Dafen “Village” is situated in a suburb in the the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. Originally a rural village with only 300 native residents in the 1980s, Dafen is now home to over 1200 galleries and over 8000 of “painter workers” and artists, churning out thousands of hand-painted canvases each year and bringing in millions of dollars a year to the village of over 20000 people. Dafen has been an unlikely winner in an untraditional industry due to its alignment between business and operating models.
Dafen got its start from a Hong Kong artist and businessman who turned to the Chinese mainland after receiving large orders for paintings from overseas in 1989. Attracted by the cheap rent of rural Shenzhen and proximity to Hong Kong, Huang Jiang set up a studio in Dafen and hired a group of about 20 artists and assistants. As orders grew, Huang built up his studio into a factory with separate floors for painting, dormitories, packing and shipping. One of Huang’s largest contracts was for 250,000 identical paintings and he hired as many as 2000 subcontracted artists to fulfill the order.
The basic customer promise of Dafen’s galleries and workshops is the production of hand-painted art at extremely low prices for foreign customers. The majority of the art is exported overseas at about 50% margin and key customers were large retailers such as Walmart and Kmart.
To deliver the products with low cost, Dafen’s operating model relied on an abundance of cheap labor and the decomposition of the painting process. This was initially possible given low cost of doing business in a rural Chinese village, and the large orders for the same paintings. The success of Huang had attracted many starving artists to the village from all over the country and the size or the orders made it possible for workers to specialize. Some painters worked in teams and each person is responsible for painting individual brushstrokes or specific features on hundreds of canvases. This breakdown of the painting process for an artwork is very similar to Henry Ford’s Model T assembly line, decomposing an artisan craft to piecemeal elements which can be performed by unskilled labor.
While keeping costs low, this practice of specialization also served as training ground for painters to practice and develop their skills into artists who were then able to replicate more intricate pieces of art. The painters were ambitious and proud of their abilities. Formal events such as the annual Dafen Copying Competition in which over 100 artists compete to paint the best copy of a chosen artwork within three and a half hours were organized and judged by artists appointed by the regional government. Over just a decade, the rural workshops of Da Fen developed into an assembly of a large group of painters within a single neighborhood. Some of Huang’s assistants opened their own workshops over time and some are dedicated to a specific genre or artist style. Some workshops also provide artists with autonomy and freedom to paint on their own schedule and pay for completed work by unit. The village became a center for production of art for the masses. By 2008, about 60% of the mass-produced art in the world is sourced from Dafen, bringing revenues of 1.2 billion RMB to the village.
Future of Dafen?
During the global economic downturn, international demand for art reduced significantly. The artists of Dafen turned to the booming domestic market. As the Chinese economy urbanizes and millions of houses and hotels are being built all over the country, the demand for affordable artwork to decorate the new walls grew with real estate. Additionally, the burgeoning Chinese middle-class also turned to Dafen for hand-painted art. Now with more skilled artists, Dafen’s offering ranged from reproductions of old master oil paintings to custom commissions, quality ranging from “commercial” to “high”, and a delivery time of just a few days. However, original artwork still only account for about 20 – 30% of Dafen’s output.
The Chinese government has been highly supportive of Dafen as a successful venture and promotes the village as a cultural destination. The village has also developing into an art center and has attracted both domestic and international tourism. New developments such as the Dafen Design Competition held in partnership with Tongji University also speak to the progress of the village toward a modern art epicenter. The increased streams of revenues, concentration of artists and the focus on innovation and development will keep Dafen competitive and relevant in the global economy.
- Wong, W. (2013). Van Gogh on Demand. Retrieved from http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/V/bo15260849.html