These 20 Cultural Luminaries Helped Make Hong Kong Asia’s Art World Capital
Not one but two art fairs roll into Hong Kong this week, the venerable Art Basel in Hong Kong and its plucky two-year-old peer Art Central, standing side by side on the city’s waterfront. They are met with a jam-packed calendar of shows at galleries from Simon Lee to 10 Chancery Lane and experimental exhibition spaces like Para Site and Spring Workshop. The art world has definitively crowned Hong Kong as the epicenter of art in Asia. And there’s more on the horizon: Two major new institutions—Tai Kwun in the newly restored Central Police Station compound and the M+ museum—are nearing completion, and more galleries are setting up shop along Hong Kong’s sloping streets each month, Massimo de Carlo and Sprüth Magers the latest among them.
Hong Kong has made remarkable progress in forging a profitable art market and increasingly a vibrant art scene, much of that progress having been achieved in little under a decade. But can the city grow and sustain its creative class to achieve the mix of market and making that drives New York and London’s art machine? Can it satiate the cultural demands not just of capricious collectors, but also of the seven million or so individuals who call it home? Artsy spoke to a number of Hong Kong’s most eclectic cultural luminaries to find out.
Building a Market
Long before the first incarnations of the city’s now established art fairs, auction houses laid the groundwork for the city’s buzzing art market. Christie’s chose a pre-handover Hong Kong as the catalyst for its subsequent Asia expansion. “We opened an office in Hong Kong in June 1984,” explains Chairman of Asia Pacific François Curiel. Christie’s had its first Hong Kong sale in January 1986, which included 19th- and 20th-century Chinese paintings as well as jewelry. Fast-forward 30 years, and Christie’s Hong Kong now boasts some 180 staff at its 4,800-square-meter office. In 1991, Christie’s Hong Kong became the first international auction house to hold a sale entirely devoted to contemporary Chinese oil paintings, with sales totaling $1.1 million. It was a watershed moment, a precursor to the market for Chinese contemporary art today, in which single works by painters from Wu Guanzhong to Zao Wou-Ki routinely fetch that amount on the auction block—if not 20 times that.
Curiel roots Hong Kong’s ability to be built into a successful art market in its central location within the region: “It’s a bit like Geneva. Despite big jewelry sales twice a year there are very few Swiss buyers. There are a few Hong Kong-based buyers, but not many. The buyers are 80% from [mainland] China and the rest of the region: Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Hong Kong has become a sort of art hub of Asia. It didn’t exist five years ago, but now it is at the same level as London and New York.”
For a time, auctions enjoyed something of a monopoly in Hong Kong’s art buying and selling. That all changed in 2008 with the debut edition of ART HK, the art fair that famously laid the foundations for today’s Art Basel in Hong Kong. The fair boasted an expert team at its helm: Sandy Angus (whose subsequent fair forays include India Art Fair, Istanbul’s ArtInternational, London’s Art16, Photo Shanghai, and indeed Art Central), Tim Etchells (of Art Central, Art16, and Sydney Contemporary), Will Ramsay (of PULSE and the Affordable Art Fairs), and Magnus Renfrew, who would later direct the fair’s first two editions under the auspices of Art Basel.
Renfrew went on to lead auction house Bonhams’s Asian expansion before it was scaled back last month. He continues as an influential member of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and Chair of Para Site’s Advisory Council. “Hong Kong was already the center of the auction market in Asia,” recalls Renfrew of the climate into which they launched ART HK. “There was a gap for a major international art fair that could both introduce a rapidly expanding collector base from Asia to high-caliber artwork from elsewhere in the world and also introduce art from Asia to a global audience.”
Unique conditions in Hong Kong due to its history of more than 150 years under British rule, until 1997’s historic transfer of sovereignty, made it the obvious Asian capital in which to locate such a fair. “There is probably nowhere else in the world where people from Asia and the West feel so equally at home,” says Renfrew. “Freedom of expression is protected under the Basic Law of Hong Kong and under the Hong Kong constitution.” The city is also a freeport, which likely aided ART HK’s impressive growth and its later acquisition by the MCH Group, Art Basel’s parent company. ART HK’s first edition in 2008 welcomed 101 galleries and over 19,000 visitors. Just four years later, in 2011, the fair saw 260 exhibitors and over 63,000 attendees. That summer, MCH Group acquired a majority stake. “The team were hugely proud of what we had achieved and welcomed the involvement of Art Basel,” says Renfrew of the acquisition, which was aimed to “ensure the continuity of the fair for the long term.”
