Hong Kong: art world hub or art world hype? Gallerists give their opinions

It is the world’s third largest art market, but does Hong Kong have what it takes to move from “hype phase” to established art hub?

Hong Kong is rapidly progressing along the road to becoming an art capital, at least in commercial terms; Art Radar spoke to three of the city’s gallerists about the realities of doing business in Asia’s biggest art market, and whether infrastructural developments are keeping pace with commercial forces.

Adrian Wong, 'In Search of a Primordial Idiolect IV', 2012, wood, laminate, foam, faux fur, carpet, acrylic and animatronics, 244 x 305 x 91 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Saamlung.

Adrian Wong, ‘In Search of a Primordial Idiolect IV’, 2012, wood, laminate, foam, faux fur, carpet, acrylic and animatronics, 244 x 305 x 91 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Saamlung.

There’s no doubt that Hong Kong’s commercial art scene is “flourishing”, says art reporter Edmund Lee in Time Out Hong Kong. In 2013, city’s art market is now the third largest in the world, with auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s selling more contemporary artworks in their Hong Kong branches than the rest of their salesrooms combined. Footfall at 2012’s ART HK was 67,000, compared to the 19,000 attendants in the inaugural year of 2008. “In terms of business, it has been a period of exponential growth,” notes Lee of recent years.

The potential for growth was apparent in 2006, Tim Etchells, founder of ART HK, told Georgina Adam in The Art Newspaper. Toying with the idea of starting an art fair in Asia, he stopped off in the city to explore the market.

I found around 35 galleries in Hong Kong, of which only around a third were of a good level. And the museum infrastructure was weak, but I felt there was potential.

While the city’s art potential has been realised commercially, says David Batty in The Guardian- certainly for Etchells, who sold ART HK to the Basel Group in 2011- the question of whether infrastructural development in the arts has matched market investment is moot. Are galleries dealing in more conceptual, less immediately ‘saleable’ works unfairly challenged by the influx of international galleries and auction houses, or has there been sufficient investment in non-commercial spaces such as the new M+ museum of visual culture to contextualise as well as commercialise contemporary art in the city?

Art Radar spoke to three commercial gallerists about the realities of doing business in Hong Kong, and gathered opinions on whether the city is ready to transition from a market-driven newcomer to a stable art capital.

Jin Shan. 'Water Division (still)', 2007, video. Image courtesy the artist and Osage Gallery.

Jin Shan, ‘Water Division (still)’, 2007, video. Image courtesy the artist and Osage Gallery.

Agnes Lin, director of Osage Gallery

How has doing art business changed in Hong Kong in the last 12 months, in your opinion?

Growth has been fast in the past 12 months, evidently seen in the inaugural Basel in Hong Kong which recently concluded. More galleries have opened up. I think the city is definitely showing a more enthusiastic response to the arts industry. But we are still far away from developing an adaptable framework for the understanding of art in Hong Kong. This is a hype phase; art is a “cool” thing now, which is a start.

What are the positives and negatives of rapid developments in the commercial art scene?

The positive thing is more exposure for artists. Bigger audiences means more incentive to make better works. The negative: anything that grows fast dies fast. I think we need to build a stronger foundation for the arts. Education, public exhibitions, more outreach, more forums that facilitate the building of knowledge and the development of a sensibility for the arts that is not only skin deep. All these can only be done with government support, and the government is clearly not doing enough. Art can definitely save this city from overly relying on tourism; we need a kind of industry, and I believe that the art industry and its periphery can be one of the options.

Hong Kong definitely has a well established commercial and business sector, but does it yet have enough of a mature cultural and critical voice to be an arts hub? Does that matter to you as a gallerist?

How do you measure the maturity of a culture? If we are basing this on the western artistic framework, then of course we are far from being mature. But I think this is exactly what gives us the edge in becoming the next arts hub: we are a highly capitalistic and business oriented society, and the pros and cons, assimilation and/or resistance to this circumstance have proven to be a rich source of creative inspiration for artists. We see a lot of content-heavy, conceptually-driven and politically-charged works in Hong Kong, as opposed to the “art for art’s sake” mode of creation you see in the western art scene. I think this opens art up to a much broader dialogue.

