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Why is Chinese Contemporary Art Important to Collect Today? An Interview with Larry Warsh
Larry Warsh with Ai Weiwei sculpture, 2009.
NEW YORK, NY.- AW Asia is a private organisation founded to promote Chinese contemporary art in the United States. In this original Art Radar interview, we gain insight into the aims of the organisation and founder Larry Warsh provides expert opinion on contemporary Chinese art.

For more than 25 years, Larry Warsh, founder of AW Asia, has been involved in the art world. An enthusiastic collector of fine art for many years, Warsh possesses an extensive professional background within both Western and Chinese contemporary art.

Warsh has focused on collecting and promoting contemporary Chinese art since 2000. Since then, he has made it his public mission to support and advance contemporary Chinese art and in 2007, AW Asia was founded. AW Asia is a private organisation, dedicated to promoting contemporary Chinese art through institutional loans and museum acquisitions, curatorial projects, publishing, and educational programs.

Tell us about your background and how you became involved in art?

I have been involved in the art world as a collector, publisher and advisor for more than 25 years. I started to collect Western contemporary artists, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Francesco Clemente, during the 1980s and 1990s.

How did you become interested in Chinese art? When did you start to collect Chinese art?

I began collecting Chinese contemporary art in early 2000. The market was in the early stages in the USA, having had earlier activity in Europe (such as the Netherlands, Italy, France, and Switzerland). At that time there were very few serious collectors of Chinese contemporary art. I had a chance to meet many of China’s leading artists and I was extremely impressed with the integrity and vision of these artists, so I began collecting their work before the market for Chinese contemporary art became an international focus.

What kind of Chinese art did you begin to collect? How has the collection evolved?

The first work of Chinese art that I acquired was a 1990’s Wang Jinsong oil painting and this work is still in my collection. I started with oil painting and later expanded into photography, sculpture, and prints.

What is AW Asia? What does it do?

AW Asia is a private organisation in New York City. What it does is it exclusively promotes Chinese contemporary art through institutional loans and museum acquisitions. But also through curatorial projects [and] publishing as well as educational programs.

We also provide special resources such as our online database, Chinese Contemporary Art in Museum Collections. This original database represents over forty Chinese artists and over 55 domestic and international museums and institutions in 14 foreign countries including China, America, Japan, Australia, France, England, Italy, Brazil, and Canada.

Can you tell us the story of how AW Asia began? What inspired you to start AW Asia?

After years of collecting Chinese contemporary art I realised that I wanted to start a business that would help people to understand this dynamic field of contemporary art, so in 2007 I founded AW Asia.

How is AW Asia different? What is unique about it?

The AW Asia mission is to bring Chinese contemporary art to a wider global audience through our engagement with the field as a whole. We are not a commercial gallery and we do not represent individual artists, however, we are in collaboration with several of China’s leading contemporary artists.

What is the biggest challenge for AW Asia as an organisation?

Our challenge has always been to help Chinese contemporary art maintain its proper place in the history of art.

Who buys Chinese art in the United States of America?

American collectors of Chinese contemporary art buy a range of work, from oil painting to photography, sculpture, print-making, and installations. There are several notable collections of Chinese contemporary art in the hands of American collectors such as Kent and Vicki Logan, Agnus Gund and others. The number of American collectors interested in this field seems to be growing as auctions in the US and around the world are reporting continued strong sales of Asian contemporary art and Chinese contemporary art.

What kinds of Chinese art are popular in America now? Why?

“I believe that the ‘first generation’ of Chinese contemporary artists are still popular in the U.S.. Among these artists are names like Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, Hai Bo, Hong Hao and Rong Rong. But also Sui Jianguo and Qiu Zhijie. These artists play a significant role. They will maintain their value and importance in the canon of global contemporary art.

People collect for many reasons, but the financial and psychological aspects of collecting always play an important part. I think the American buyers of Chinese contemporary art are those who have been collecting contemporary art. They see the beauty, significance and power of the Chinese artist.”

How often do you visit China? Which cities and how often?

I visit China every several months. I normally visit Beijing and Shanghai, although sometimes my business takes me to other cities such as Chengdu.

When talking about the local art scene, how does AW Asia contribute to the Chinese contemporary art scene?

Although AW Asia does not necessary contribute to the local art scene per se, I like to think that our efforts to promote the field in the West has a positive affect on the field as a whole, thus encouraging collectors to pursue Chinese art in China and around the world.

Does AW Asia have links with any American museums?

Yes, AW Asia has relations with a number of American museums. We work with these institutions to coordinate acquisitions, loans and curatorial projects.

What are the museums interested in? Which kinds of works have you placed with them? Which museums are most interested in Chinese art and what kind of Chinese art?

