Regional collecting and learning from antiquities: Hong Kong collector Hallam Chow – interview

Hong Kong collector Hallam Chow talks to Art Radar about regional collecting scene and what a contemporary art collector can learn from antiques.

Art Radar talks to Hong Kong collector Hallam Chow in what is the second interview in a series of dialogues with curators and collectors across Asia talking about the permanent museum collections they have helped to nurture in the region.

L.N. Tallur, ‘Colonial Sisters’, 2008, rosewood, 160 x 60 x 52 cm, 30 fragments, size variable. Image courtesy the artist and Arario Gallery.

L.N. Tallur, ‘Colonial Sisters’, 2008, rosewood, 160 x 60 x 52 cm, 30 fragments, size variable. Image courtesy the artist and Arario Gallery.

As the grandson of a Chinese antique collector, the late Mr Edward T. Chow, Hallam Chow began collecting art from a young age. As well as running a law practice, in the last ten years he has been involved in philanthropic endeavours across the Asia-Pacific region, supporting education-based initiatives, museum exhibitions, and workshops that promote cultural exchange between Asia and other parts of the world. During this period Chow built a sizeable contemporary art collection by Asian artists.

In October 2016 Hallam Chow donated five works to the M+ permanent collection all produced by renowned artists of South and Southeast Asian origin: Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba (b. 1968, Japan), L.N. Tallur (b. 1971, India), Sopheap Pich (b. 1971, Cambodia), Jompet Kuswidananto (b. 1976, Indonesia) and Eko Nugroho (b. 1977, Indonesia). The donation acted as a vote of confidence for the museum, proving that M+ and its permanent collection is an adequate home for the region’s most important artworks. Art Radar talks to Hallam Chow about the regional collecting scene and what a contemporary art collector can learn from antiques.

Edward T Chow and Benjamin Chow. Image courtesy Hallam Chow.

Edward T Chow and Benjamin Chow. Image courtesy Hallam Chow.

Your family has been involved in collecting for generations. Could you tell us a bit about how your grandfather’s work as an antiques collector may have informed the way you collect contemporary art?

I understand from my father (Benjamin Chow) who pupilled with my grandfather (Edward T. Chow) and helped him with his antique business, the principles of my grandfather’s Chinese antique collection is “perfection, beauty and rarity” (精,美,稀). By “perfection”, it means the work must not have any flaws, chips, cracks or imperfection in colour or shape from a technical perspective and if any, must be within an acceptable range in light of the other two factors below. By “beauty”, the piece must have innate and external beauty from its shape, colour, artistry and overall composition; and by “rarity”, it must be a rare piece as compared with other pieces of similar period or other pieces using similar technique. I think that similar principles may apply equally to the overall context of collecting contemporary art.

You are known for your collection of Asian contemporary art. What are the main issues that a collector operating in the Asia-Pacific region faces and what do you think are the best ways to overcome these hurdles?

I think that there is over-commercialism in the Asia-Pacific art market. While Chinese modern art, Korean and Japanese modern and contemporary art have a more established academic history and market, other Asian contemporary art in general lacks the depth of scholastic support and history, which results in a somewhat chaotic environment for first time and serious collectors and instead a market for opportunists. I do not believe that this is a healthy environment for the long term growth of Asia’s contemporary art. Given the geopolitical and cultural significance of Asia, I would hope that Asian artists disengage themselves from over-commercialism or “pop-ism”, rather than being an idol and more a long term artistic icon.

Could you give us an insight into what artists and works you have in your collection, and what are the artworks that you are most proud of having acquired?

It would be difficult to rank artwork in such a manner – by price, personal liking or otherwise. I like to collect works of art that can complement my general philosophical outlook of life, which is dialectic of thesis and anti-thesis with a hope of achieving a synthesis of multiple artistic cultures into a meaningful personal collection.

You recently donated five works from your collection to the M+ museum. Could you tell us a bit about how this agreement came about? Why do you collect works by those artists?

