The eastern coast of China, about halfway between Beijing and Hong Kong, some 500 miles across the East China Sea from southern Japan.
China’s most cosmopolitan city for centuries, Shanghai has always been the country’s leading edge. Today it remains influential in nearly every sphere, especially art and finance. But as forward-looking as the world’s most populous city is, you can still find excellent down-to-earth food carts and old-fashioned street markets within the forest of ultra-modern architecture.
By air, most likely. Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport is one of Asia’s biggest hubs. Once you’re there, consider taking the futuristic maglev train into town; it can go upwards of 250 miles per hour.
There’s no avoiding The Bund, central Shanghai’s waterfront area, and no good reason to avoid it, either. It’s the best place to admire the city’s distinctive mix of modern skyscrapers and colonial-era Art Deco architecture, and home to many of Shanghai’s top hotels and restaurants.
It hasn’t even been a decade since Shanghai’s Moganshan Road — currently home to the rawest, most cutting-edge works of contemporary art in China — was just another wind-whipped industrial neighborhood. Since then, the pace of change has been dizzying. It seems like each year brings another round of significant new art institutions to the city, the latest being the nearly 700,000 square-foot China Art Palace and the Power Station, the first state-run museum for contemporary art on the mainland. Throw in the Shanghai Biennial, when the international art community’s spotlight on China burns all the hotter, and it’s hard to believe that the art scene here is only a recent upstart.
Yet even with all the newer arrivals, Moganshan Road remains the best place to get an art-oriented introduction to Shanghai. From URBN Hotel or JIA Shanghai, it’s a quick, inexpensive taxi ride, and once you’re there, you’ll find more than a hundred galleries and ateliers, including ShanghArt, known as one of the key forces in bringing Chinese contemporary art to the attention of the West. ShanghArt’s nearby sister institution, H-Space, is another highlight, as is Island6, an artist-run gallery and studio that turns out frequent avant-garde multimedia pieces. The neighborhood also holds work by some of the country’s more radical creative minds, including the provocative portraits and melancholic landscape photography at M97, just across the street from H-Space.
Over in the French Concession, where Moganshan Road’s industrial cityscape is replaced by picturesque colonial architecture, the galleries are just as compelling. Art Labor attracts serious art aficionados and party-happy culturati alike. The formula: works by noteworthy domestic and international artists, plus fantastic parties. They’re known for throwing some of the best show-openings in town.
In addition to all the smaller galleries, Shanghai has a wealth of contemporary art museums. It’s a lovely walk across People’s Square from the art deco hotel Langham Yangtze to MOCA Shanghai’s ultra-modern home. Since its opening in 2005, the museum has curated a string of successful exhibitions themed around design and fashion. Housed in a British style clock tower just across the park, the Shanghai Art Museum also has a reputation for producing high-profile shows, including the Mario Testino retrospective that opened in November.
Even the most tireless art-lover eventually needs a mental break. If you’re at the Rockbund Art Museum, just a couple blocks from the Peninsula Shanghai on the Bund, the rooftop café makes a pleasant reprieve. It’s a popular hangout for artsy locals. Then there’s the nearby Shanghai Gallery of Art, which goes a couple steps further. It shares its building not only with a Jean-George Vongerichten restaurant, but also a full-scale spa — about as fine a cure for museum fatigue as anyone could hope for.