Connecting Global Cities: Art Districts

May 21, 2014 10:01:55 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

“Connecting Global Cities” is a monthly column written by Colin Speakman, Director of China Programs for CAPA International Education.

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Art is one of the symbols of globalization. It can demonstrate how local and foreign cultures are interacting in art museums and galleries. Historic museums showcase art from centuries past while others focus on modern art.

To find a city's budding artists, the latest trends and new approaches, we often need to head to art districts of global cities. These are the areas where we stumble upon small galleries, colorful artists’ studios, emerging fashion designers, street sculptures and souvenirs of our times. The mix varies from city to city. One role of these areas is to provide affordable space for artists to create and display their art before they become sufficiently recognized and start bringing in sufficient income. Sometimes districts start to get too expensive and new areas of artists’ colonies spring up. Many of these areas are open to street art and provide a variety of walls on which artist are welcome to paint. They also often collaborate with local businesses on mural designs.

Photo: Street Art in Shanghai Moganshan Road by Colin Speakman

For one example that CAPA's American students may be familiar with, I turn to New York City’s Chelsea Art District. This area, north of the famous Greenwich Village, has reinvented itself. Back in the 1800s, Manhattan's first theater district appeared there and around the same time, the area attracted a row of song publishers. Between 1900 and 1915, Chelsea streets housed America's first movie studios before the shift to Hollywood. Chelsea Hotel was a residence for such writers as O. Henry and Tennessee Williams.

Photo: Hotel Chelsea, NYC by melfoody

Nearly a decade ago, Manhattan's gallery scene, by far the largest in the world, began moving from Soho to the far western reaches of Chelsea. Art began to displace the neighborhood's body shops and taxi depots with galleries that span all mediums and subjects, from free-form paper-mache sculptures to Warhol's self-portraits to classic oil stills. Today, visitors and locals can spend at least three leisurely hours viewing New York's finest contemporary art in the hip galleries clustered together in a mini wonderland of art.

Photo: Art and fashion in NYC by Stephanie Sadler

We could write a similar introduction for the art districts in each of CAPA's eight global cities, so let’s take a look at them:

The 798 Art District

In the North East of Beijing, there's an area called the 798 Art District which is also known as Dashanzi Art District. It has no direct metro line, unfortunately. The closest is Line 10 which you can take to Sanyuanqiao station and then jump on a 401 bus for 10 minutes. The 798 Art District takes its name from a factory that was built there as part of co-operation between China and the then East Germany on military supplies. There were, in fact, many different numbered factory buildings. It was regarded as a model factory complex, providing not just work, but housing, healthcare and a community for the workers. Having opened in 1957, it fell into disuse by the 1990s and, like Chelsea mentioned above, it needed to be re-invented (or pulled down as part of Beijing’s modernization). Fortunately, 798 and its neighbors survived by attracting upcoming artists who rent out studio and gallery space.

A few years later, the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) were after a cheap, spacious work area away from downtown and decided to set up in the now defunct Factory 706. The first foreigner to move into the area was American Robery Bernell with a bookshop and publishing office called Timezone 8 Art Books. This occupied a former factory canteen. Artists and designers followed suit, slowly but steadily taking over the huge spaces. Word of mouth helped spread its popularity. To add a bit of irony and what they called "Mao kitsch", the artists requested that the Maoist slogans in the archways were preserved. As the area thrived, restaurants and cafes moved in for the artist community.

Photo: 798 Art District in Beijing by Colin Speakman

Faena Arts Center in Puerto Madero

The Faena Arts Center in Buenos Aires could truly be called a work-in-progress and has some way to go to reach the depth of the art districts in our other global cities. They've created a Faena Arts Prize to inspire artists from around the world. The prize and the art center itself were created by fashion designer turned property developer Alan Faena who is a member of the Tate International Committee and the Tate Latin American Acquisition’s Committee. This is the beginning of a much larger arts (and real estate) complex that is being constructed along the waterfront of Puerto Madero. It's been called a "Shoreditch-by-the-River-Plate" (see London below), a concept that the developer claims he “invented from scratch”. Cultural centers and an artist residency are also in the works for this area in hopes of creating a permanent community area for artists and generate inspiring experiences. We will need to come back to see how all this has developed with time.

