The cradle of Shanghai's modern art scene, M50 at 50 Moganshan Road now attracts 400 visitors per day, all eager to check out the work of the 100 artists in residence in the former factories and warehouses on the banks of the Suzhou Creek, writes Wang Jie.
If you have never been to 50 Moganshan Road, you are out of Shanghai's art loop.
Yet several years ago, even a taxi driver wouldn't know how to get there. "Where is 50 Moganshan Road (M50)? I've never heard of it," they'd say.
True. It used to be a "dead place" hidden outside the confines of the rapidly changing society. Until in 2000, Xue Song, a veteran local contemporary artist, found the ambience of the forgotten warehouses and factories simply irresistible. Xue was the first artist who moved into M50.
Later news of M50 got out and now it's one of the main cooking pots of the city's art.
Gone is the shabby look and musty air, it's now the hot place for artists, curators, collectors and gallery owners. Shanghai has responded to Beijing's "798" with its own "M50."
"Today we have around 100 artists here, including nearly all the hottest artists in the city," says Di Lifeng, project manager of M50. "We receive nearly 400 visitors here each day, and most of them are Westerners."
Perhaps even the owner of M50 didn't expect today's art scene to be quite so booming, but we now see now a trend initiated by M50 - the origin of the city's creative industry.
It seems that some old warehouses and factories added to a cluster of designers and fashion companies are the key elements of a creative industry center. This "old-turning-new" chic has resulted in a soaring rental fee of 10 yuan (US$1.25) per square meter per day in Bridge 8, one of the city's high-end creative industry centers.
M50 has its own strategy with some artists paying the lowest rental of 0.4 or 0.5 yuan per square meter per day, with the highest 5 yuan per square meter each day.
"We have a flexible practice which nurtures M50 as a brand," Di adds.
Some "core artists" (indicating those who moved to M50 in its infancy or those hot artists) are able to get cheaper prices.
The owner, a state-owned textile group, is astonishingly farsighted, despite the fact that some staff members lack a basic art background or any advanced management skills.
"We are straightforward and open when dealing with the artists," says Zhou Bin, a staff member of Shangtex, the owners. "We don't see ourselves merely as the landlord of M50, we want to shape its future."
The adjustment of the rental fees is one approach.
"We do raise the rental fees for some newcoming artists, of course, and they may pay more than those 'core artists,'" Zhou confesses. "The reason is simple: We don't want to find the same 100 artists at M50 year after year. It is not a stagnant place, it demands fresh air and blood."
However, sometimes this approach leads to chaos.
Some artists complain about this unfair treatment.
"As far as I am concerned, I am OK with the rentals here, just think of the space and the management service," says Yi Zhou, an artist from Jiangsu Province who came to Shanghai in 2004. "My rental fee is 10,000 yuan per month (for 200 square meters). But not all artists sell their paintings well. I know some do have financial problems."
This is fierce competition in art.
"That's our dilemma," Zhou says. "The selection of the artists should have been done at the beginning, but we were ignorant at that time."
Zhou hastily points out that "M50 is not a snobbish place. That is totally wrong. We think the art here should be of all types." For example, they signed a contract with a mural artist a couple of weeks ago.
It is even said that the late Chinese artist/filmmaker Chen Yifei (1946-2005) had intended to move his "visual empire" - including his costume company, publishing house, fashion boutique and his own studio - to M50 several years ago.
"We turned him down, though we knew his fame would boost M50 very much," Zhou jokes.
Lucrative as these creative zones are, not all artists are attracted by this "art trend."
Li Xihua, a local 40 something artist, says: "Maybe because of my personality, I don't want to be too much involved in this so-called 'art center.' Art is something very personal, and I enjoy the feeling of being alone."
Now the management of M50 has set aside around 1,000 square meters for future projects.
"We don't want to see M50 fully occupied, just in case an interesting project or more artists approach us." Zhou and his staff are also planning to provide some free space to nurture young, promising artists. With no funding from the government, M50 still struggles between assisting art and making money.
"That is the topic that we talk about with the artists here the most. We hope that some time in the future we can have some other income from the property rather than just the rental fees," Di says.
In six years, M50 went from nothing to being the most important art center in the city, and there's no sign of its development slowing any time soon. Let's hope it continues.