The panel conversation at Art Basel Hong Kong 2018 offered insights into gallery collaboration, digitalisation and fostering gallery ‘romance’.

Moderated by Silverlens Gallery Founder Isa Lorenzo, the group discussed building their art spaces with the ‘no plan plan’.

Art Basel Hong Kong 2018 Conversation Series presents "Working Models: Developing Gallery Structures" with Vanessa Carlos, Hormoz Hematian, Mimi Chun, Young Chung and Isa Lorenzo. © Art Basel

Art Basel Hong Kong 2018 Conversation Series presents “Working Models: Developing Gallery Structures” with Vanessa Carlos, Hormoz Hematian, Mimi Chun, Young Chung and Isa Lorenzo. © Art Basel

Collaboration, contracts and criticism: three terms which ran rampant throughout the Art Market Talk “Working Models: Developing Gallery Structures”, recently nestled within Art Basel Hong Kong’s 2018 Conversations series. The discussion, poised more like an interview than an informal dialogue, invited a team of international gallerists – in the vague and ever-expanding role listeners would soon know – to talk about the formation of their young art spaces. Manila’s Silverlens Galleries Founder Isa Lorenzo stood as moderator, throwing questions about cross-institutional collaboration, interdependency, growth and, most heavily, friendship.

Whilst many questions were met with vague, glossed-over answers, particularly in regard to the role of the critic in contemporary gallery spaces, Lorenzo probed into the nitty gritty of developing gallery structures and the multifaceted, multitudinous careers that brought each gallerist to where they stand with their blossoming businesses today. Between Vanessa Carlos, Founder of the London-based gallery Carlos / Ishikawa, Hormoz Hematian, Founder of Dastan’s Basement in Tehran, Mimi Chun, Founder and Director of Hong Kong’s ‎Blindspot Gallery and Young Chung, Founder of Commonwealth and Council in Los Angeles, the talk considered the different systems that are in place to develop gallery models and the ways in which they operate in their respective countries.

Installation view of Steve Bishop’s ‘Standard Ballad’, 2015. Image courtesy Carlos/Ishikawa.

Installation view of Steve Bishop’s ‘Standard Ballad’, 2015. Image courtesy Carlos/Ishikawa.

Working with the ‘no plan plan’

Lorenzo got the ball rolling with a candidly complex question: What are the different contemporary art gallery structures? And, more specifically, what do these structures mean in different locations? Carlos, who also recently established Condo, a collaborative host-gallery scheme, prompted a critical understanding of the systems in place. The initiative, starting in 2016, opened her gallery’s London locale to a more vertically and horizontally collaborative model, inviting other institutions between New York, Mexico City, Shanghai and, for the first time this year, São Paulo to take part in a collective exhibition. The Brazilian artist-turned-curator notes that her recent work in the industry stemmed from a frustration of the art world reflecting a “neoliberal pyramid that focuses on corporations”. She comments:

I found this to be a suffocating environment…There is a complete over-proliferation of [arts institutions] that don’t deliver that much. The culture that it breeds is not of going to see artwork anymore. Condo seeks to address a different way of exhibiting an artist abroad and looking at more experimental work: a slower way of looking.

Carlos’ collaborative process is almost a self-selecting one, fuelled by the galleries she initially contacts, who then recommend other artists and institutions around the world working through similar frustrations. The emphasis, for her, is on fostering systems of interdependency and what she calls the “mid-size or younger gallery squeeze”. Think about it like the bee population, she suggests: in an ecosystem where the bees are dying out, the bigger, fiercer ones are those that may house or protect the young. In Carlos’ experience, and in the case of Condo, it is the bigger galleries, say Gavin Brown’s or Sadie Coles, who are becoming responsible for hosting the younger galleries looking to get a foot in the international door.

Portrait of Vanessa Carlos, Founder of Carlos/Ishikawa. Photo: Rafael Martínez. Image courtesy Carlos/Ishikawa.

Portrait of Vanessa Carlos, Founder of Carlos/Ishikawa. Photo: Rafael Martínez. Image courtesy Carlos/Ishikawa.

Repeat Sessions

Young Chung, another artist lost to the ‘curatorial dark side’, operates with a more free-flowing approach. “We just do what the artists suggest; they plant the seeds,” he claims. The Los Angeles Commonwealth and Council runs their programme in the likes of a non-profit, with focus on bringing artists together in friendship and hospitality, rather than running a business. Chung’s experimental process, branded by his esoteric use of the word ‘we’ when referring to himself, seeks to build gallery structures with creativity and trust as the backbone.

Stemming from this trust, Chung has created a contract-free environment where artists “don’t feel competitive amongst each other, but feel they belong”. He wants it to “feel like a family”. The young director argues that contemporary art spaces need not and must not approach their artists with a list of guarantees, as this sort of contractual relationship only creates room for disappointment. Commonwealth and Council, he boasts, only approaches artists with a series of theoretical goals; the respect of the curators and community are byproducts of this, highlighting Young’s commitment to cross-professional research relationships.

