This year has seen a wave of new international blue chip galleries opening branches in Hong Kong. White Cube opened with a debut exhibition of Gilbert and George’s “London Pictures” in early March, followed by Galerie Perrotin, Simon Lee Gallery and Pearl Lam Galleries in mid-May, whose launch coincided with this year’s Hong Kong International Art Fair (Art HK)—in which all four galleries also took part. At the same time, Sotheby’s launched its third permanent gallery space, taking over the entire fifth floor of the designer label shopping mall Pacific Place. For their opening, Sotheby’s, in collaboration with Tokyo’s Ota Fine Arts, exhibited works by Yayoi Kusama produced from the 1980s until today, calling the show “Hong Kong Blooms in My Mind.”
In fact, over the past three years, some 20 foreign galleries have made their way to Hong Kong. Like the group’s globetrotting vanguards—such as Ben Brown Fine Arts, which began plying its international wares here already in late 2009, the French gallery Edouard Malingue, which opened its Hong Kong site in September 2010 and then, perhaps most visibly, Gagosian, which arrived in January 2011—many are lured to the city’s proximity to a still burgeoning Chinese art market, which according to a 2011 estimate by Artprice, currently generates 41.4 percent of global art auction revenue. Many equally see Hong Kong as the most practicable base in East Asia. Gallery directors—such as Etsuko Nakajima and Alice Lung of Galerie Perrotin, Graham Steele at White Cube, Katherine Schaefer of Simon Lee and Claudia Albertini from Platform China—cite building an international platform for their represented artists as a primary reason for setting up shop in the bustling Chinese territory.
However, what does such growing interest from the self-appointed international art world mean for local Hong Kong artists? This question has been posed since the inaugural Art HK was held in 2008, and it remains a relevant one. While some celebrate the ever more international roster of galleries, along with last year’s purchase of Art HK by the owners of Switzerland’s Art Basel, and the fact that more quality lots in Chinese contemporary art are being consigned to auction houses in Hong Kong rather than Beijing—which certainly adds weight to the Hong Kong Arts Development Council’s claim that the one-time British entrepôt is becoming a cultural hub that can compete with New York and London—there is concern that the art scene in Hong Kong will be one in which international collectors come to purchase international art, yet largely bypass the local arts community.
Some new galleries claim they intend to “educate” the local public about Mainland Chinese and other, Asian and international artists. Pearl Lam Galleries’ current show of abstract Chinese art, “Mindmap,” is a case in point. “We had a lot of positive feedback about the show,” Cleo Lam, manager of the new Pearl Lam space, told ArtAsiaPacific. “It’s more academic and less of a commercial exhibition, in the sense that some of the works are not that easy to sell in Hong Kong compared to what you might usually see here. That would be the top five, six selling contemporary Chinese artists.” The show remains recognizably “Chinese” and that itself holds a certain cache that the gallery hopes to build on, to raise awareness of Mainland artists besides painters Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Xiaogang, Chen Yifei and Zhou Chunya, who currently dominate auction sales.
Graham Steele, co-director of Hong Kong’s White Cube, echoed this sentiment: “It was important for us [when selecting a city for White Cube’s second gallery] to bring world-class contemporary art of the highest level, in a way that you would see at [New York’s] Museum of Modern Art, at White Cube in London or hopefully you will see at M+ [Museum of Visual Culture], to an area where that was really needed.” Likewise, Etsuko Nakajima and Alice Lung, at Galerie Perrotin, in a joint statement about the gallery’s mission, said: “We aim at introducing contemporary art as a whole to Asia. That is to say not only contemporary Asian artists, but also our international avant-garde artists will be featured prominently in our gallery in Hong Kong, so our Asian audience will have a more complete understanding of the entire global contemporary art world.” Kevin Ching, chief executive of Sotheby’s Asia, speaking to the Wall Street Journal in April this year, was not shy in explaining why they selected Yayoi Kusama as their debut artist: “Sotheby’s gallery will aim to educate Chinese buyers on Western art by first introducing them to Asian artists who already enjoy an international following, like Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, as well as 19th-century French painters such as Claude Monet, whose Impressionist landscapes are immediately recognizable to collectors everywhere.”
On the other hand, efforts to tailor programming to suit Hong Kong audiences could result in local artists gaining more exposure. None of the recent arrivals at the stalwart Pedder Building, and around the corner on 50 Connaught Road, have excluded the possibility of working with local artists. For its second exhibition, Pearl Lam Galleries, whose eponymous director is originally from Hong Kong, is showcasing prominent, young local artist Tsang Kin-wah, known for his multimedia text-based installations. The modestly sized Simon Lee Gallery plans to work with artists outside of their usual roster for two of their four annual exhibitions. “Working with Hong Kong artists is something we’re definitely looking at,” Schaefer confirmed to AAP. “We haven’t come here with strict guidelines. It’s a learning process. . .We want to take the time to know the practice of artists working in Hong Kong and Asia and make sure there’s synergy with the Western artists we represent.”