Wilson Shieh, 'Wilson Shieh ... Sumbody', 2013, exhibition view. Image courtesy the artist and Osage Gallery.

Wilson Shieh, ‘Wilson Shieh … Sumbody’, 2013, exhibition view. Image courtesy the artist and Osage Gallery.

With art fairs increasing, auction houses diversifying their sales platforms and urban rents rising, what can private galleries do to ensure they stay competitive?

We have faith in our audience. We think the art lovers in the city are yearning for something that feeds the mind and not just the eyes. We see a lot of commercial galleries doing the same type of shows all the time because it fits the need of the market. But that’s very short sighted. We always push conceptually, and create curatorially driven exhibitions that are as visually compelling as they are cultivating for the mind. Last year we did an exhibition in the guise of a swap-meet, which allowed spectators to come in close contact with artists. It was a very successful event as we witnessed the exchange of ideas and knowledge between art-maker and art lovers. This year we are amping the event to three consecutive weekends, which will also feature three solo exhibitions of young artists who participated last year. We enjoy seeing this relationship of symbiotic growth between gallery and artists. I think the key to staying competitive is to stay true to a vision, and this vision has always been the same for Osage.

What’s one thing Hong Kong could learn from Singapore and start to do better?

Government support is much needed, not only in funding but more importantly in space allocation. The scarcity of space is a hindrance for the growth of Hong Kong’s art scene. In Singapore the government has designated special districts for the arts. Artists have a steady studio space with reasonable rental in Singapore as opposed to Hong Kong, where artists are always on the run. In terms of gallery space, we were the first to establish a gallery in an industrial district. But sadly Kwun Tong is now also in the process of being gentrified into becoming yet another business centre. Are we putting all our eggs in the real-estate basket? That’s the question the government needs to ask. I think the government can be more determinate on whether or not it wants to genuinely support the development of arts in Hong Kong. Resoluteness in decision making is also an important type of support we need from the government.

What do you predict for the coming twelve months in the city’s art scene?

We expect more attention to be focused on arts in the Asia-Pacific region. Osage has been promoting artists in this region for many years, because long ago we already saw that we were in the process of a cultural and geopolitical shift between East and West. Hong Kong has all the advantages of being a post-colonial port as well as an important business and trade centre of China, and as a trade port we have long established a well connected regional network with Asia-Pacific countries. In the coming 12 months and years to come we are definitely going to see the focus of arts moving towards the Asia- Pacific region, and Hong Kong will act as a gateway for this migration of attention. More and more people will come to Hong Kong to look for arts in this region as we are pacing towards an Asian century.

Lin Xue's works at The Encyclopedic Palace, the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. Photographer: Andrea Avezzu. Image courtesy Gallery EXIT and the Artist.

Lin Xue’s works at The Encyclopedic Palace, 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. Photographer: Andrea Avezzu. Image courtesy Gallery EXIT and the artist.

Arianna Gellini, co-director of Gallery EXIT

How has doing art business changed in Hong Kong in the last 12 months, in your opinion?

It has not changed much, but there are definitely more people interested in acquiring contemporary art.

What are the positives and negatives of rapid developments in the commercial art scene?

In recent years Hong Kong has been the focus of the opening of an astonishing number of international galleries. This rapid development is due to some of the economic advantages that Hong Kong has proven to be able to provide. First is of course the great revenue that auction houses have created. In the past years Sotheby’s and Christie’s have achieved record-breaking sales, helping Hong Kong to become the world’s third largest art market by auction sales. Then of course the simple and low tax system conjoined with an ever-growing buoyant market. Following this trend there’s of course the re-emergence of the Hong Kong Art Fair which has proved to be a trustworthy sign of the stability of the economy and encouraged big galleries to open branches in Hong Kong.

