Is it all over for artists at Weihai 696?

Is it all over for artists at Weihai 696?

With their leases expiring at the end of March, this could be the beginning of the end for Weihai 696's artistic identity

696 Weihai Lu - main696 Weihai Lu's colorful days might be numbered.696 Weihai Lu (known by its residents as Weihai 696) is a shallow nongtang that’s home to dozens of artist studios, small galleries and creative enterprises. With news that the buildings are being sold, artists and art fans are bracing for the possibility that the area will be cleared out, perhaps as soon as March.

The Social Security Bureau, which owns Weihai 696, has given notice that it’s selling the buildings to the Jing’an District Government. With this sale in mind, renters who previously held year-long leases were offered mere three-month extensions at the beginning of this year.

While many suspect that they will have to leave when their leases expire they don’t know that for sure. The Jing’an District Government hasn’t divulged any information about what it intends to do with Weihai 696.

696 Weihai Lu - Yi QianPrint maker Yi Qian, who moved into 696 Weihai Lu in 2009.Print maker Yi Qian, who moved into the lane in 2009, says, “When some of the artists went to the district officials, they were told there’s no complete plan yet. But maybe they didn’t ask the right guy, you never know.”

She hopes that the area won’t be turned into a new Xintiandi or Tianzifang, as some have speculated.

“Artists are really working on their stuff in their studios here, instead of Moganshan Lu or Taikang Lu, which are far more commercialized. If you see artists in those spaces they’re not really doing their work because they’re shops. I don’t want a shop.”

A Tianzifang-style refurbishment project would also likely lead to higher rents, putting the spaces beyond the reach of many Weihai 696 artists and galleries. Artists estimate rents would go up between five and 10 times what they are today. At present, some spaces go for little more than RMB 1 per square meter per day.

“Some people sublease to others, earn money and they live on it,” Yi says. “If they are kicked out they need to find another way to support themselves. How serious is that?”

Ma Liang was one of the first artists to move into Weihai 696 back in 2006.

Some describe him as the founder, a title he accepts but only while laughing at its grandiosity. He learned about the buildings from a friend who saw a poster advertising loft spaces for rent.

696 Weihai Lu - Ma LiangMa Liang was one of the first artists to move into 696 Weihai Lu.When he moved in he says he felt “a little scared because there were a lot of cats.”

He persuaded the owners to let him rent a space on the third floor, which hadn’t been advertised, and put in electricity and plumbing himself. He told his friends about the other available units, and “After one week all the spaces were rented,” he says.

Ma is philosophical about 696 Weihai Lu’s potential demise.

“We cannot stop it. We are artists, we don’t have enough power. And you cannot stop it if you don’t know who’s behind it. You can’t fight shadows.”

696 Weihai Lu - Zhang PingPainter Zhang Ping is looking for a new space but isn't holding out much hope.“Four years is enough. We’ve been very lucky,” he says.

Ma has started looking for a new studio, but he believes that finding something the same size at a comparable price would probably mean moving one or two hours’ drive outside the city center.

Painter Zhang Ping has also started looking for a new studio space but she says, “I haven’t found anywhere suitable.

“I went to see a space in Zhabei district -- a lot of factory spaces are being converted in Zhabei, but they’re already too expensive.”

Zhang is currently writing a proposal that she hopes will allow her to stay in Weihai 696 by offering to hold public exhibitions and community outreach art programs.

Susanne Junker, who founded StageBACK at 696 Weihai Lu, has begun thinking of alternative ways to run the gallery if she’s forced to leave.

“I have a lot of ideas, but they’re all just theories, like renting an apartment in a random high rise, or have StageBACK mobile, so every exhibition happens in a different space for six weeks.”

One place she won’t be moving is M50.

“I think there are a few really good spaces at M50 and there’s a lot of crap,” she says. “It’s very expensive as well. I don’t want to be tucked away in some M50 lane and be next to a B class shop that sells paintings.”

696 Weihai Lu - StagebackThe one place you won't see Susanne Junker, who founded StageBACK, after 696 Weihai Lu is M50.She says her future space “should have an industrial feel -- that’d be perfect. I basically just want the same thing that I have right now.

“It’s historical. 696 -- you don’t find places like this in Europe anymore,” Junker says.

One of the artists that Ma Liang called up when he first found out about the spaces for rent, painter and blogger Chris Gill, is pessimistic about the chances of Weihai 696 artists and gallerists joining up somewhere new.

“We were just talking, maybe a few of us will try to get together and find somewhere, because then you get a better deal somehow,” he says.

696 Weihai Lu - Chris GillThe man behind the mask and ShanghaiEye blog: Chris Gill.“I don’t think it will happen, to be frank. Artists, we tend to be kind of chaotic and getting any agreement between a bunch of people is really difficult.

“Everyone’s got their own agenda, and everyone’s kind of broke and they’re just going to argue, and you can’t really rely on other people,” he continues. “I think it’ll just break up and that’ll be it. They’ll all go their different ways. It’ll be the end of a period, which is a real shame.”

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If that happens, it’s unclear what new chapter will be added to the history of an address that has purportedly been an opium and fabric trader’s residence, a factory for radio parts, a cluster of car parts dealerships and, most recently, a wonderful artists’ enclave.

In anticipation of their departure, tenants at 696 Weihai Lu are planning a public sendoff some time in March.

“We’re doing this end of 696 Weihai Lu exhibition,” Gill says. “We’re supposed to do a joint exhibition, like a final open house. I imagine that will be quite a thrilling one.”


Sam Gaskin is an arts and culture journalist based in Shanghai.
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