Likewise, Claudia Albertini, director of Platform China in Hong Kong’s Chai Wan district, told AAP she is very open to working with local artists: “The idea of Platform China is to engage. It’ll take some time because we are new, and working with a Hong Kong curator could possibly be a very good idea because they know more [about the local art scene].” As an industrial area undergoing rapid changes, Chai Wan’s similarity to the Beijing scene in the early 2000s was a significant drawcard for the Cao Chang Di-based Mainland gallery. Chai Wan, on the east of Hong Kong island, is a place where “you feel part of the environment,” says Albertini. The director plans to work in tandem, coordinating openings and other events with longtime local Katie de Tilly of 10 Chancery Lane, which has an annex on the same floor, in the Chai Wan Industrial City building, as well as with other galleries in the area.
However, independent local curator Eric Leung expressed skepticism about any immediate benefits to local artists except for those already well known overseas, such as Tsang Kin-wah or, for example, Hong Kong’s representative at next year’s Venice Biennale, Lee Kit. That is not to say that more international galleries will negatively affect the local art scene. According to Leung, since Hong Kong came into the art world’s spotlight around five years ago, more opportunities have become available to local artists thanks to a maturation of the existing art scene. The incoming galleries are only one aspect of this development, alongside factors such as Art HK, or the launch of the major West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) project in 2006, and more generally, the contemporary Chinese art boom around 2005, as well as its partial deflation after the 2008 financial crisis. All in all, there is growing government investment in the arts, more public interest, and a greater number of galleries, including those actively nurturing young local talent.
Support for local emerging artists owes much to the pioneering efforts of galleries Hanart TZ (founded in 1983) and Grotto Fine Art (founded in 2001) galleries, widely known as the first to consistently represent Hong Kong artists—and in the case of Grotto, exclusively so. Over the past decade, many new and existing local commercial galleries have followed their lead, including Gallery Exit, Osage Gallery, Amelia Johnson Contemporary, and recently 2P and Saamlung, among others. Even local upscale gallery Fabrik, since last year has begun showing a selection of young Hong Kong artists (such as Sim Chan, Vaan Ip, Kako Peco and Canson Lau, all in their 20s) in addition to their blue chip stable of the likes of Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakami and Maurizio Cattelan.
Another change taking place among stalwart and emerging Hong Kong galleries, is the use of new, larger warehouse spaces, being repurposed for exhibition opportunities off the beaten track. Osage Gallery was the first to open a warehouse space in Kwun Tong in 2007 and has recently taken the bolder step of closing their original gallery in downtown Soho, and renovating an additional Kwun Tong space, to boast galleries on par with the floor spaces of their Beijing peers. Hanart TZ, followed suit in 2010, opening an annex space in the industrial area of Kwai Chung, deep in the New Territories. Most recently, on the east side of Hong Kong Island, a new homegrown space AO Vertical Art—launched by art book publisher and printing company Asia One Communications Group—joined 10 Chancery Lane’s annex gallery in the Chai Wan Industrial City building, along with Platform China. These spaces hosted “Art East Island,” a parallel festival held during Art HK in May. Meanwhile, since the approval of two new subway lines that will link the northern and southern end of the island (both already under construction), more adventurous galleries, as well as fashion and design brands, are eyeing real estate on the south of Hong Kong Island. Here, in an industrial corner of Aberdeen, Gallery Exit, the leading proponent of emerging local artists since it was founded in 2008, opened its second location, called Southsite, in March this year. Boasting many times the size of its popular Soho space, Southsite is an example of how such repurposed spaces are offering local artists chances to show large, site-specific gallery works.
While there are challenges facing the local arts community, the “internationalization” of Hong Kong’s art scene is not one of them. Ever increasing downtown rents, a lack of spaces—not to mention lagging art education models, and a possible lack of art professionals in the near future—are more pressing culprits. Hence, the future of existing independent art precincts like the shrinking Fotan Art Village and the unkempt Cattle Depot—which, although it houses nonprofits 1a Space and Videotage, currently has seven vacant spaces—remains uncertain largely due to property prices and less accessible locations. Yau Ma Tei’s artist-cum-activist space, Woofer Ten, survives largely on project to project grant applications and, of course, young, inexperienced volunteers.
In the long run, the recognition of Hong Kong as an international marketplace for art will both directly and indirectly benefit the local art infrastructure and give greater exposure to Hong Kong artists. The adage, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” may hold true afterall.