Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Shanghai Summarized

As I leave for Beijing, these are my Shanghai impressions:

Shopping District - Old Shanghai

SPAF central square - video art piece on a building

Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre

Old Palace, Shanghai

1) This was my first trip to Asia. I was excited, nervous, and, as Nicola Barker might say, wide open.

Billboard, Downtown Shanghai

2) I spent 6 days at an international theatre festival and conference. I saw work, met people, and listened to many speeches.

Wendy - the helpful helper at China SPAF

3) The people I met were mostly foreign artistic directors from across the globe, producers, and agents. I bonded with some terrific Aussies (from Sydney Theatre Co., Melbourne Theatre Co., the OzAsia Festival, Critical Stages, and a children's theatre co. - an entire cohort of mischievous merrymakers). Sadly, I met almost no Chinese artists. The festival hasn't yet figured out an effective mechanism for the foreigners to be able to meet the Chinese in a social context.

 Virginia Lovett, ED, Melbourne Theatre Co. and Rachel Azzopardi, Programming Director, Sydney Theatre Co.

4) An awareness dawned on me that the predominant language of the Chinese presenters was a marketing / economic language. Gradually, I realized that several of the speeches - from some Westerners, some other non-Chinese Asians, and from some respected Chinese scholars - were trying to counteract the trend to see the arts as a commodity. It's a road many countries have gone down in an attempt to gain influence or support or status, and it's fraught with trouble. Art is much more to a society than a widget. Policy makers and cultural practitioners must remain vigilant about placing our collective imagination on the level of an assembly line. The rules aren't the same.

"Growth" and "Development" talk at SPAF

5) I saw a spectrum of shows. The ticketing at the festival was chaotic and disorganized, so I was often disappointed to not get into shows I wanted to see, and was similarly disappointed by shows I did see. The quality varied enormously. My favourite stuff was on my last day, when we made a tour to two traditional opera companies, and saw excerpts of their work. One Peking Opera company did selections from an adaptation of Hamlet.

 Hamlet and Polonius - Peking Opera Style

 Hamlet and Poor Yorick

Gertrude and Caludius

It was riveting: acrobatic, sung, spoken and highly stylized, with an astonishing level of training in the performers. From there, we visited another opera company who performed not in Mandarin, but in a local Shanghai dialect. Here we saw jaw-dropping martial arts / acrobatic feats from two traditional stories, performed by their apprentice performers (ranging in age from 16 to 18). Here were fully multi-disciplinary forms with a long history of virtuosity. From there, we saw a more contemporary mask / dance telling of a story about an old woman who goes blind, and her fisherman husband who cares for her - also wonderful. 

6) On the final day, I was part of an informal conversation with one of the festival organizers. It was an epiphany. He spoke of the RAW (Rising Artists Works) program - what a fight it is to keep it (a fight with the government, that is), and how proud he was of these young artists taking big risks to make contemporary work. He had tears in his eyes as he spoke. Here was a man who loved his country, and wanted the next generation to be able to adapt to emerging forms, to find ways to reinvigorate the ancient forms (like Peking Opera) that the young are becoming less and less interested in. The RAW work I saw was terrible - amazing skills, some strong ideas, but no matching ability to realise these ideas in a rigorous way on stage - no good direction, no good dramaturgy. But to this organizer, he was seeing the future, and it made him proud. Context is everything.

7) The day after the festival, I walked through the streets of Shanghai. I visited a contemporary gallery complex (M50) and saw some wonderful - and political - contemporary visual art. In this, China is a leader. I met a Belgian visual artist who has been living in Shanghai for 8 years. He spoke of the giant increase in rents in the last two years, and how the city may not be affordable for much longer. For now, though, it's still a better place to make work than Europe - materials (canvas, light boxes, etc) are higher quality, arrive more quickly and are much cheaper than in Belgium.