In the last few years AW Asia has sold (and facilitated the sale of) collections of Chinese contemporary photography to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Museum of Modern Art in New York (artists Hai Bo, Zhang Dali, Weng Fen, Zheng Guogu, Hong Hao, Hong Lei, Zhang Peili, Sheng Qi, Rong Rong, Ai Weiwei, Huang Yan) and The Getty Museum in Los Angeles (artists Wang Qingsong, Hai Bo, Song Yongping, Rong Rong). There are more and more museums who are incorporating Chinese contemporary art into their exhibition planning….

Do you know any interesting up and coming exhibitions of Chinese art in the United States?

Contemporary Chinese photography is becoming increasingly prominent in the field of international contemporary art. Right now The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art in New York are both exhibiting Chinese contemporary photography alongside significant Western artists.

Last year AW Asia facilitated a collection of Chinese contemporary art to be placed with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Among the contemporary Chinese artists whose photography is now represented in the Met’s permanent collection are Hai Bo, Song Dong, Sheng Qi, Hong Hao, Weng Fen, Wang Qingsong, Zhang Huan and Xing Danwen.

At The Museum of Modern Art in New York, photography by Chinese artists Ai Weiwei and Zhang Dali are being featured. The photographic works by Ai Weiwei and Zhang Dali entered MoMA’s permanent collection in July 2008. These were an AW Asia sale. It is actually the first show in which these works will be displayed at the museum in a group-exhibition context.

Between December and April next year, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles will be having an exhibition called Photography from New China. This exhibition will be highlighting photographs by Hai Bo, Liu Zheng, Song Yongping, Rong Rong, and Wang Qingsong which the museum acquired. These workswere also an AW Asia sale.

Over the time period that you have been involved with contemporary art, what changes have you seen in the art scene?

Of course, [in] the international art world both the field of Chinese contemporary art and Western contemporary art has changed a lot in the last twenty years. There are more resources and newer technologies available to artists. There is more capital invested in the art market than ever before, and artists are increasingly savvy about their work and their reputations around the globe.

What do you think are the biggest challenges contemporary artists are facing right now in China?

I think the biggest challenge is for artists to continue making innovative and interesting work that stands apart from the crowd.

What does the future hold for the contemporary art scene in China? What is happening in the market for Chinese art? Are there any threats to the future development of the contemporary Chinese art market?

I think the future is still very bright for the Chinese art scene. A lot of younger artists are now stepping up to the plate and their work will be admired and collected, but [by] a much wider audience than ever before. There is also what I call the ‘New Chinese Collector’ emerging in China. The New Chinese Collector is unique because his buying habits have become incredibly sophisticated in a very short time, and his focus is primarily – if not solely – on collecting the best quality Chinese art and antiquities. We are not seeing the New Chinese Collector scouring the globe looking for Picassos or Monets; they appear to be fixated only on quality Chinese art, with the operative word being ‘quality.’ At recent auctions of Chinese art that lacked quality historical Chinese artists – in particular contemporary artists – New Chinese Collectors proved that they’re not willing to spend top dollar (or rather, yuan) on anything but the best.

I can say that New Chinese Collectors have shown, particularly in the last year, that they are some of the world’s most motivated and informed buyers. They have most certainly done their homework, and they see no problem in going far above and beyond estimates if they home in on an item they feel will remain valuable and upon which they place significant cultural importance. That goes for everything from antiquities to contemporary works by living artists.

ArtTactic recently released their “Chinese Contemporary Art Market Confidence Indicator” and the Chinese contemporary art market shows continued signs of a strong recovery.

Which arts organisations do you admire and/or work with?

AW Asia works with a number of Asian art-related organisations such as the Asia Society in New York, the China Institute in New York, the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, plus a host of other small organisations and companies in both China and the U.S., depending on the project. We appreciate the work of many organisations that share similar goals of promoting this field.

How do you keep yourself up-to-date, perhaps with new artists and art market news? What art news sources do you read?

It is always a challenge to stay totally up-to-date on the contemporary art world. I normally follow several art websites weekly, such as ArtDaily, ARTINFO, The Art Newspaper and Chinese art websites such as ArtZineChina, and new sites such as NeochaEDGE. I also follow the art pages of the Financial Times and Bloomberg online.

Being a collector yourself, what tips would you give to other collectors?

In terms of starting a good foundation of Chinese contemporary art, I suggest that new collectors follow the first generation of artists such as Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, Hai Bo, Hong Hao, Sui Jianguo, Qiu Zhijie, Wang Qingsong, and Rong Rong.

AW Asia has published a book that addresses the significant things to know about this field, titled “Chinese Contemporary Art 7 Things You Should Know”, written by Melissa Chiu.

Right now, I would have to say that the best buying opportunity is Chinese contemporary photography. The work of Chinese photographers is still very affordable compared with its Western counterpart.

Do you have any tips for new collectors? Or for those who want to start a similar organisation to AW Asia?

My advice is to focus on the collecting work that really interests you and to make informed decisions that also take market value into account.

Is there any particular news or advice you would like to share with our readers?

The Chinese contemporary art scene and the market for this work is still in its infancy. It has really just begun!

AW Asia | Chinese Contemporary Art | Larry Warsh |


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