arranged by decreasing density of art spaces.
Xúhuì 徐汇 & Lúwān 卢湾
These two districts encompass most of the former occupied concessions, which left behind a legacy of European-style architecture and winding, tree-lined streets. While some shikumen and lilongs are disappearing, others have been renovated and preserved (Shanghai Street Stories does a fantastic job at chronicling these ongoing changes). Many galleries are scattered throughout this central area, and a complex of art spaces are gathered in Red Town, a former steel factory that now is home to a sculpture park and a whole bunch of art spaces, along the western edge of the area close to Jiaotong University.
“I find it easier for the Shanghai public to digest performance and exhibition under the context of spectacle.” Katy Roseland, Basement6 collective member
Jìng’ān 静安 & People’s Square 民广场
Jing’an has a more business district feel compared to the former concessions. Skyscrapers and shopping malls alternate along big avenues. People’s Park, a centrally located green space, give a bit of respite to the dense downtown, and encompasses the Grand Theater for performing arts, Shanghai MoCA museum as well as the MoCA Pavilion which shows more experimental work. The nearby Soviet-style Exhibition Center hosts many of the city’s art fairs, and the gigantic Jing’An temple is a Buddhist landmark to the north of the neighborhood.
Residencies: am space
M50, on Moganshan Road, is Shanghai’s biggest gallery cluster. Hundreds of galleries occupy former textile factory buildings, and many cafés also took up residence in the area, because apparently, where there’s art, there’s coffee.
Residencies: Chronus Art Center
“M50 is a great neighborhood. Bustling during the day, nice and quiet at night.” Jeff Musser, former resident at Pantocrator
The Bund 外滩
The Bund lines the Puxi bank of the river. This is where Shanghai’s various occupying powers built banks, hotels, and massive art deco buildings that have now been converted into luxury hotels, high-end dining, and more banks. The Bund is one of the city’s major tourist attractions, providing space for long walks along the river bank, famous for its view of the Pudong skyline.
“I got to the [Swatch Art Peace] Hotel, right on the Bund, in the eye of the tourist hurricane.” Heidi Bryce, former Swatch resident
West Bund 西岸
The local government encouraged investment into this area in the south part of the city dubbed the West Bund Art & Culture Pilot Zone, resulting in no less than five massive museums opening up to host biennales, major group shows, and retrospectives of local and internationally renowned artists and architects. These institutions are nevertheless still quite far apart, and some charge hefty prices for admissions so we wouldn’t recommend trying to go to all in one day! Many galleries from M50 have also recently opened satellites in the area.
Galleries: MadeIn, ShanghArt and Aike-Dellarco.
Massive warehouses and artists studios.
Art Spaces: ShanghART warehouse, Hero Pen Factory
This is the part that’s brand new. Pudong feels a little strange, with is huge avenues and top-down planned urbanism that built the district on top of swamps from the 1990s onwards. Parts of Pudong look like North-American suburbs, and other parts look like generic cities that could be absolutely anywhere in the world. Some of the The World Expo Pavilions have been reconverted into museums, like the China pavilion. NYU Shanghai has a campus here, there’s a gigantic convention center right across from the Himalayas museum and mall complex, all build by the Zendai property developers.
Museums: Aurora Museum, Himalayas Museum, China Art Museum, another Minsheng Museum, another Long Museum
“What still strikes me is the amazing change that has happened since my first visit. They equivalent of Manhattan has been built in Shanghai in less than 20 years. A massive subway system, some of the worlds tallest buildings... It really is a testament to human ambition and will.” - Mark Rumsey, former Swatch resident
Zhujiajiao 朱家角 / Wuzhen 乌镇 / Chongming 崇明
There are numerous picturesque water towns built around networks of canals are within a few hours from Shanghai. Wuzhen hosts a theater festival and large-scale contemporary art exhibitions, as well as a museum dedicated to the poet Mu Xin.
Residencies: Zendai Himalayas Zhujiajiao
Museums in Wuzhen: Muxin, Silk Factories
“It’s primarily a commercial tourist attraction, with lots of shops selling candy and trinkets. There’s still a local presence, mostly sustained through fishing and traditional crafts, and lots of bed and breakfasts and teahouses in 500-year-old structures.”
Fairs, Festivals & Events
September and November are busy months with waves of succeeding art fairs: Shanghai Biennale, West Bund Art & Design, Photo Shanghai, and Art in the City.
“When it comes to music electronic musicians, DJs and VJs rule Shanghai's nightlife. Sometimes I miss seeing indie bands.” George Van Wetering
Technology & Media Arts
Shanghai is also home to hacker spaces, creative coding schools, and virtual residencies.
Virtual Residency: Metaverse Makeovers
Screenshots of Halszka Masash's WeChat, the popular Chinese messaging app Halszka, Kati, Thea & the Metaverse Makeovers team used to communicate & collaborate during her remote residency.
Many thanks to the Australian Embassy Beijing for their support in developing these China Residencies Artist City Guides! Our resources are works-in-progress and will be updated regularly. Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org with other suggestions and recommendations!