 Art on display at M50 - photo manipulation with ostrich

 Art on display at M50 - photo manipulation with monkey

  Art on display at M50 - pollution, China style

  Art on display at M50 - photo

  Art on display at M50 - this was one of a several huge portraits of marginalised poets in China

 These poets barely mange to survive, and are ignored by the state - this exhibit was to give them some exposure

 The artist statement is a withering and quite political indictment of Chinese arts policy

 M50 - a still from a video art piece where a woman's hands carress ice hands until nothing of the latter is left

A painting at an M50 gallery

My final impression of Shanghai was of acceleration. Money is being poured into this city. Its status as an International City is being actively promoted and backed up with billions by the government. The struggle is building a cultural policy inside this headlong rush that is grounded in something real and true and built by artists rather than by government. Still, as I traveled in the immaculate subway to the enormous gleaming train station to board the high speed bullet train to Beijing among the throngs of polite people and responsive and responsible workers - I was deeply impressed. 

This is the future.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Cultural policy, with some "jaw-dropping" numbers

Sunday, October 20

The sunday session begins with a forum on cities and cultural policy - what art can do for a city.

John Howkins speaks

1) John Howkins, UK: a tall, thin, white-haired British consultant, with, apparently, a giant IQ. Here's what he says:
  • the essence of a city is people and ideas. That's it. Economy, business, infrastructure are all secondary.
  • what makes a world city? Not size, economy or location, but culture.
  • what IS culture? He tries not to use this word, but identifies several meanings for it. In Art, the meaning is tied to aesthetics. In anthropology, the meaning is tied to a way of living. In biology, the meaning is tied to a medium for growing things. In computer science, the meaning is tied to an operating system. The latter meaning he explored with cities, citing London as having an open-source operating culture.
  • the key question for cities now is: how are we using the best ideas, the best people, to improve a city? He talks of international expos as occurring only in the rapidly developing world, since their effectiveness still holds there. In the developed world, there hasn't been an expo for a long time, since the internet is now the source for the types of global connection that used to be situated in expos. He maintains that the new expo is the international arts festival, which promotes the kind of connection that is impossible on the internet.
  • looking ahead to the next 20 years, he maintains that two pairs of linked factors will determine the success of cities: Change and Diversity are the first pair. Cities need to promote these things successfully. Learning and Adaptation are the second pair. A city needs to be in a constant state of learning and adaptation to be successful.
  • he reminds us all that once we are out of school, learning is something we manage ourselves. The responsibility is ours. He finishes with the statement "the cities I know best and love are always learning". A note for Toronto's mayor Rob Ford?...
2) Michelle Boon, USA, the commissioner of cultural affairs for the city of Chicago speaks next.
  • Chicago has enacted a new cultural plan, its first since 1986. 
  • Mayor Rahm Emanuel drove this initiative, and put $1 million USD into it (note to the reader: keep this figure in mind for when we get to what Singapore has been up to...). Michelle says that this mayor is probably the only ex-ballet dancer mayor in the US. 
  • through a public consultation process, her department found that the citizens of Chicago consistently ranked Arts Education as a top priority. 
  • Chicago has undertaken an initiative to find ways to link the non-profit arts sector with the for-profit arts sector. 
  • after the session, I speak to a few North American heavyweight ADs who say the Chicago speech had a lot of spin in it. The fact is, the money is not there. The support is inadequate for the goals. Space in the cultural HQ building is being closed down for lack of support. 
Chicago's Cultural Priorities

I think back to the Chicago initiative to find ways to link the non-profit arts sector with the for-profit arts sector. It's here that my alarm bells go off. The goals of the people who manage these sectors are rarely in concert. Sometimes the art can travel from one sector to another, but always, I would maintain, in the case where a serious artist was nurtured in the non-commercial sector. I recall here an earlier conversation with the head of the Hong Kong Arts Festival who is trying to rebrand the "not-for-profit" sector in more positive terms as the "for purpose" sector. Profit vs. purpose. Put that way, the difference is clear. The ADs I speak with after say that in the case of Chicago, the money is just not there. Rahm Emmanuel's $1 million is nothing. The support is inadequate to meet the goals. 