Creating a Community
While Hong Kong’s art market was taking shape, artists were treading an altogether different, more modest path. “The first wave of artists formed communes and collectives in the 1980s,” recalls Leung Chi Wo, an artist deeply ingrained in these first moments and currently an associate professor at the City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media. “But it was a very small group, with minimal impact,” he concedes. In addition to a dearth of higher education options for those interested in the arts, the city’s notoriously exorbitant property prices presented a very real challenge to artists—and continue to do so. “Studio art was very difficult, if not impossible, because of costs,” says Leung. Some real estate respite came around the dawn of this century. “The economic downturn in the early 2000s was almost like a small springtime,” he adds. “As the price of places came down, artists moved into former industrial spaces,” leading to a burgeoning creative community in the city’s Fo Tan district, where Leung has a studio, and more recently South Island’s Wong Chuk Hang.
In 1996, while still a student, Leung co-founded Para Site, one of the city’s first artist-run exhibition spaces. “We wanted a space to exhibit; user-friendly spaces were pretty non-existent in the mid-’90s,” he says of the spot, now located in Quarry Bay, which has since garnered an international reputation as one of Hong Kong’s most progressive. Its founding one year after the establishment of the government-run Hong Kong Arts Development Council is significant: “That funding allowed the space to grow. It was the first time independent artists and organizations could apply for funding for their projects.”
Para Site is the first of an expanding network of nonprofit and artist-run spaces to create room for experimentation and creation in Hong Kong. Still today, its impact on the city’s cultural community and scene continues to resonate. Take current exhibition “Afterwork,” part of the space’s ongoing Hong Kong’s Migrant Domestic Workers Project, which explores issues of class, race, labor, and migration in the city, and shines a light on Hong Kong’s struggles with inequality and social stratification.
Since the emergence of Para Site, others have followed, expanding nonprofits’ remit along the way. Notable among this small but punchy network is Spring Workshop, founded by Mimi Brown in 2011. Brown designed Spring Workshop “as a place where people could come together to experiment with the way we engage with art,” she says. And through artist residencies, public programs, education, and exhibitions, it regularly collaborates with a new generation of artists and curators who have chosen to make Hong Kong their home, including Nadim Abbas, Trevor Yeung, and Chantal Wong.
“Hong Kong needs more organic experimentation, [and] more Hong Kongers waking up on their day off and wanting to go have a cultural adventure,” Brown asserts. With Spring Workshop, she facilitates precisely that.
Capitalizing on Growth
ART HK’s and, subsequently, Art Basel’s success in Hong Kong saw a flock of international galleries descend on the city. Simon Lee director Katherine Schaefer oversaw the gallery’s move to Hong Kong in 2012. “Looking back, it was a very exciting period,” she recalls. “One of the beauties of having a gallery here is that you are one of a handful. We felt a great sense of support in opening a gallery and developing a presence here from the community and the galleries that were also establishing themselves.”
That same year, White Cube, Pearl Lam Galleries, and Galerie Perrotin all opened satellite spaces in Hong Kong, joining the likes of Gagosian, Ben Brown Fine Arts, and de Sarthe Gallery, who had led the charge over the course of the several years before. “The foreign investment environment and various government strategies to facilitate Hong Kong as a trade hub were of course a consideration,” says Schaefer of the business-friendly city’s additional draw, which made “opening a business in Hong Kong seamless and flawless.”
But it wasn’t just commercial galleries that swiftly capitalized on the city’s newfound commercial cachet. As part of a very visible ripple effect, Affordable Art Fair founded a Hong Kong edition in 2013. And two years later, Art Central became another significant player, rounding out what has matured into a dynamic market landscape, indeed. “Art Basel cemented Hong Kong’s position as Asia’s art hub,” says Art Central director Maree Di Pasquale of the state of affairs prior to her fair’s launch, “so much that we felt the city was ready for a parallel fair of international standing that would help to elevate it to a global arts destination.” An unmissable time slot in the global arts calendar for international collectors was born.
Pitfalls of a Market-Driven Cultural Landscape
Despite the activities of a handful of pioneers like Para Site’s Leung and Spring Workshop’s Brown, art created in and for Hong Kong—and the nonprofit art sector as a whole—has lagged behind the city’s commercial growth and influx of international players. Historically, public opportunities to engage with art have been few in Hong Kong, and the gap between rich and poor remains significant.
