This area, once way behind 798 in commercialism, was effectively founded by Ài Wèiwèi (艾未未), the first big name to move here, and who built his China Art Archives and Warehouse (www.archivesandwarehouse.com, 2pm–6pm, Wed–Sun, t 8456 5152) here on the north side of Nángāo Lù in 2000. The gallery concentrated on experimental Chinese art while occasionally holding exhibitions by foreign luminaries both alive and dead (notably Man Ray in 2010). But Ài’s run-ins with the authorities and conviction for tax evasion led to closure of the gallery which was subsequently demolished, and the website has expired for now.
On the south side of Nángāo Lù two major galleries have been designed and built by Ài, one for Swiss Galerie Urs Meile (www.galerieursmeile.com, 11am–6.30pm, Tue–Sun, t 6433 0203), which also represents him. Here artists are nurtured, reproductions kept under control, and studio space is made available, including some to foreign artists. There’s plenty of stimulating work here, and sometimes staff are able to make detailed explanations of the artists’ thinking. This is where you may safely spend a few thousand dollars upwards but are also welcome just to look. The gallery’s site has a sketch map of Cǎochǎngdì showing other major galleries and the district’s position relative to Dà Shānzi 798.
Ài also designed the nearby Pékin Fine Arts (北京艺门, www.pekinfinearts.com, 5127 3220) representing artists from across Asia, often with giant installations. Nearby Three Shadows Photography Art Centre (三影堂摄影艺术中心, www.threeshadows.cn), is also foreign-run and reliable.
There’s a general feeling here that the quietness leads to more concentration on what’s important, and that the greater difficulty in finding the galleries helps to sort the more serious enthusiast from the casual thrill-seeker. There are already at least 50 arts businesses, but they are still spread over a large area with much industry and some ordinary village life in between. Most galleries offer little maps (also found on their websites) that show their geographical relationship to others, and staff are happy to point the way to their competitors.
However, Cǎochǎngdì’s legal status has long been ambiguous, and in April 2010 it became one of what China Daily listed as 13 art districts under threat, with many residences receiving demolition notices. In July 2019 the first of three phases of demolition of ‘illegal structures’ began, with conversions by individual artists of houses and factory spaces (often without electricity or running water) particularly targeted. A site so close to the Airport Expressway is too juicy an opportunity for the developers, and a certain rumoured ambiguity as to whether the village is officially part of Běijīng or not will no doubt help them get their way. There are already large residential and commercial developments on the other side of the expressway.
Check the websites given and local sources before setting off.
Ài Wèiwèi has had several run-ins with the authorities. His heroic effort to list by name, despite an official blackout…
▶ Cǎochǎngdì Yìshù Qū, gps 39º59’95.2” N, 116º30’05.3” E. around 11am–6.30pm, Tue–Sun. b to 南皋乡政府: 402,418, 688, 851, 973.
Cǎochǎngdì is spread on either side of Nángāo Lù (南皋路), a right (SE) turn off the Airport Expressway just beyond the Fifth Ring Road. It is best reached by taking the Jiǔxiān Qiáo Lù exit, going east on Jiǔxiān Qiáo Běi Lù (酒仙桥北路), left at Cǎihóng Lù (彩虹路), and then right at the T-junction following the service road that parallels the Expressway on the SE side, passing under the Fifth Ring. Some galleries are signposted from this road. Galleries can be found to both the north and south sides of Nángāo Lù.
There are already a few cafés and restaurants near the main galleries and real local restaurants in the community at the junction of Nángāo Lù and the service road. The livelier and more commercial 798 Art District is not far to the south on b 402, 418, or 688. Taxis are rarer out here but still to be seen.
The China Film Museum can be reached in about 20mins by walking east along Nángāo Lù and taking the second major right turn, Nán Yǐng Lù (南影路), passing under the railway line. Or take one stop east to 南皋 on the buses mentioned above, then continue east and south as described. The China Railway Museum, also nearby off the route back to 798, is best reached by taxi.
For discussion of China travel, see The Oriental-List.