Liu Wenguo speaks

3) Next up is LIU Wenguo, China: the man who runs the Shanghai International Arts Festival. While I've been here, I've learned that this festival is, in fact, not really a festival, but an umbrella. There is no curator. The festival is a brand that groups together many shows that are in progress at this time. It's giant, but not focused. Mr. Liu speed reads through a speech, and the simultaneous translators have difficulty keeping up. As a result, I miss a lot. Here's what i caught:
  • the festival is a way to showcase China to the world. It espouses values such as tolerance, excellence, magnanimity and modesty.
  • "Big Shanghai" is the idea being fostered: a city that is inclusive, international, and innovative.
  • "Innovation is the soul of the Arts, and innovation is key to the development of a city."
  • the message is that Shanghai is the birthplace of modernity in China. It is a modern powerhouse. Looking around the city, that seems true. The infrastructure is amazing. The city is vertical, gleaming and moving forward like a bullet train. It seems that, at least within this festival gathering, arts, culture and innovations are key interests of this modern China.
Benson Puah speaks

4) Up next is Benson Puah, Singapore, a man I've heard speak a couple of times before at ISPA in New York. He is the diminutive, smiling genius of arts and culture in Singapore. He used to run the Singapore Arts Festival, and now has reduced his workload to just one giant institution, the Esplanade theatre complex. He seems always at peace with the world, and two steps ahead of everyone else. Generous, modest and brilliant. If anyone should run the world, I think this guy might be the best candidate.
  • he begins: "Good morning. I am between you and tea break." He smiles, and promises to be brief, and to stay away from the quicksand of powerpoint.
  • he speaks of the 1989 report on the arts in Singapore, and how that report led to the creation of Singapore's arts infrastructure. 
  • a new plan in 2000 moved away from art as a spiritual need, and instead stressed the creative economy. The emphasis on art as an economic tool led to unprecedented growth as Singapore used culture as a way to market itself to the world.
  • Benson said that this economically-driven plan exposed itself as being only part of the picture, and that something vital was missing. In 2009, another plan was made that stressed the relationship between Culture and the Community - that Art is Art, not an economic tool, and the spiritual health of people is related to the health of their Arts and Culture, and their ability to interact with it.
  • as Singapore has moved rapidly from third to first world status, it has become increasingly mixed race. He cites some stats that sound very Canadian. He affirms the role that art has to play in understanding a place's shifting identity. This is very similar to the point that Aussie Andrew Bleby from the Melbourne Festival made a couple if days ago, and that I heard at the conference I went to in Kampala last month. Art can help us process Identity.
  • Benson speaks of a recent fight with cancer and the epiphany it led to. In the ward he was in, the patients were from many cultures, undergoing the same ordeal, dealing with the same pain. There was a strong sense that our blood is the same colour, and that cancer doesn't discriminate. He understood in a new way the importance of tolerance and understanding, and the possibility of shared identity across cultural difference.
  • the emerging challenge in Singapore (and one that China is also processing) is how to preserve tradition. In a global culture that provides so much instant gratification, slow skill acquisition is difficult to promote.
  • now the jaw dropping stats of a city state putting its money where its mouth is (and in stark contrast to Chicago, or, well, most of our cities in North America): Singapore Arts Council is about to increase its budget by 140%. Art is being deployed as a key tool in the education system. $210 million USD are being spent to develop a new Cultural plan. Culture is at the centre of the city's planning.
  • Benson says he is happy and fortunate to be in this city at this time. (He contributed much to this vision being realized in Singapore, so he's also to be thanked.) Ultimately, he says, this is all about who we are as people. Policy / money / governments can only take us so far: it is up to the people to invent themselves and their culture. I agree, but I also wish, as do doubtless many of the people listening, that my own government's policy would take us as far as Singapore's.
5) HUANG Changyong, China: the head of the Shanghai Theatre Academy is next up (after the tea break). This is another machine gun fast speech and leaves the translators struggling to keep up. I follow little of it, but do glean the following:
  • China is positioning Beijing as the Chinese Cultural Centre, and Shanghai as the International Cultural Metropolis. 
Hans-Georg Knopp speaks

