Is Hong Kong’s current art climate failing local artists? Wall Street Journal discusses


As Hong Kong’s commercial sector continues to grow in leaps and bounds, has the city’s independent art scene been forgotten? A critical report from the Wall Street Journal marks 2010 as a year in which international auction houses and big-name gallery spaces dominated the market, while emerging homegrown artists were left grappling for support.

It takes two

The commercial and noncommercial sides of the art world have always fed off of one another. While the two seem to cater to different aspects, it can be said that a healthy art market cannot exist without the proper cultivation of both realms.

Hong Kong nonprofit Para/Site Art Space. Image from

Hong Kong nonprofit Para/Site Art Space. Image from

According the Wall Street Journal, with nonprofit art spaces being overshadowed by the presence of high-end galleries and international art-dealing companies, artists worry that Hong Kong “may end up a marketplace for well-established international art without a vibrant, independent art scene of its own.”

To drive this point home, artist Hiram To, who represented Hong Kong in the Venice Biennale in 2007, is quoted in the article as saying: “Generally it’s the public institutions that drive the art scene and commercial opportunities are an add-on. But in Hong Kong, it’s the reverse.

The role of nonprofit art spaces

Nonprofit art organisations, government or otherwise-funded art institutions and alternative art spaces are widely seen as places that allow artists to explore their practice without being hindered by the monetary demands of the business. They act as a starting point for young artists, giving them a taste of public exhibition, opening their work up to critique and (potentially) learning from it.

As highlighted by the Wall Street Journal:

“Nonprofit art institutions can highlight interesting art without the pressure of selling the artwork, and artists often need them to help establish their reputations. ‘It’s important for artists to show in noncommercial environments, for reputations to be forged in not only galleries but major institutions,’ says Magnus Renfrew, the founding director of ART HK.”

While there are local art institutions and alternative art spaces in Hong Kong that are direly underdeveloped, there have been efforts to reinforce the city’s nonprofit sector. The Jockey Club is funding the revitalisation of the Central Police Station on Hollywood Road which, along with the Former Police Married Quarters, will be restructured into multimedia alternative art spaces.

In addition, grants are given out to artists and scholars by the government-mandated Arts Development Council and the new M+ art museum (headed by Lars Nittve, the first director of London’s Tate Museum) will be housed in the admittedly somewhat embattled West Kowloon Cultural District.

The VIP entrance for last year's HK Art Fair. Image taken from

The VIP entrance for last year's HK Art Fair. Image from

“Are the right people making the decisions?”

This is the question asked by John Batten, curator, art critic and organiser of the Hong Kong Art Walk. Artists and art professionals in the city are wary of whether endeavours are being directed by those with an in-depth knowledge of the local art scene.

“The real people that do things are never the people that run things,” says Mr. Batten. “We’re never asked to sit on any boards. The people who make the decisions don’t love art.”

Hong Kong’s art scene is relatively young and geographically scattered – there are small creative communities in different parts of the city but no general area that encompasses this independent art scene. Hiram To, the artist quoted earlier, said that there needs to be an emphasis on letting Hong Kong’s own art culture grow from the ground up instead of “bringing in brand-name people and institutions…. You cannot transport art culture here.”

Major fairs and art shows suffer from lack of planning

DeTour 2010 and the Hong Kong booth of the 54th Venice Biennale came under heavy scrutiny in the Wall Street Journal report for being “marred by a lack of professionalism, [with] limited time for planning and little funds.”

The Arts Development Council has delayed choosing artists for the Venice Biennale due to a cited technicality. With artists having to reapply and results coming out in late January, there are only weeks left to prepare. Other countries pick their artists as early as 2009.

On the comments made about DeTour 2010, Alvin Yip, one of the organisers, was quoted as saying:

“I wouldn’t take it as criticism, it was a fact. We have to admit we’re not the most organised, but that’s the beauty of it.”

People exploring DeTour 2010. Image taken from

People exploring DeTour 2010. Image taken from

Art versus product

Amidst 2010 monster revenues brought in via art auction houses and internationally established art galleries, the approach towards acquiring pieces of artwork in Hong Kong seems to have sought inspiration from business investment rather than art appreciation.

“‘Hong Kong’s appreciation for art is still about the bottom line,’ says To. ‘People buy art for investment. It’s not about art at the end. It’s just about products.'”

However, David Chan, Osage Gallery’s Director of Art and Ideas, shares a different point of view,

“‘Not until the market is proven successful will people believe in the value of art…. Now people are interested in the market, the second step is to create a sustainable cultural model and have really interesting artists that will be the voice of Hong Kong.'”

Click here to read the Wall Street Journal article in its entirety.

As 2010 has left in its wake a plethora of debates and discussions regarding the fast-changing Hong Kong art scene, Art Radar will be keeping an eye out for more discussion on the subject.


Related Topics: Hong Kong art, nonprofit sector, art development

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