As I have said before, I believe that the significance of South and Southeast Asian art and culture cannot be overlooked and it plays an important part in forming the Asian culture scene. The donation comes about at the eve of my leaving Hong Kong to relocate to Beijing and as my grandfather left Hong Kong and moved to Geneva, he donated various works to the Hong Kong Museum of Art; hence I wish to echo his example by making a donation to M+ in Hong Kong, my birthplace.

It is difficult to give a reason for collecting [works by those artists]. As a lawyer, I may have certain logical and rational reason for each argument I make, but as an art collector, I think that my collection stems from my less rational feelings towards how each work touches me.

“Pu Xian” Buddha普贤菩萨

“Pu Xian” Buddha普贤菩萨. Image courtesy Hallam Chow.

What other donations have you made since you began collecting and to whom? What has been the most satisfying placement of works?

Among my donations, the one I would say has the most interesting story is my donation of a Ming dynasty Buddhist statue (“Pu Xian” Buddha普贤菩萨) to Peking University Law School. Pu Xian Buddha is in charge of law (“fa”) under the Buddhist scripture and hence a befitting donation to Peking University Law School where I serve as Adjunct Professor. The statue was originally placed in a Qing Dynasty Courtyard within the University and upon the completion of the new Law Library, the statue was to be moved to the Law Library. I understood from the Dean of the Law School that strangely, the statute would not move from its original location in the Courtyard despite the efforts of a number of strong movers and only after blessings were given by high ranked monks and “request” to the Buddha to move, the statue was then moved to the Law Library. I understand from the Law Library librarian that students now pray to the statue prior to going to law exams and job interviews. It should not be viewed as superstition but a very interesting story indeed.

What are your views on public and private collections, especially in the Asia-Pacific region? What are the benefits and drawbacks of museum permanent collections? Should museums be the ultimate caretakers of collections, or should more collectors open private institutions available to the public?

Personally, I believe that collectors should consider making donations to public institutions. As a project finance lawyer, I work on “public-private partnership” (PPP) projects and fully appreciate the rationale for cooperation between the public and private sectors. Given the outreach and access to the public which a public sector is best positioned to provide, the function of art being outward which should face the public audience is best suited for a public institution. Unfortunately, certain private museums in Asia become castles or playhouses of self-proclaimed millionaires and their spouses for personal ego without a clear vision of cultural responsibility or public outreach, this is a regrettable development of private museums being grown like weed in certain parts of the Asia-Pacific region.

Sopheap Pich, ‘Head in Arms’, 2010, rattan and burlap, 69 x 72 x 39 cm. Image courtesy the artist and M+.

Sopheap Pich, ‘Head in Arms’, 2010, rattan and burlap, 69 x 72 x 39 cm. Image courtesy the artist and M+. Donated in October 2016 by Hallam Chow.

As well as collecting artworks you have been involved in various non-commercial enterprises designed to promote knowledge of contemporary art across Asia (from education to supporting non-profits). To what extent is your involvement in the non-commercial side of the art world an anomaly to typical collecting practices in the region? Which other collectors are involved as you are?

I would hope that the so called “anomaly” becomes more a norm for Asian collectors. It is not rare in the West for a collector to be engaged in art collection as well as philanthropic non-commercial enterprises in supporting the culture and art that he/she loves. Uli Sigg is a good example who has established an art scholarship and criticism award to support Chinese contemporary art that he loves. Similarly, my good friend Haryanto Adikoesoemo has a formidable art collection and a private museum and also serves on the Board of Trustee for Hirschhorn Museum to promote the growth of Asian contemporary art in the west. I would hope that more genuine supporters of art and culture may emerge in the near future.

What qualities do you consider to be indispensable for a collector of Asian contemporary art?

Understanding and respect for all Asian culture, and a passion and desire to bring Asian art to the world to see.

What would you say are the main collecting trends in the Asian art scene at the moment and who are the must have artists?

I think this question is best answered by curators and museum director.

What will be your next acquisition?

I will let you know after I have made the acquisition.

Rebecca Close

1521

Click here to read more interviews in Art Radar’s Collections Series

Related topics: Acquisitions, East Asian artists, South Asian artists, Globalisation, interviewsMuseum collections

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