6) Hans-Georg Knopp: another super-bright policy consultant type, who lives half the year in Berlin, and half in Shanghai.
  • he speaks of Berlin. After the war, culture was literally the rescue of the city. There is nothing more important than culture.
  • the regulated and unregulated nature of culture in Berlin is key to its success. He speaks more of this unregulated aspect. Street musicians do not need licenses. Restos and bars face no restrictions on opening hours. This leads to a roughness in Berlin that is key to its success. In polls, a majority of visitors cite Berlin's subculture as being as important as its High Art.
  • he speaks of the wisdom of policy in Berlin, where policy makers and artistic leaders are brought around the same table to set cultural policy. He says that there is an inherent gap between cultural policy makers and cultural practitioners, and that cities must find a way to fill this gap.
  • artists are mobile. They go to places that are cheap and interesting. The roughness and affordability of space in Berlin has made it home to many artists, and this, in turn, has given the city the number two ranking of cities in the world, after New York - another rough and artist-full place (although space there ain't exactly cheap..).
7) Scott Galbraith, USA, the head of the Bushnell Centre for the Arts in Hartford CT. 
  • this slick powerpoint lecture seems hopelessly out of place in this context. It feels like cutting edge 1990. The city has invested in a plan called iQuilt, and the Disney-meets-Apple name seems appropriate to the city-theme-park plan, with an emphasis on fun stuff and test-drives for Broadway shows. 
Chris Lorway speaks

8) Chris Lorway, Canada
  • Chris speaks of his time running Luminato, and how he converted the festival from a "Bucket Festival," where what was on at the time became what was on at the festival (similar to SPAF), to a festival with curation and a plethora of major commissions (with a nice nod to The Africa Trilogy that Volcano built for Luminato). It's a succinct and accurate view of a major festival, and one which tells the story of how festival programming decisions can begin to animate and reflect a city's identity back to the citizens. Good job, Chris!
A couple of final points are made in the discussion at the end of the session. Huang Changyong speaks of the necessity of arts education. In a city of 25 million, this is the way to give the people access and awareness of something of value: art.

Panel discussion at end of the session

Hans-Georg Knopp wraps it up by saying that "Culture asks the question that nobody else dares ask." What could be more important to a civilization?

A few performances, a few thoughts on Canadian cultural diplomacy

Friday, October 18: Evening

Tonight is the official opening ceremony of the 15th China Shanghai International Performing Arts Festival. We are taken by bus to a miraculous downtown theatre: a marble and glass cultural palace with thrilling architecture and about 2000 seats. 

Shanghai Cultural Square (Photo: Kreun Ip)

The interior is a bit overdecorated, and the show starts with a hierarchy of speeches. Names are read of most distinguished guests (party members, politicians).

China SPAF opening ceremony: the affable and fabulous hosts

The hosts are affable and fabulous. They introduce someone who introduces someone else who introduces someone else who declares the festival open. Each speaker speaks from a different part of the stage (including, at one point, from a microphone on a stand decorated with plastic flowers), with the final, most important speaker, finally, using the podium. Each speaker is greeted by a loud fanfare of classical music over the sound system as they approach the stage. Once the formalities are over, the curtain falls, and what I imagine to be a small army of technicians installs a floor and set for the Ballet of Monte Carlo, who are about to dance Swan Lake. 

It's a terrific company. The dancers are exquisite. The choreography is new, blending modern movement with pointe work. After some initial worries I become captivated by the piece.