Photo: Faena Arts Center in Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires by Dan DeLuca

Temple Bar Cultural Quarter

Ireland is a fairly small country, so things are more often mixed. Dublin has what might be considered a cultural quarter rather than an art district. There, art mixes with book fairs, design fairs, music, cafes and restaurants. It's one of the city's top tourist attractions, considered the "bohemian quarter". Temple Bar Gallery and Studios is right in the heart and one of the best examples of the art aspects we are highlighting in each city. It's a contemporary art gallery that touches on the theme of globalization as well. They have an international studio program through which they bring artists to the city of Dublin as well as provide opportunities for local Irish artists to head abroad to participate in overseas artist-in-residence programs.

Photo: Gallery of Photography in Dublin by Andrew

Oltrarno District

In one sense, the whole of Florence is an ancient art district. There are sculptures in the streets and paintings in churches. However, what about the modern artists? It is fair to say that traditional artisans are struggling in the current economic climate, but some local organizations are trying to bring the sector into the 21st century, tapping into a growing community of artists, designers and boutique owners who have flocked to the Oltrarno, a tightly packed neighborhood that has long personified the darker side of the city. In the Santo Spirito church here, you could have found Michelangelo bent over a cadaver, dissecting it in order to learn about human anatomy.

A few minutes walk from there is the heart of style in Florence, especially Piazza Santo Spirito which fills with a young, somewhat hipster crowd as night falls. You'll also find the nearby “Academy on the Art of the Gesture” project set up by the Cango organization which sees Oltrarno artisans participating alongside trained dancers, teaching one another specific cultural gestures. This organization also uses abandoned spaces like decommissioned churches in the area for performances and exhibitions.

Photo: An Oltrarno artisan at work in Florence by Martina Dalla Riva for Context Travel

Beyoğlu District

The Beyoğlu district in Istanbul is the center of art, entertainment and nightlife in the city. Here you'll find the Taksim Art District which offers up a mixture of classical and contemporary art. This is the place to spot huge and impressive street art murals as well as the less appealing graffiti scribbles on the walls. Check out Eski Cicekci Street and keep your eyes open for street artist Leo Lunatic's famous panda waiting to surprise you. You'll also find many car park owners allow artists to cover the walls inside (or sometimes they do it anyway). To show how popular street art has become in Istanbul, last October the city held its first street art festival in Taksim which celebrated street art, graffiti, music and urban style.

Photo: Street art in Istanbul by Chico Boomba


Shoreditch has been described as the gateway to London’s East End. It is a colorful place, home to a vibrant culture that embraces street art, commissioned murals, quirky cafes and restaurants, galleries that think a bit differently from the typical central London spaces, edgy street style, pop-ups and launch events and bustling markets. Street artists from all over the world have painted the local walls, bringing with them an infectious creative energy. There are regular events celebrating art in all of its forms. Take a walk around and you'll see everything from massive murals to tiny paste-ups, stencil art, freehand work, sculptures and spray painted shutters. CAPA London students enjoy a street art tour as one of the popular MyEducation events. Don't forget to make your way to the Brick Lane Gallery and the famous White Cube in Hoxton Square for art in a more formal setting.

Photo: Zabou street art in Shoreditch, London by Stephanie Sadler

Moganshan Art District

The Moganshan Art District in Shanghai is located on Monganshan Road and can be reached by a 76 bus from the Jing An Temple bus terminal. It is also known as M50. Built on the site of a former set of dilapidated warehouses, south of Suzhou Creek, it has been turned into Shanghai’s most important contemporary art district. There's graffiti running along the walls that hide an area awaiting further development next to the art center. Many of these walls will likely eventually be demolished, but the main art district behind the entrance gates will continue to thrive. Shanghai's art district is a smaller version of the 798 Art District in Beijing. It has a few cafes and restaurants, and a decent range of galleries, souvenir shops and sculptures. On display, you'll find everything from black and white portraits of the city's urban development to strange statues that were created from pieces of scrap metal.

Photo: Moganshan Art District - Shanghai by Colin Speakman

Balmain District

A short ferry journey from Circular Quay, you'll come to Balmain which is one of Sydney's oldest working class suburbs. It's colorful today, home to some of the country's best known creatives: artists, musicians, writers, actors and film directors. Food and wine are highlights on a visit here with some of the city's hippest cafes and restaurants to enjoy. Head here on a weekend for Balmain Markets and Rozelle Markets. You'll find an eclectic vibe and a good selection of the usual bric-a-brac, street fashion, used books and food as well as artwork (including some recycled art) and contemporary galleries. Balmain Market has 140 stalls, some of which sell original arts and crafts among the items listed above. A cosmopolitan crowd enjoy evening parties with live music and DJs for entertainment.

Photo: Balmain, Sydney by Newtown Graffiti

Do you have a favorite art district in your city? Tell us about it in the comments.

Topics: Global Cities