This is an article I wrote as a part of a magazine named Community, which I helped produce for WeWork. The magazine profiles seven people who live and work in the city of Shanghai and how they shape a sense of connectedness within their communities.
In the introduction, I wrote: “Through them, we see a kaleidoscope of communities. To some of them, a community is about an area where they feel most comfortable to live and work, a place they come to have a common understanding of what each other is doing, and a neighborhood bar or cafe, or a social space where friends meet without having to make a plan with each other. Others view it as a togetherness formed by their common nature, interests, aesthetics and values. All of them continue to build, grow and retain a sense of community when facing challenges in times of change.”
Written by Xing Zhao | Photography by Wenjie Yang
At a closed blue-grey iron door at the end of a quiet lane near Anfu Lu, a press on the buzzer admits visitors in to Capsule Gallery. Here, Enrico Polato puts together his meticulously curated art exhibitions, presents some of the artists whose work the city is seeing for the first time and brings together a community of people who share an interest in art.
Polato first came to China in 2004 on an Italian scholarship to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing. He began his first gallery job a year later at the Swiss gallery Galerie Urs Meile’s outpost in Beijing, where he spent the following eight years working and developing his experiences as a gallerist.
He moved to Shanghai in 2013, with the idea that he was going to start his own venture. “It was the time when many private museums were opening, and there was a hype about Shanghai being the next international destination for contemporary art,” he recalls. Taken with the excitement of the rapid development of the city’s art scene and growing art community, he was at the same time feeling very disoriented. Trying to figure out what he was going to do, he worked as an independent consultant, visiting exhibitions, art fairs and artist studios, looking for artworks for friends and clients who trusted him and his taste, then spent a year with Shanghai’s homegrown gallery Aike-Dellarco whose program focused on emerging artists. This experience led him to realize his passion for discovering and presenting new talents, as well as his ultimate goal of having more freedom in doing what he liked to do.
It took him two years to find the exact space he had in mind before founding Capsule: a manageable-sized space that was private, with a Shanghai flavor. “I wanted to take a break from spaces that were so public and visited,” he says. “And people would come not only for the exhibition but also because there is a context given by the space that is complementary to the exhibition.” To turn it into a functional art space, he brought his friend and fellow Italian, architect and art collector Nunzia Carbone on board to work on the redesign. Pointing out Carbone’s realignment of the doors and unique choice of white flooring, Polato says, “This collaboration brought the originally dark space back to life.”
For an art gallery building its network is key to business. By the time the space was ready Polato had already found a group of artists he wanted to work with. “I was primarily interested in finding emerging artists who didn’t yet have official gallery representations, who could grow with the gallery,” he says. Feeling he didn’t have much to offer as a new gallery, he started making friends with artists, collecting their work himself as a way of supporting them, hoping he could establish a bond with them. Building his collector base was by no means an easier task. “It was very difficult in the first year and a half because nobody knew about the gallery and nobody knew about the artists.” Clients first found his program fresh, and slowly confidence was built up for them to start acquiring works by his artists. As one of the galleries in Shanghai, Capsule belongs to the global art community in the bigger picture, whereas at the same time it has formed its own smaller community, according to Polato. “There are a few different art spaces in the area: Vacancy, Bank, Square Gallery and Leo Gallery. There is always a tendency to talk to your community to see when they open an exhibition, and whether we can combine the openings to help bring more people to the area. And whoever comes round, there is always a chance to tell them what’s happening in the area.”
Another reason for Polato’s decision to set up his gallery in this area is that this has always been the community he’s living in. The definition of his ‘community’ is not limited to the art community. “A community is where people have a common understanding of what each other is doing, it’s where people come and support each other,” he says. He knows his neighbors and most people running different businesses in the area, from owners of restaurants and cafes to small corner shops and markets. “Compared with people working in the art business, going to an art gallery is not their first priority, but they still have an interest in what I’m doing. They come visit the exhibitions because they know I’m so close by, they know me, and they know the gallery.”
He has collaborated with some of the neighboring businesses, including bringing pop-up exhibitions to the furniture shop Casa Casa and the bakery Sunflour on Anfu Lu. By forming a line between his space and the neighbors’, he believes it creates an interesting dialogue, as the furniture shop’s more interior design-oriented clientele is different from people that come to visit a gallery. “It’s good for both of us because people go there and see art being presented in a livable environment, they are directed to the gallery, and vice versa.”
“Suppliers providing me services are also essential to me.” The little hardware shop on Wuyuan Lu has been a lifesaver for solving last-minute problems when installing exhibitions, the Hunanese restaurant Spicy Moment is his favorite venue to host opening night dinners for artists, clients and friends and the cafe Baker and Spice is where his breakfast meetings take place. “And just outside the lane, there is my laundry place,” he adds. “I feel this is where I live and where I work. This helps to bring together a sense of community.”