The Ballet of Monte Carlo bows

As at every performance I attend, there are cameras in use throughout. People talk. People come and go. People read their smartphones. The Chinese audience norm is not something we from the West are used to - or perhaps we are used to it only in the context of a youth audience. Someone theorizes that during Mao, meetings of more than three people were prohibited, so the theatres became a place to talk. I'm not sure if this is true, or simply speculation, but it certainly makes sense.

The one conspicuous missing component is an orchestra, and the absence of live music in such a sumptuous theatre at an opening ceremony seems strange.

Saturday, October 19

Today I skip the morning session and go to explore the former French Concession neighbourhood south of where I'm staying. I find there a web of little alleyways crammed with wonderful and eccentric shops, with cafes, and with many tourists (most of whom are Chinese). I get a latte and blog.

Former French Concession Alleyway

Former French Concession Alleyway

Back at the Festival base (the Hotel Intercontinental), I have lunch with an Australian, an Israeli and another Canadian. 

I think Canada has the largest contingent of foreigners here - buoyed entirely by the Quebec contingent, a group of about 10 from CINARS and various performing arts companies and agencies. Quebec has admirably rushed to fill the vacuum left by the Harper government's utter withdrawal from using culture as a diplomatic tool. Now, where Canadian embassies offer no support to visiting artists, Quebec consulates do. I think I am the sole representative of English Canadian theatre here.

The afternoon is filled with short musical showcases of Chinese artists (and a few foreign artists). I sit in on some wonderful music. There is one man who plays a traditional Chinese stringed instrument like Ry Cooder - a virtuosic blend of musical influences at play. Another group sounds incredibly Celtic in sound, although singing traditional songs in Mandarin.

 Ma Xiaohui, playing the Erhu (she is famous - and played on the Crouching Tiger soundtrack)

 Wild Children - a folk group 

Martin Feng, virtuosic

Axel Anderson and Simon Issat Marainen from the Samic group ARA

 It's a great afternoon.

Things go horribly amiss in the evening. We are all bused to RAW - a program of works from young, emerging Chinese artists. We see three pieces. They are dreadful. There is a collective instinct to escape. Afterward, I join the directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, the Melbourne Theatre Company, and a few other Aussies AD types at an Italian resto close by, where we marvel at what's just happened. We're joined shortly by the National Theatre of Scotland, and folks who run things in Chile and Denmark, and Latvia and Singapore. I wonder how all the adults involved in choosing and overseeing the work we've just seen could possibly have thought it was beneficial to China, or to these young artists, to showcase this work to artistic directors from around the world. I doubt anyone here will go to the RAW events tomorrow.

What I miss this evening across town is the big event: Canada's National Arts Centre Orchestra is playing under the baton of Pinchas Zukerman. A fleet of VIPs has come with it, including the Governor General and Laureen Harper. So I guess our PM does still see culture as a tool, but only at the high end with the occasional big flashy event.

It's a bust of a night. But I adore the company of the Aussies!

A jet lagged morning, and a few words from the Festivals

Friday, October 18: Morning Session

A day of speeches begins. The theme is the importance of preserving cultural diversity the world over, as recently put forward in a UNESCO resolution - to which, I believe, China is a signatory.

1) The morning begins with an address from a visiting UNESCO official that, though in fluent English, is almost entirely incomprehensible. I suspect the speaker is whip smart, but she speaks in an unremitting monotone I suspect is fostered by the crushing bureaucracy of the United Nations. OH MY GOD it is a hellish slog through this speech: lots of multi-syllabic words and complex sentences delivered almost entirely without inflection. This is followed by a respected Chinese academic who is somewhat more animated, but unfortunately, a soporific speaker is hard to follow - especially when the audience is extremely jet lagged. I begin to understand what it might be like to work at the UN, and am strangely comforted in my career choice...

What SO many of us want to be doing...
2) The Chinese scholar, TU Weiming (who teaches at both Harvard and Peking University) is an advocate of the new Confucianism. One of the many fascinating things he maintains is that in
the 21st century, technology has increased human capacity to learn and to relearn, but also to unlearn. This, coupled with the idea that while Heaven is ever present but not omnipotent, means that humans must take care of the direction their societies move in. Confucius, he says, felt a duty to not set himself apart and pray, but to rather live IN the world, in order to transform it. We ignore this at our peril.