The rising market is just one side of this tendency and as a counterpart, or even as a result, we have been witnessing more and more intellectual interest in Hong Kong. International museums, curators, collectors are some of the figures that are playing a big role in shaping the art scene here.

On the other side as a result of this rapid development, the artistic frameworks that have evolved are very different from those long-established in other parts of the world. State-funded and second-level museums and local art foundations are not yet fully developed or up to expectations. What is missing still is a legitimised critical infrastructure that could help to develop art in a very organic and fluid way. What we don’t want to happen is the outburst of a not yet mature art scene.

Hong Kong definitely has a well established commercial and business sector, but does it yet have a mature cultural and critical voice to be an arts hub? Does that matter to you as a gallerist?

As I said before, Hong Kong still lacks its own legitimised critical voice. A feeble and soft vocalisation is there but not yet strong enough to be fully heard. Market and intellectual discourse go hand in hand these days. So of course it’s very important to be able to create an infrastructure as such if Hong Kong wants to become Asia’s art hub. Artists aside, commercial and non-commercial galleries and institutions will definitely benefit from it as well, and along this line I believe galleries in Hong Kong should take the lead and make up for our yet sleepy government.

Exhibition view of 'The Nature of Speed', 2013. Photographer: Kwan Sheung Chi. Image courtesy Gallery EXIT and the artists.

Exhibition view of ‘The Nature of Speed’, 2013. Photographer: Kwan Sheung Chi. Image courtesy Gallery EXIT and the artists.

With art fairs increasing, auction houses diversifying their sales platforms and urban rents rising, what can private galleries do to ensure they stay competitive?

When Gallery EXIT opened in 2008 there wasn’t anyone who would do consistent programming to try to nurture young artists and help them develop further. Since then we have helped and encouraged a number of local artists to achieve international recognition. Lin Xue, Kwan Sheung Chi, Kong Chun Hei and Ivy Ma are some of the artists we have worked with consistently in these years.

We still work along these lines, trying to concentrate our efforts in finding and promoting emerging local artists, while still collaborating with the artists we have discovered so far. Galleries should remain true to one’s own core ideas and of course be able to adapt its propositions according to the demand. For us is a matter of helping artists develop and mature while still looking for newcomers.

What’s one thing Hong Kong could learn from Singapore and start to do better?

Singapore has a strong museum presence compared to Hong Kong. The government in Singapore is investing heavily in the city’s arts infrastructure, art education and research and Hong Kong should follow Singapore in investing more in this sector.

On a side note, Hong Kong compared to Singapore has limited space. Galleries and artists are affected heavily from the cost of property which in turn limits the kind of art that can be shown and produced.

What do you predict for the coming twelve months in the city’s art scene?

From our gallery’s point of view, we are looking at expanding our reach toward Europe and the States. We have a plan to participate at bigger fairs like Frieze, Art Basel, San Paolo and Dubai. We want to serve as a point of entrance for overseas collector to our art scene.

Samson Young, 'Machines for Making Nothing', 2011. Image courtesy the artist and Input/Output Gallery.

Samson Young, ‘Machines for Making Nothing’, 2011. Image courtesy the artist and Input/Output Gallery.

Joel Kwong, artistic director of Input/Output Gallery and programme director of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival

How has doing art business changed in Hong Kong in the last 12 months, in your opinion?

There’s a wide range of art business happening in Hong Kong, especially when we are dealing with media art. There are more and more galleries working with media artists, with new media spreading to video, kinetic sculptures, 3D printing works, interactive works etc. Moreover, there are a growing number of opportunities for working with commercial partners, included shopping malls, hotels, developers, advertising agencies… I would say it’s a growing scene in Hong Kong in the past couple years.

