Art Market

Hong Kong’s Most Important Gallery District Is in a Brand New 26-Story Skyscraper

Nate Freeman
Mar 23, 2018 8:39PM

Courtesy of H Queen’s.

In Hong Kong’s bustling Central District, its skyscrapers sprouting up from the tropical island and sparkling in the night, there’s a plot on the Queen’s Road nearly the size of a full city block that Henderson Land Development fought to get its hands on for three decades, sniping the lots from longtime owners, one-by-one, until the whole parcel was theirs. The company is in the business of office buildings, but a few people at Henderson had another idea: Forget about office space, and turn the building over mostly to contemporary art galleries. The result was a jenga tower of world-class exhibition spaces, orders of magnitude larger than the broom closets that previously passed for galleries in Hong Kong’s cramped environs. The building, dubbed H Queen’s, would be an arts district in the sky.

On Monday night, the nomadic mob of dealers, collectors, advisors, and art world hangers-on in town for Art Basel in Hong Kong will descend upon H Queen’s for openings on seven floors. The swaggering mega-galleries Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner will open their first galleries in the continent. Pace Gallery secured a floor, as well, its second Hong Kong gallery in addition to a space in the Entertainment Building a few blocks away, and will be showing work by Yoshitomo Nara. They’re joined by local stalwart Pearl Lam, who adds another jewel to a crown that’s got two spots in Singapore and one already in Hong Kong. There’s the offices of Seoul Auction, the South Korean bidding powerhouse. Galerie Ora-Ora is a local shop devoted to emerging artists on the 17th floor; pioneering Tokyo outfit Whitestone Gallery will open with a show of Dale Chihuly’s glass confections; and Tang Contemporary Art, a Thai gallery that opened in Bangkok in 1997, will stage an ambitious show by Ai Weiwei.

All at once, Hong Kong’s burgeoning art scene will get a shot in the arm, a vertiginous gallery circuit built from scratch, with spiffy, large-format boxes that can go to bat against those in Chelsea or Mayfair. Art Basel in Hong Kong opens to VIPs Tuesday afternoon, but on Monday night, the slew of simultaneous openings up and down the H Queen’s building will be a spectacle unto itself.

Naturally, the gallery owners with their names on the door are quite excited.

“I have not seen it finished!” Iwan Wirth said, speaking on the phone from England Thursday. The president of Hauser & Wirth was jetting out in a few hours, and after he touched down, he could finally check out how the muscular new Mark Bradford canvases looked in his Annabelle Selldorf-designed spaces on the 15th and 16th floors, almost 250 feet above the ground.

Mark Bradford, How much do your stones weigh lady?, 2018. © Mark Bradford. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Joshua White.


As we chatted on his landline, Wirth was getting word on his cell phone from China about how the space turned out.

“I have a terrible cold,” Wirth went on, “And my director texted me just now and he said, ‘I’m sorry about your terrible cold, but the good news is you have the most elegant gallery in Asia.’”

It took a long time for a true gallery circuit to take hold in the Pearl of the Orient, even as commerce thrived in other industries thanks to Hong Kong’s longstanding status as a free-trade zone. Although—thanks in part to the drop in the pound sterling—China recently outpaced the United Kingdom to become the world’s second-biggest art market (according to Art Basel and UBS’s The Art Market | 2018), the presence of world-class international galleries in Hong Kong is a relatively new development, dating back to the end of the aughts, when auction sales in the United States tanked following the recession but exploded in Hong Kong, doubling from 2009 to 2010. It was then that the first trickle of international galleries came in, starting with London-based, Hong Kong-born dealer Ben Brown, who was one of the earliest ones to go east. In 2009, he opened a space in the Pedder Building, one of the few pre-war buildings left in Central.

“Since 2008, these waves came, and we owe those pioneers, really,” Wirth said. “Over 10 years ago, it was still a very different cultural landscape. And we owe them for that.”

Pearl Lam was born to a wealthy Hong Kong family and lived there until going away to school in the U.S. at age 11. She returned to China in her twenties, and started putting on pop-up shows there in the mid-90s, but when it came to opening a brick-and-mortar space in 2004, she put down roots in Shanghai. There was no reason to open a gallery in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong has been a very, very rich city, but its never had a focus on art and culture,” Lam said. “But when contemporary art became a trend, galleries started opening.”

Courtesy of H Queen’s.

Larry Gagosian saw this coming and grabbed a Pedder Building space in early 2011, his eleventh space globally, but his first in Asia.

“We established the gallery in Hong Kong because the city is the gateway to Asia,” Nick Simunovic, Gagosian’s Hong Kong director, said at the time in a press release.

The timing was fortuitous, coincidentally or not. A few months later, it was announced that Art Basel would buy local fair Art HK and turn it into its third flagship fair, ensuring that Hong Kong would forever be a stop on the art world’s global tour. Pace nabbed its Entertainment Building digs the next year, and White Cube opened on nearby Connaught Street. Lehmann Maupin opened a Rem Koolhaas-designed space at the Pedder Building in 2013; Simon Lee arrived in 2014; and in 2016, Massimo De Carlo took over a small nook that was being used by Ben Brown as a project space—the Pedder Building was full.

Its location was prestigious, but the spaces were decidedly limited—more apartment-sized than gallery-scaled. Gagosian’s 24th Street space in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood is 26,000 square feet, with 23-foot ceilings; in Hong Kong, the gallery had just 1,600 square feet, with 12.5-foot ceilings.