Tu Weiming speaks
3) Jonathan Mills follows. He is the Artistic Director of the Edinburgh festival. I have still not recovered from the first speaker, and Sir Jonathan's style is not exactly invigorating. But he is no slouch, and he makes a point that I am happy to hear made: when we use economic language to talk about art, we do both our societies and art a disservice. 

4) UNESCO ambassador TAN Dunn speaks next - he is about as famous and well-regarded a composer as China has ever produced. But I can absorb almost nothing at this point. We are hours in. Mr. Tann does speak of the duty he feels to use his privilege well, while at the same time he doesn't quite understand why he feels compelled to always experiment, reach further, do more. But this is the way it is.

5) The final speaker is TIAN Qinxin, director of China's National Theatre. I have no idea what she says. The simultaneous translation is difficult to grasp, and the jet leg is full on. Which is too bad. She is another big deal here in Shanghai, but, again, something less than a magnetic speaker. The whole morning is an argument in support of the communication skill of actors - a skill that I ache for from this group of brilliant and distinguished commentators.

We break for lunch.

Friday, October 18: Afternoon

The afternoon sessions are back-to-back collections of international festival artistic directors. I've never seen so many of this breed gathered together in one place. 

1) The introduction is from TIAN Qing, who is the director of the China Academy of Art, and Institute of Music. I am quite smitten with him. 

Mr. Tian begins with an cooking analogy to describe the importance of diversity. If you add water to water, your soup won't be very good. He speaks about the importance in China of not simply copying Western forms, but of preserving / creating Chinese forms so that the soup tastes good. 

He goes on to talk about the massive mistakes that have been made during China's rush to industrial modernization. By not paying attention, there have been tremendous environmental losses. He warns of the same dangers in a rush to cultural modernization - that in not paying attention, China will experience massive cultural losses. He speaks of certain traditional forms that have already been lost, and how, once gone, they are forever gone. His speech is a plea to pay attention to what Chinese culture is. 

"If we throw the seeds away, there won't be trees and flowers in the future."

2) The next speakers are all engaging - thankfully! The director of Finland's consortium of festivals, Kai Amberla, is the first humorous speaker we've had, and so is most welcome. His speech is terrific: a strongly worded call to always remember that art is art, not a commodity. We must make room for the optimal conditions that allow art to function - we must welcome disasters, passion, and diversity. He talks of the relationship between public policy and culture, and that how, without an active cultural policy, diversity will quickly fade away. Diversity, he says, is a choice - a political choice. For him (and I agree), culture is all about passion, and without passion there is no diversity.

3) Andrew Bleby, from the Melbourne festival, is also a wise speaker. He speaks to the purpose of culturally diverse festivals in Australia: through art, we get to know ourselves.

4) Mary Lou Aleskie, from the Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, makes a point that fame is relative and becoming even more so in the globalized world. There are diminishing returns in star programming, since one sector of an audience may never have heard of any particular "star." This, paradoxically, gives her more freedom to program based on interest. The artwork has become more important than who is making it at her festival.

5) Piotr Turkiewicz, from the Festival Wratislavia in Poland, speaks to how he has carved out space for innovation in his programming. His audience has learned that the point of the festival is not to know the names of the artists, but to expect that the art will be thrilling. This kind of innovation is central to his idea of art: "Only dead fish go with the flow," he says.

The other speakers - from Hong Kong, Lithuania, Shanghai and Taipei - are fascinating. All are running enormous institutions, but institutions that are, by their very nature, flexible and quick to adapt. 

The last word is about legacy. Andrew Bleby, from Melbourne, sums it up. There are three legacies a festival can leave:

Art work;
Support for local artists; and
Connection, the fostering of global conversations.

