Places of aesthetics and capital: The making and consuming of arts districts in Chinese cities

by Zhang, Yueming, Ph.D., CLARK UNIVERSITY, 2016, 165 pages; 10117794


Places named and known as arts districts are now argued to be a key feature of the urban landscape of Chinese cities, due to their prevalence across cities of different regions and sizes. However, on the ground, many of these arts districts are facing commercialization processes that displace art-related uses or are “arts district in name only” since the beginning. Arts districts in China are increasingly criticized as tourist destinations and characterized as in decline by arts communities and researchers. The continual existence and prevalence of these places, nevertheless, suggest that they still assume meaningful roles in certain aspects, even if greatly divergent from the role as an art/artist community.

This dissertation examines how “arts district” in China, as both a notion and a type of urban place on the ground, changes over time and what such changes mean for developing understandings of urban China. The overarching research question is: how are arts districts, as a particular kind of urban place, made and consumed within the broader urban landscape and the political, economic, and social contexts of Chinese cities? To answer this question, I conducted case studies of two arts districts based in two Chinese cities: 798 arts district in Beijing and Huangjueping arts district in Chongqing. This dissertation consists of three articles. The first article examines the basis for turning arts districts into places to be consumed, and thus places attracting commercial uses. Drawing on the concepts of aesthetic and monopoly rent, I demonstrate that an aesthetic of arts districts characterizes arts districts as places providing unique experiences, which then provides these places the ability to capture monopoly rent in the tourism market. The second article focuses on how an official framing of arts districts as tourist destinations is made, justified, and normalized by the city government. Engaging with the relational place-making theoretical framework, my case study of the 798 arts district in Beijing reveals that the municipal government’s framing and branding of arts districts relies on recycling and realigning elements from discursive constructions of the arts district provided by artists. In the third article, I situate arts districts in both urban land and art markets to analyze their roles and how they are affected by dynamics and logics of both markets. My findings suggest that the reason that many arts districts in China are “arts district in name only” is that many “more-than-art” factors are required for these places to play a role in land revalorization; and that the declining shares of China’s arts districts in art markets result from multiple possible causes, some of which are tied to specific dynamics of the art world and art market.

In summary, through this dissertation, I demonstrate that, local governments’ branding and thus remaking of arts districts as tourist destinations is capitalized on images of arts districts established through mass media and public discourses, and is sometimes built upon artists’ discursive constructions of arts districts. While this branding can lead to commercialization of arts districts, the weakened art function of arts districts is also connected to changing dynamics of the global art market. Tackling the problem of commercialized and commodified arts districts requires deconstructing established images of arts districts from all fronts, and perhaps also reconceptualizing the meaning and purpose of arts districts to arts communities.

AdviserDeborah G. Martin
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsAsian studies; Geography
Publication Number10117794

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