And this year, it’s also been the year of the Art Basel Hong Kong first edition. There are media artworks from around the globe showing here; not sure about the sales yet, but at least there are more and more focuses on Hong Kong. In the past six months, we’ve been working with shopping malls and hotels, like “Simple Happiness” at Langham Place Hotel and The Innovationists at K11 Art Mall.

What are the positives and negatives of rapid developments in the commercial art scene?

I always see positive things. The pace of living in Hong Kong is fast, everything is consumed in a super quick manner; but on the other hand the general public seizes the old things, culture and history, which are revealed by the social responses and actions towards the dismantling of historical buildings and structures.

My only concern is about the people: are we adapting to the pace? Are we on the same page as the development? Art projects need art audiences; we need a platform for audiences to explore rather than feeding them what we think is good art. We provide new solutions and platforms, go with the flow and experiment. We believe that art makes a better world which is why it is so important to society. From this perspective, I guess the whole structure is interactive and organic.

Dimension+, 'Vertebrae Series'. Image courtesy the artist and Input/Output Gallery.

Dimension+, ‘Vertebrae Series’. Image courtesy the artist and Input/Output Gallery.

Hong Kong definitely has a well established commercial and business sector, but does it yet have enough of a mature cultural and critical voice to be an arts hub? Does that matter to you as a gallerist?

How to define if Hong Kong is mature enough to work be an arts hub? I always see things as very organic. Hong Kong has really good infrastructure, is conveniently located in the world with great access to other countries, has an easy tax system… There are lots of artists and scholars visiting Hong Kong every year, there are many great exchange programmes and events. For media art sectors, two important organisations have been set up since the 80s and 90s, both units are bringing so much voice to the local sectors, and also having an impact on international exchange.

There are many material, cultural and critical voices around, and I do think Hong Kong is ready to serve as an arts hub. The next stage is the West Kowloon District projects, building our new museums and venues. How we all can work together to boost the scene, to grow it the locally, but also bring in great international artworks and programmes to enhance the exchange.

With art fairs increasing, auction houses diversifying their sales platforms and urban rents rising, what can private galleries do to ensure they stay competitive?

Input/Output closed our own gallery space in Sheungwan last August and moved on to work with venue partners to do exhibitions. Moreover, we are developing another space named IOW, the Input/Output Warehouse. Media arts is a very special art form, it deals with technology and science, there is always hot debate about archiving matters. Galleries like us cannot run on traditional gallery operation. We do pop-up exhibitions, work with partners, do more outreach and also more demo showcases to potential clients, collectors and collaborators. In this sense, we lower the cost in keeping a prominent space in the heart of city. And then we are developing IOW, a showcase which stores the media artworks from our artists and shows them by appointment only. Media artworks cannot be viewed online only but have to be seen face to face.

There should be collaboration between various galleries too. For example, contemporary art galleries should work with media art galleries and consultancies to strengthen the variety of artworks and databases.

Chris Cheung and XEX GRP, 'Anadelta'. Image courtesy the artists and Input/Output Gallery.

Chris Cheung and XEX GRP, ‘Anadelta’. Image courtesy the artists and Input/Output Gallery.

What’s one thing Hong Kong could learn from Singapore and start to do better?

Honestly, I didn’t spend much time in visiting Singapore, most of the information I got is from secondary sources and I don’t think I am well enough informed to talk about that. But indeed, I travel a lot every year; for example, I just came back from Sydney visiting ISEA [the International Symposium of Electronic Art), and VIVID Sydney. Every single travel experience brings me an insight into how people work in the art sector, and how we can learn from each other and make improvements.

What do you predict for the coming twelve months in the city’s art scene?

Another 12 months… Hong Kong is in a such rapid growth, it’s really hard to do any prediction. The West Kowloon Cultural District is growing fast, Art Basel second edition is in next summer, galleries are migrating to the East island side, more and more galleries and art units are moving into warehouse spaces like the migration of artist villages. It’s too hard to tell!

 CN

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Related Topics: Hong Kong artists, the business of art, gallerists, art in Hong Kong, Asia expands

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