Portrait of Young Chung. Photo: Joe Pugliese. Image courtesy Commonwealth and Council.

Portrait of Young Chung. Photo: Joe Pugliese. Image courtesy Commonwealth and Council.

When asked if an artist has ever left his gallery, he jokes that he is too manipulative and passive aggressive. In the end, he “gets what he wants”. Chung states:

I hate doing one-night stands with artists. I want a repeat session, you know?

Working with artists, particularly when contracts are involved, is like a case of “serial monogamy”, Lorenzo laughs. Once an artist is represented by a particular gallery, the relationship between artist and curator, or their work and the space, morphs into a marriage of sorts. This romantic analogy is an all too familiar one, Carlos agrees: “they are all like weird marriages”.

Gala Porras-Kim, “An Index and Its Histories” at Commonwealth and Council, 4 November 2017 – 6 January 2018. Photo: Ruben Diaz. Image courtesy the artists and Commonwealth and Council.

Gala Porras-Kim, “An Index and Its Histories” at Commonwealth and Council, 4 November 2017 – 6 January 2018. Photo: Ruben Diaz. Image courtesy the artists and Commonwealth and Council.

Mimi Chun first forays into developing gallery structures were based on a hell-bent urge to show underrepresented contemporary photography in Hong Kong. Blindspot Gallery did not set out to be part of the art market, she claims, but was opened out of a naïve passion for artwork that had yet to be shown (the space was opened in 2010 before Gagosian or White Cube made it to the city). And while Blindspot filled a much-needed gap content-wise, the lack of criticism still leaves a gaping void in Hong Kong’s art scene; the majority of the market is driven by commercialised auctions over creativity, a bleak reality that Blindspot hopes to remedy in the coming years. This systematic shift is the responsibility of the contemporary art gallerist, Chun argues:

Being a gallerist is a holistic experience… yet we are seen as masochists. We do this to ourselves! The need or passion that keeps us going is fueled by the illusion of art that doesn’t necessarily exist in Hong Kong.

Portrait of Mimi Chun. Image courtesy Blindspot Gallery.

Portrait of Mimi Chun. Image courtesy Blindspot Gallery.

Hematian, in contrast to both Chung and Chun, opened Dastan’s Basement in 2012 as an extension of his engineering practice. While he claims that each project is “passion-driven”, Hematian stressed structure at every juncture. “There is always a particular method of going about things,” he says. The Tehran gallery – as hesitantly as Hematian uses the label – started as a space for more experimental projects. At the time of its founding, the young curator was reading the Persian Book of Kings, borrowing his gallery’s name from that of a primary character.

Despite his mathematical approach to contemporary gallery structures, Hematian’s language became more romantic when asked about developing Dastan’s Basement busy exhibition schedule (64 shows in the last year!). For his small staff of 15, he claims that working with an artist is like asking you what kind of person you want to fall in love with:

You don’t always know, but you have certain parameters. You just need the right intentions. If they are pure, you get to fall in love with someone and their work and this is something to be proud of.

Click here to watch “Working Models: Developing Gallery Structures” at Art Basel Hong Kong 2018 on Youtube

On criticism, or lack thereof  

Each of the panelists, unfortunately, glossed over Lorenzo’s questioning into art criticism – its significance and popularity or void in their respective countries. Hematian’s attempt at an answer was a brief introduction into an Iranian gallery’s operational obstacles. One of the main elements missing in Iran is infrastructure, he notes, leaving an unsatisfied space for discourse. “The reason we do the things we do is because of this void,” he states. It helps when a gallery is able to manage their artists and exhibitions on a “fluid scale” where work goes from curation to criticism to audience seamlessly, whereby context is an inevitable outcome.

Carlos elaborates that there needs to be systems in place – or at least dialogues opened – between younger galleries and the big, name-brand ones when young artists inevitably ‘graduate’ from them for more money and exposure. Besides both galleries’ mutual love for the artists, there certainly needs to be more conversation between gallery tiers, if you will, about the love and attention that has been paid to the artists. But where arts journalism and the role of the critic lies, for these gallerists, remains a mystery.

Installation view of "Something There and Never There" 2018. Image courtesy Blindspot Gallery.

Installation view of “Something There and Never There” 2018. Image courtesy Blindspot Gallery.

Energy in the Digital World

The discussion concludes with a curious dive into energy, particularly with regard to the gallerists’ respective ages and capacity for building a digital presence. Lorenzo tells the audience that there are currently no digital platforms sensitive enough to deal with contemporary galleries; none are concerned with the “ephemeral qualities that make a gallery a gallery”. Many of them are about quantity over quality, so much of a gallerist’s job must be a reversal project. But like their stances on criticism, it is often the case that a gallery’s web presence and the digital tools used to connect artists, curators and collectors are left to someone and sometime else. Nonetheless, the ‘romance’, the collaboration, the friendship and the will to promote budding artists persists.

Megan Miller

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Related topics: videos, business of art, artists as curators, curatorial practice, events in Hong Kong

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Brittney

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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