Updates from China

Right now, Volcano AD Ross Manson is in Shanghai for the China Shanghai Performing Arts Fair, alongside delegates from all over the world - including a strong Canadian contingent! He's sent us some updates from 12 hours away, including tips that conference presenters have shared on breaking into the Chinese market...

Tues, Oct 15

China. My first trip.

I depart Vancouver at 11am, and spend the next 13 hours or so on an airplane. Four movies, three meals and a sleep. This is the longest flight I've ever been on.

Wed, Oct. 16

Shanghai Pudong Airport

I arrive at Shanghai Pudong Airport in time for rush hour. I'm met at the arrival area (wasn't expecting this), and climb in a car with David Baile - a Canadian who now runs ISPA (the International Society for the Performing Arts) in New York. We drive.

Shanghai is now the biggest city on earth. It has added millions to its population over the past decade or so, and a great amount of infrastructure. There are now over 23 million people living here. That is almost three New Yorks. Despite this, the traffic moves quite smoothly on a plethora of well-built highways. Everything seems relatively clean and orderly and functional. I think about how horrific traffic is in Toronto, about the squabbling over four new subway stops, and the planned diesel train link to our airport (there is a magnetic levitation train here that travels at over 400km/h - whisking people downtown in 8 minutes), and I wonder at how far behind we are. With its sea of high buildings, Shanghai seems like the future.

Holiday Inn "Downtown"

I check into the Holiday Inn. This will be my home for the next six days. I go outside to wander around. The neighbourhood is not one to write home about: near a train station, full of multilane roads and fast food outlets - far from the famous concession neighbourhoods and the Bund (where all the skyscrapers are). But I still get a terrific meal of noodles. I have managed to keep myself awake for 24 hours, and have eaten five meals in that time to keep going. I go to bed at a Shanghai bedtime, and hope I can deal with the jet lag (a 12 hour time difference from Toronto).

I'm here.

Thurs, Oct 17: Afternoon

The big event today is a workshop for all the foreign delegates on "How to access the Chinese market." I take notes:

How to Access the Chinese Market Panelists

1) KE Chaoping speaks. He is the General Manager of Hangzhou Theatre, the guy in charge of the Eastern China Venue Alliance, and the Executive Director of the China International Venue Alliance. So: a big deal guy. 
  • there are venue alliances in China: North, South, East, West, Delta. They program work together, and operate, as far as I can tell, something like the various touring schemes in the UK. They recently came together to form the national organization that Mr. Ke chairs. 
  • The China International Venue Alliance has 263 members. 
  • 50 of these are viewed as presenters.
  • the HQ is in Beijing.
  • 30 provinces are represented.
  • the Alliance has a license to operate from the Ministry of Culture (I begin to gather that licenses from the government are key in China).
  • the Alliance prefers to deal directly with overseas artists, and they particularly look for longterm relationships. Given the size of this Alliance, I am not sure WHO to connect with to begin such a relationship (a delegate from the Philadelphia Orchestra asks the same questions, and gets a non-answer: essentially "make friends, and see what develops").
  • the Alliance prioritizes work that meets the demands of the various venues. I'm not sure what these demands are.
  • a foreign company must find the right partner inside China. Mr. Ke mentions that there are tiers of alliance partners, such as hotels, stadia, and "professional stages."
  • in China, taking a show for a one month, or even a one week run is very difficult. Currently, bookings are more likely to be for one performance, or a for just a few performances.
  • again, finding a reliable partner in China is key. The Alliance is a way to ensure that partners are reliable.

2) BAO Chaoyang speaks next. He runs the Western China Alliance, is the General Manager of the Kunming Theatre, and the Vice President of the China Alliance. Here's what he said:  
  • he's from Western China. Several (although not all) of the cities in his region will take Western touring projects.
  • in China, there are many many arts companies, but very few with longterm strategic capability.
  • the Chinese market is very sensitive to cost. This is a way to say they don't have much money. So a low-cost project is an advantage.

