SEVEN years ago, the pre-eminent Chinese artist Ai Weiwei made a bold move to the outskirts of Beijing. In an area called Caochangdi Village, by the Fifth Ring Road in the city’s northeast, he designed a compound for himself, some friends and a gallery called China Art Archives and Warehouse. For a while, they were left alone.“We all thought they were cuckoo,” said Meg Maggio, a prominent contemporary art dealer in Beijing. “It was basically the countryside — really far away.”
But this spring, Ms. Maggio is moving there herself, joining an influx of high-profile galleries that are turning this quiet, birch- and pine-lined enclave into an artistic hotbed. Indeed, as the 798 District, the epicenter of Beijing’s lively contemporary art scene, becomes increasingly crowded with boutiques and tourists, some of China’s leading gallery owners are bypassing the district altogether, and heading directly to Caochangdi Village.
Or maybe they should call it Ai Weiwei Village.
Ms. Maggio’s gallery, Pekin Fine Arts (www.pekinfinearts.com), will be housed in a new complex designed by Mr. Ai — a cluster of low, minimalist buildings clad in weathered gray bricks that suggests the hutongs, or traditional alleyways, of old Beijing.
Nearby, Mr. Ai designed similar compounds for the leading Swiss gallery Urs Meile (104 Caochangdi; 86-10-6433-3393; www.galerieursmeile.com) and the soon-to-open Three Shadows Photography Art Center (155 Caochangdi; 86-10-8456-6147), a 14,000-square-foot space founded by the vanguard photographer Rong Rong to showcase Chinese and international works.
“Now there is a nice density here, like a community,” said Mr. Ai, who still serves as artistic director of China Art Archives and Warehouse (200 Caochangdi; 86-10-8456-5152; www.archivesandwarehouse.com).
If Mr. Ai is the area’s star artist, then its social hub is the hip warehouse gallery Universal Studios (A-8 Caochangdi; 86-10-6432-2600; www.universalstudios.org.cn) with its bohemian cafe and bar serving no-nonsense fare like beef noodle soup. Nearby is the spectacular new National Film Museum (9 Nanying Road; 86-10-6431-9548; www.bjrt.gov.cn/museum) and the art space Platform China (319-1 East End Art Zone A, Caochangdi; 86-10-6432-0091; www.platformchina.org), which helped set off the area’s gallery boom.
Besides being remote (at least a 30-minute drive from central Beijing), Caochangdi’s mazelike warrens make it easy to get lost. And addresses are basically useless. So the best strategy is to hire a taxi for the day, take a cellphone, call the galleries and pass the phone to the driver. A full afternoon on the meter, including round-trip fare and generous tip, should run less than 300 yuan, about $38 at 7.9 yuan to the dollar.
It might sound like a hassle, but you’ll be rewarded with an early look at more than a dozen galleries that represent the Chinese art world’s next frontier.
Other noteworthy spots include F2 Gallery (319 Caochangdi; 86-10-6432-8831; www.f2gallery.com) and the gargantuan PKM Gallery (46-C Caochangdi; 86-10-8456-6245; www.pkmgallery.com). Meanwhile, ShanghART, the trailblazing Shanghai-based gallery, is expected to open this fall, while Korea’s Gallery Hyundai is on its way, too.
“Things are developing really fast,” said Pi Li, the co-director of Universal Studios. “I think you’ll see restaurants and shops here in maybe two years. After 20 years in China’s art world, nothing would shock me.”