A rainy night in November 2011 saw the Hong Kong opening of a gallery with a difference. Its name, Art Supermarket, did not sound very propitious but, as rain is sometimes considered lucky in the city, we popped in to investigate and nabbed an interview with the director.

Inside Art Supermarket, a gallery offering art by emerging Chinese artists at affordable prices that opened in Hong Kong in November 2011. Image by Art Radar.

Inside Art Supermarket, a gallery offering art by emerging Chinese artists at affordable prices that opened in Hong Kong in November 2011. Image by Art Radar.

Art Supermarket has installed itself in a desirable location: 1 Prince’s Terrace, a space formerly occupied by Sin Sin Fine Art. Wealthy professionals pass its windows at least twice a day as they ascend and descend the busy escalator that transports them from offices in Central to homes in the prime residential Midlevels area.

Swiss collector Michael Manzardo has opened a type of gallery new to the city, one with a supermarket-style theme and a focus on affordable art by emerging Chinese contemporary artists. Manzardo plans to hold large group shows in the space, with work being refreshed every few months. Plenty of choice, a range of prices and a stand-back staff policy might be a savvy business model in the grocery industry, but will it work to pile them up high and sell them off cheap in luxury-brand-loving Hong Kong?

Intriguingly, the work on offer on opening night was not entirely created no-name artists and the prices, which ranged from USD1,000 to 10,000, were not dirt cheap. There is another anomaly: the experienced collector labels himself a curator on his business card. A supermarket full of curated art goods, what is going on? At the ‘checkout’, Art Radar snatched a quick interview with Manzardo to find out whether this is a business model with potential.

Michael Manzardo, Curator and Director of Hong Kong gallery, Art Supermarket. Image by Art Radar.

Michael Manzardo, Curator and Director of Hong Kong gallery, Art Supermarket. Image by Art Radar.

Basically, the idea behind Art Supermarket is to offer buyers affordable art by emerging Chinese artists?

Yes, some artists are already known, but only within mainland China, mostly in Beijing; they have never shown outside of China, in Europe, for example, or even in other Asian countries. Hong Kong is already the third largest art market in the world, behind London and New York, but in Hong Kong you can’t really find affordable art. The Hollywood Road galleries promote established artists, if you go to the auctions, if you go to the Hong Kong art fair, all the artists represented at these events are established, and that is why the price of the work is, of course, at a certain level. I believe that there are people here who love art, but who can’t afford to buy it. I want to make art accessible to this group of people.

What kind of people do you think will be interested in buying the work you show at Art Supermarket?

Expatriates, middle-class Hong Kongers, tourists… that’s why I have a lot of smaller pieces that you could carry onto a plane. [People] come to Hong Kong to see art, but most never go into the galleries because they think they can’t afford the work.

Are you selling artwork on the Internet or just from this gallery?

Just this gallery. You can sell art on the Internet, but for some buyers it doesn’t work because they want … to have an experience, a real life experience, with the art. Maybe I will consider selling a special segment of my art on the Internet.

How do you select the artwork that you are selling here at Art Supermarket?

At the moment I am focusing only on Chinese contemporary art. The Chinese art market was not accessible [to buyers from the West] for decades. Now it’s opened up, and it’s not just the well-known artists who [Western collectors] are interested in, but also the younger artists: [people want to know how these young artists] think and … feel. They are interested in finding out what’s going on in China, not just economically, but also artistically. Art is always a mirror of society and I wanted to show this, but with a particular focus on young talented artists.

How have people responded to this concept?

They have responded well. Some people have told me that there really is a demand for the opportunity to buy affordable art in Hong Kong, some were really anticipating the opening. At first, I thought that people did not understand the concept,… that they thought the name, [Art Supermarket], meant that the gallery sold cheap art, and by cheap I mean low in quality, not just low in price, but actually, they seem to understand that this is not the case.

At the Art Supermarket "checkout counter". Art Supermarket is a concept gallery that opened in Hong Kong in November 2011. Image by Art Radar.

At the Art Supermarket "checkout counter". Art Supermarket is a concept gallery that opened in Hong Kong in November 2011. Image by Art Radar.

I understand that you are also an art collector. How long have you been collecting art?

I was born into a family that collected art. I grew up in a house where there was not a centimetre of space left on the walls because they were covered in paintings.

What nationality are you?

Swiss… I worked in advertising and at the same time was collecting art, and then I came to Hong Kong.

So you moved to Hong Kong recently?

Two years ago.

Your concept is very clear: the signs, the checkout and all the other aspects of supermarket design. One of the things that is particular to the Hong Kong retail environment is that there is a big response to brands, a lot of the retailers focus on strong branding, but you have gone for a concept that is, in a way, opposite to this. Is Art Supermarket anti-brand?

Kind of, but there’s a bit of a wink, I think, and people will understand that. And it’s also a kind of branding; there is clear branding everywhere. … I show people what they can expect when they [come into the space]. I will not bother people like [assistants] in other galleries do. … I travel all over the world, I visit many galleries; stepping in [to a gallery] people hesitate – there’s so much light, it’s so bright, far in the distance there are two assistants sitting behind a computer – people don’t feel comfortable. That’s why I want to create this [supermarket-like] atmosphere; nobody disturbs you.

Due to high Hong Kong rents, the affordable art model is a difficult one to maintain. You have to turn over a large volume of pieces in comparison to the turnover required to maintain a high-end gallery. Is this something you have considered? Does it concern you?

Sure, I have to put in a lot more effort, I need to show work by not only one artist but [a large number of] artists, I have to spend [a lot of time searching for new work by new artists]… But it is kind of like a vacation for me: I head to Beijing or to mainland China for two or three weeks and meet with artists, visit them in their studios and then make a decision. Yes, there is more to do logistically, of course, but still, I believe this is a model that can work.

How often will you be changing the pieces, only when they sell, or weekly, monthly?

This exhibition will last for two or three months.

And then you will change everything?

Yes. I already represent seven artists and I will find another seven for the next exhibition. This is part of the concept, so that people don’t get bored, [and it is] also part of the supermarket idea, the buyer has a range of items to select from, some variety.


Related Topics: market watch – galleries, curatorial practice, art venues in Hong Kong, Chinese artists, emerging artists

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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