One Year After the M50 Graffiti Walls Were Torn Down


Moganshan Road graffiti walls, 2012


Moganshan Road graffiti walls, 2018

50 Moganshan Road in Shanghai comprises a complex of 30-to-90-year-old renunciative factory buildings boasting a unique architectural style. For the past 2 decades, M50 has been no doubt a shrine for artists and a must-see for art lovers and collectors who visit Shanghai.

Between the gallery clusters and the nearby subway station stood an array of graffiti walls. Their avant-garde graphics and mottled concrete texture were a poetic representation of the strong tension and magic harmony between the past and the present of Shanghai.

However, around this time last year, the graffiti walls - once considered the landmark of this region - were suddenly gone, replaced with dazzling orange construction site exteriors. The real estate company which owns the land announced that this December, a super commercial complex called Tian’an Sunshine Plaza, would be inaugurated at 120 Moganshan Road. This plaza would only be a 2 minute walk from M50.

In fact, M50 has been included in the development plan as well. According to the city lay-out scheme recently released by the local government, M50 will be integrated into the plaza so that they together form an iconic riverside cultural center. Urban development and commercialization seem to be forcing M50 towards a different future. What exactly do the changes mean to the galleries and studios in this art zone?


Tian’an Sunshine Plaza under construction


Changshou Region lay-out scheme

M50 witnessed Shanghai’s historic path from an industrial city to its contemporary modern self. The Anhui-born Zhou family first established their Xinhe textile business in this region during the early 20th century. After the People’s Republic of China was founded in the 1940s, Zhou’s textile mill was transformed into a state-owned Chunming Roving Factory. It was then developed into ShangTex Group Ltd., which continued producing clothes and fabrics for another 4-5 decades. In the late 1990s, as modern textile business gradually languished, the old plant area also declined.

At that time, you could barely find a decent contemporary art zone like Song Zhuang in this southern international metropolis. Apart from temporary spaces converted from abandoned warehouses like the Art Depot, there were few other locations for art lovers. The management team of ShangTex incisively sensed the opportunity and decided to lend their land out.

In 2000, painter Xue Song, M50’s first tenant, rented a 200 m² space for his studio at the price of 0.45 yuan/m² per day. Following Xue, other early residents included Ding Yi, Zhang Enli, Chen Qiang, and Xu Zhen. Many of these artists were in their 20s and 30s when they first entered M50. During their stay at M50, they slowly gained international fame in the art world. Today their artworks are either housed or exhibited at Pompidou, the Met, Venice Biennale, and many other profound institutions.


Xue Song in his studio at M50, 2002


Amalia Pica, (un)heard, installation view, Cc Foundation, M50

Only two years after the artists moved in, the discarded factory buildings were soon brought back to life. They housed the most thriving artistic community in Shanghai. Today’s top-tier local artistic organizations like ShanghART Gallery, Cc Foundation, and MadeIn Culture were all built here as well.


3D Illustration of future Tian’an Sunshine Plaza

M50’s revival benefited the financial and cultural expansion of its neighborhood. Tian’an Sunshine Plaza - a super commercial complex with hanging gardens reminiscent of Babylon will be inaugurated at 120 Moganshan Road. Presumably, the newly built CBD will bring M50 stronger visibility. However, most of our interviewees remained skeptical toward its effect. Many believed that the plaza is more likely to attract shoppers and tourists instead of their ideal collector visitors.

As the place gets crowded, prices will naturally rise. “Who knows? M50 could become just another Mayfair in Shanghai,” wrote Oriental Morning on the 10th anniversary of the M50 Art Zone. Actually, current official renting prices for gallery spaces are more than 13 times as much as it they were when M50 first opened. The cost is becoming increasingly unaffordable for start-ups. The launch of CBD may once again raise the rents, forcing it up to Mayfair level, as predicted by local newspapers. This will certainly drive more artists out.

Besides this, we learnt from our conversation with gallery owners who would rather stay anonymous that, although most of the tenants signed long-term rental contracts with the location’s landlord, some of tenants secretly subleased the space to a third party based on a one-year rental contract. The illegal short-term sublets have significantly contributed to inflation and caused frequent removal. The aforementioned rental price worth 13 times more than the original only applies to the official price.The actual price is often much higher. Some small and medium sized businesses have had no choice but to move out. Cheaper art districts in the suburbs like Qingpu, Songjiang, and Hongqiao have become their new dwellings.

Another conspicuous change is that today you can see an increasing amount of handicraft stores in the district. This type of products better appeal to shoppers and tourist groups. However, gallery residents are not that excited about this because they worry people might mistake this with the concept of fine art. They use previous experience as evidence for their skepticism.


3D Illustration of future M50

Last year, the M50 Administrative Committee attempted to promote visibility by organizing a bazaar where vendors could come and sell trinkets, toys, postcards… “The bazaar was quite popular. I bought some earrings and necklaces too.” Art collector, Ms. Liu, who was a regular at Suomei Gallery, said to us, “Although the bazaar boosted popularity, they more or less sacrificed the artistic nature of the area. The beauty of M50 was always there, but the crowded commercial events made it hard to discover.” The promotion events led by the committee obviously ran counter to some artists’ self-identification and the branding of the galleries. In such cases, some prefer to pay higher rents and move to new art districts like the West Bund. Such places offer more exclusive and professional environments.

“We truly don’t know if M50 is going to survive another decade,” said Darryl, co-founder of Art Square.

When Darryl and his business partner Angie first started their gallery here, they were primarily attracted by the strong bohemian ambience of this place. “Here everybody knows each other. The social relations are warm and natural, as if we were living in a small village,” recalled Darryl, “People always reacted kindly.”


Exhibition posters at M50, 2018

Today, urban development and commercialization have gradually wiped the bohemian ambience out. According to people who run galleries and studios, it is not only the facades of M50 that now look different. Instead, it seems that the interior and the very soul of M50 has been silently changing too. In recent years, many of the important old tenants, including MadeIn Culture and Zhang Enli Studio, have moved out of M50. We also have seen some new organizations come in, but very few have stayed long. Will M50 continue to be a land of passion, dreams, and freedom for young artists? “We worry that M50 might become just another ‘Tianzi Lane’,” said Lu, manager at Yu Nancheng Studio.