Other gallery owners looking for a world-class space were left twiddling their thumbs. In January 2016, David Zwirner told the South China Morning Post he was snooping around for a Hong Kong space, but couldn’t find anywhere close to his specifications.

“We are spoilt,” Zwirner told the paper. “We have large galleries that in some instances we’ve built from the ground up. What I’d like to have is a space that inspires artists.”

By spring, one option had emerged. Kristine Li, a manager at Henderson and the granddaughter of Lee Shau-kee, the billionaire founder of the real estate empire, started to quietly woo suitors to come on board an ambitious project that would create a gallery mecca from scratch.

“The Hong Kong art scene is changing at a rapid rate in recent years, [as] the public has become more and more interested in arts,” Li said in an email. “We have witnessed an increasing demand for the art space in the market.”

By June, Zwirner was in, with Pace coming onboard shortly after.

Installation view of Dale Chihuly’s work at Whitestone Gallery Hong Kong, 2018. Courtesy of Whitestone Gallery.

“We signed up immediately,” said Marc Glimcher, president of Pace, speaking from Cambodia, where he was on vacation before arriving in Hong Kong. “It’s the art world’s new addiction.”

So what exactly is H Queen’s offering? The spaces on each floor range from 4,000 square feet to 6,000 square feet, and rent for $HK100 ($12.75) per square foot. Zwirner has two floors for a total 10,000 square feet—a third of his 20th Street space in Chelsea, but massive for Hong Kong, and a full six times larger than Gagosian’s space down the street.

“It was kind of the typical developer pitch, like, they said, ‘We’re gonna build a building that’s just for art galleries, and then stack a bunch of galleries on top of them,’” Glimcher said. “But in Hong Kong, that pitch works. Finding space in Hong Kong is really, really difficult.”

Lam had not one but two Hong Kong spaces, and still jumped at the chance to snag another. It enabled her to close one gallery, in the SOHO 189 building in Sheung Wan.

“You don’t have enough traffic [in Sheung Wan], and so we had no choice—we had to be in Central,” Lam said.

Wirth said he had been talking to Zwirner about the H Queen’s situation for some time (the two dealers ran a space together, Zwirner & Wirth, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side until 2009), but didn’t meet with Li until mid-2017. As Wirth explained, after opening the massive Hauser & Wirth complex in Los Angeles in March 2016, he couldn’t devote himself fully to a space in Asia—and Asia is a place that, because of the culture of its clients, needed to be dealt with only by the mega-gallery’s top brass.

“Only Manuela [Wirth, the gallery’s president] and I can do it, or Marc [Payot, a partner at the gallery],” Wirth said. “I cannot delegate. It’s very much about face time, and they want to deal with the guy who has the name on the door.”

Rendering of the gondola system at H Queen’s that can facilitate the delivery of artworks through the operable façade on each gallery floor. Courtesy of H Queen’s.

But once the L.A. gallery was fully operational, they had a bit more time to ponder on Hong Kong.

“We had sort of been looking around, not in a rush, and then the Li family approached me at Art Basel in Hong Kong last year,” Wirth said. “In a record time of just three months we renovated the space, which is amazing. It’s a miracle!”

Dealers felt comfortable moving that quickly in part because the architect, William Lim, is a collector, and understands the rhythms of a gallery night stroll from opening to opening. From the ground, an elevator glides northward in the center of the building, journeying up across glass, giving glimpses of each gallery’s show as it passes, a flip through an Instagram slideshow in real life. From the top, one can gallery hop via the staircase, Hong Kong-style. Lim told Indesign Live that he was inspired by the winding outdoor staircases of the Whitney Museum’s new building in New York’s Meatpacking District, designed by Renzo Piano.

Lim also designed the building to accommodate the logistics of mounting ambitious art shows, fixing upon the building’s shaft a high-tech gondola that can hoist up heavy works by crane.

“This gondola system is a very unique feature of the building,” Li said.

That machinery could be pivotal—much of the programming of the galleries is yet to be announced, but after Zwirner opens his relatively easy-to-ship show of Wolfgang Tillmans photographs, what’s to stop him from deciding to foist very, very heavy Richard Serra sidewinders up five floors? After the works by Bradford, Hauser & Wirth will be having a show of works by Philip Guston, and then Louise Bourgeois—hypothetically, if they wanted to show one of her gigantic spider sculptures, there are few places in Hong Kong to install them. Hong Kong residents could experience a vastly wider range of art thanks to a gondola.

The size and technical capacities of the building open up the opportunity for these galleries to go deep into their roster and show artists who haven’t shown anywhere in the Hong Kong market, or in Asia at all.

“When we talk to artists, Asia is on the top of their list,” Wirth said. “They want to have exposure in Asia.”

Despite the developments at H Queen’s, Hong Kong still needs to develop a richer, more multilayered cultural landscape before it can truly be a world-class art power, Lam said. The contemporary art museum M+, which is scheduled to fully open next year, along with a raft of initiatives in the West Kowloon Cultural District, is a step towards bolstering a thriving gallery system.

“When M+ opens, it’ll become the voice of the art world, then we have the chance to compete with the West, and it will inspire other museums to up their standard,” Lam said. “When that’s up, that’s when we can truly compete with the West, but until then—nope!”

Nate Freeman

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of  Marc Payot, partner and vice president at Hauser & Wirth.

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