China courts its creative types in a massive way
It aims to repeat its manufacturing success by grouping artistic professions the way it did its factories.
(Page 2 of 2)
"We've been opening up our economy for so many years, and it's all been so fast, but it's reached a level where we need to change our development strategy," says a spokeswoman for one of the city's larger creative industry zone projects, who cited company policy against speaking with foreign media in requesting anonymity. "The whole economy has to change to develop this higher-level work."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The fast, large-scale way factory creative space has taken off is a very Chinese phenomenon, says Michael Keane, an associate professor at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. Planners here have long grouped businesses by industrial types.
"The way the Chinese see it, creativity is just like every other industry, so you put everyone in clusters and try to aggregate their capabilities," he says. "They want to have creativity in a box, but a lot of creativity requires out-of-the-box thinking."
The iconic project that showed what disused factory space could achieve, 798, grew from a cheap outpost for artists into a major tourist spot earlier this decade. As its popularity soared, its grass-roots nature changed, and it is this second, commercially minded stage that planners hope to replicate.
Though some say that will drive up prices and stifle creativity, those things aren't inevitable, says Li Xiangqun, an art professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University and a sculptor who has offices at 798. The financial desires of real estate developers don't prevent artists from doing good work, he says.
Yet in Guangzhou, the massive focus on creative industry projects has already begun to foster sameness. Lots of simultaneous construction means developers must compete to attract creative firms.
Chen Zhiyan, a commercial art gallery owner who recently moved into the Xinyi International Club, a converted plant on the banks of the Pearl River, says poaching has already begun. A close friend of his is building his own creative industry zone up the road and is looking for tenants.
While such zones threaten to put profit above creative output, the overall effect is good, says Professor Keane. "This is about modernization and modernity, image building," he says. "It's a positive force, the ideas that come with the whole project can open people's minds" – and encourage policymakers to think more creatively about urban development.
As for He, the architect, he says life is going well. His new digs suit his quirky staff, and he's been contracted to consult on two new creative industrial zones being built. And if this experiment doesn't work out, he'll just move somewhere else.
"Three years from now, will this place exist? No one knows," he says. "But the thing about change in China is, we're used to it."