Why shopping malls are making space for high-end art

Hong Kong, Shanghai, Paris, Bicester—the retail trend is all about boosting “dwell time”

Using art to sell luxury products, from smart hotels and real estate to handbags, is well established, but art is increasingly being used to entice visitors into shopping malls—in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Paris and even rural Oxfordshire in the UK.

The most striking example is China’s K11 Art Mall, the brainchild of the young retail billionaire Adrian Cheng. This flashy mall opened in 2013 in Huaihai Lu, Shanghai’s central shopping street, and boasts a museum in the third basement, dubbed Chi K11. This is the second of Cheng’s malls (he set up his first in Hong Kong in 2009).

Chi K11 is fitted out to museum standards and recently presented the exhibition Media—Dalí, which closed last month. It was co-organised by the K11 Art Foundation and the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, and attracted more than 160,000 visitors during its three-month run. The current show is WE: a Community of Chinese Contemporary Artists (until 2 May).

“Everyone knows that people love to shop in China. But what we want to do goes beyond commercial exchange. Incorporating art adds another dimension,” Cheng says, although he admits that “international visitors find our art malls odd at first”. He sees the overlap between shopping and art as a way of cultivating new audiences for art. “Walking into a ‘white cube’ is not only intimidating, it is a foreign experience based on a concept that has not been ingrained in the psyches of most Chinese,” he says. “So we bring the art to them in a setting they already know.”

In and around Hong Kong’s Landmark luxury mall are 25 sculptures by Lynn Chadwick (until 15 April), while Vision Tunnels (until 4 April), an installation designed by the Hong Kong-based architect Rocco Yim, features 14 historic and contemporary works that are for sale. Larry Bell’s Minimalist work is on show in the Pacific Place mall (until 17 April), courtesy of its owner, Swire Properties, and UTA Fine Arts.

French retail groups are also exploiting this new way of enhancing the shopping experience. In January, Ai Weiwei hung bamboo and rice-paper creatures from the ceilings of the department store Le Bon Marché in Paris. Meanwhile, the city’s Centre Beaugrenelle proclaims itself “une destination arty”. During the Fiac art fair last October, it showed Chinese art placed by the Art of this Century platform, organised by Karen Levy, the daughter of the Chinese art collectors Sylvain and Dominique Levy.

“It’s all about ‘dwell time’,” says Desirée Bollier, the chief executive of Value Retail, which owns ten (soon to be 11) discount designer outlets, including Suzhou in China and Bicester Village, near Oxford, in the UK. An outlet is due to open in Shanghai this spring.

“Dwell time” is the retail jargon for the amount of time shoppers spend in a mall: four hours on average. By offering something extra, the owners hope to increase that time and, presumably, the amount of money shoppers hand over at the tills.

• Larry Bell in Conversation, 23 March, 2pm, Swire Properties Lounge • Art in Malls, 25 March, 2.30pm, Swire Properties Lounge