3) Vivian Yu speaks next. South China venue partner. Runs the Xinghai Concert Hall
  • she emphasizes that foreigners need an understanding of the Chinese performing arts market, and Chinese government policy.
  • she hears a lot of complaints from foreign arts companies: Chinese tax burden, paperwork, regulations, having to provide receipts, etc. So, she says, touring in China requires patience.
  • she underlines the fact that there exist some enormous cultural difference between China and the West. An example: Chinese presenters will not worry about making changes at the last minute, despite whatever communication has occurred in email, etc. The only changes that are not fair ground are things specifically agreed to in contracts. 
  • face-to-face meetings are preferred to virtual meetings. Similarly, seeing work live is preferred.

4) Frank Chen (who is one of the Shanghai SPAF heads, and who has been chairing this workshop) speaks:
  • touring groups need a license from the government.
  • nowadays (after a 20 year struggle), only one month is needed to obtain a license. Licenses are also granted by cities, rather than on a national level. It's unclear to me whether this is an advantage, but Frank seems to think it is. A question from the crowd asks about possible pitfalls, i.e. what happens if some local licenses are granted, and some are not. There is not yet a clear answer to this.
  • taxation. A favourable policy is still in process. Frank asks that his foreign friends write with examples of a fair taxation policy for visiting arts companies. 

5) HUANG Jian (Jeff) speaks next. He is the founder of tickets.com - the first online ticketing service in China.
  • Jeff doubts whether China is actually a big market.
  • that said, he launches into some statistics: 100 Billion RMB in tickets sold every year.
  • 20-25 billion RMB in tickets sold in Shanghai.
  • 30 billion RMB in tickets sold in Beijing.
  • he speaks of tiers in Chinese cities: 1st tier have a per capita average GDP of $5k USD; 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tier cities have a per capita average GDP of about $3k USD.
  • more than 10 million people in China buy tickets to 4-6 performances per year.
  • 15-20 year olds buy cheaper tickets (movies, concerts).
  • older demographic buys live performing arts tickets.
  • there is a high correlation between the GDP of a city and the strength of its performing arts market, so it's wise to pay attention to this measure.
  • the most popular performances in China: 1) pop star concerts; 2) k-pop; 3) music of what he calls "fashionable" or "fancy" shows.
  • the drama market is particularly strong in both Beijing and Shanghai, with sales rates coming close to rates seen for movies.
  • Jeff predicts that the post-90s generation will be the biggest consumers of performing arts in China.

That's it. We all chat and exchange business cards. Frank introduces me to a rep from a Beijing dance company, saying that their work is close to Volcano's in terms of innovation and multi-disciplinary forms. We set up a meeting for when I get to Beijing next week. Nice guy.

My impression of the whole session is that all the language is capitalist - the talk is entirely about markets and stats and sales, and nothing is said about art. Of course, these are managers, not artists, but I find it ironic that market speech dominates this conference in a communist country...

Thurs, Oct 17: Evening

Shanghai, seen from the river

Shanghai, seen from the river

We all climb into buses and are taken to the harbour for a boat cruise. This is jaw-dropping. The river is populated with skyscrapers. We see what is going to be the second tallest building in the world, currently under construction and nestled among already extra-tall buildings. Shanghai has spent unimaginable amount of money on construction. 

We cruise the river, and talk and drink and eat. I end up at a table with Chris Lorway from Soundstreams and a delightful plethora of Australians (A Barbie of Australians? An Irony of Australians?). This is a fun group.

Two of the Infamous Aussies

After the cruise, we climb in taxis and, on Chris' suggestion, we travel to the Waldorf Astoria.

Waldorf Astoria, Shanghai

Wow. This is a magnificent 1911 building. Old world luxury. We drink some $20 drinks and have a blast. At the next table, there is a group of Chinese guests wearing tuxedos and gowns. In this perfect time capsule bar, with silk bow ties and an American jazz singer, it feels like a romantic recreation of old Shanghai. What $20 drinks buys one...