For a time, Hong Kong’s parallel realms of commercial and noncommercial art exhibition stood frustratingly separate. As prominent collector and cultural influencer Alan Lo explains, “The arrival of the blue-chip galleries sparked discussions around [Hong Kong’s] relationship with local artists and more grassroots community: It was very disjointed, very disconnected.” However, adds Lo, “As the international and regional art community started paying more attention to Hong Kong artists, with Lee Kit going to Venice in 2013 and subsequently Tsang Kin-Wah in 2015, that changed. I’m not saying that all the issues are solved. But it’s definitely more healthy today than it was five or six years ago.”
The tension hasn’t been lost on newcomers to Hong Kong, either. “The western galleries do sometimes operate in isolation from what is happening in the local art scene and ecosystem,” says Simon Lee’s Schaefer, echoing Lo’s observations. “There still needs to be cross-fertilization,” something she hopes is soon to come.
Beyond commercial galleries, opportunities for cross-sector creativity are indeed growing. Injecting a healthy dose of cultural discourse into the monied business of art is Yana Peel, a Hong Kong resident since 2008 and co-chair of the Para Site board of directors. Her live debate platform Intelligence Squared has been a feature of ART HK and subsequently Art Basel since 2009. “We sparked the kind of discussions that weren’t really being had here,” says Peel. “Hong Kong has a paucity of nonprofit art spaces and museums, and so much of what people see, purchase, and learn about here is driven by the commercial galleries,” she adds, looking ahead to a debate at this week’s Art Basel in Hong Kong “where artists and cultural leaders will find themselves engaging with commercial galleries and auction houses.”
That’s not to say that artists haven’t benefitted from Hong Kong’s increased market power. Hong Kong-based artist Samson Young was the recipient of last year’s inaugural BMW Art Journey. He describes the bursary as giving him “the opportunity to go really crazy with research.” Young traveled to 11 countries across 5 continents as part of the project, titled “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” collecting audio and visual material. He used portions of this material to create “So You Are Old by the Time You Reach the Island,” a multimedia walk that takes participants through the city’s Wan Chai and Admiralty districts. “The work produced has a certain scale and ambition that otherwise would not have been possible” without having received the Art Journey, he says, and thus without his hometown’s market boom.
And it’s not just artists who can benefit from the presence of a robust commercial sector. As Asia Art Archive (AAA) co-founder and director Claire Hsu explains, “The market has been an important driver for increasing the general interest and awareness of art in the city. Nonprofits have benefited from this.” Founded in 2000, the archive was born from “the urgent need to create and share knowledge of the recent histories of art in Asia so as to enrich and complicate existing art-historical narratives, and to open up new reference points beyond those well-traveled,” says Hsu. A respected resource in Hong Kong and beyond, the archive has successfully forged links with the city’s galleries, fairs, and private individuals.
AAA funds itself mainly through an annual auction of works to collectors, an example of private institutional arts patronage that “is still in its very early stages” in Hong Kong, according to Lo. “Whether it’s directly sponsoring an artist’s project or giving money to a nonprofit, there’s so much more we can do.” Lo sits on Para Site’s board, but he has also engaged in more non-traditional forms of patronage (and popularization) of the arts in Hong Kong, helping form an Arts Committee for Duddell’s, the art space-meets-restaurant he cofounded in 2013, which organized an exhibition of Margaret Lee’s work in partnership with the Dallas Museum of Art that opened this week. In so densely built a city such co-opting of spaces is a laudable solution to put more art on view.
All the more laudable due to the fact that, for a city teeming with some seven million residents, Hong Kong’s government-funded arts institutions have been notoriously, woefully few. All that is about to change, however, as two new public developments spearhead what many hope will be a new era of cultural development in Hong Kong: Tai Kwun (more commonly known as the Central Police Station) and M+.
The former, set to launch later this year, sees the repurposing of the city’s former Central Police Station compound, for which it is named, into a cultural hub in the heart of the city. Heading up the art programming at the HK$2.1-billion initiative is German-born former Para Site executive director and curator Tobias Berger. (He also served as a visual art curator for M+ during four years of its build-up phase.) “It will fill the gap between the smaller nonprofit spaces and the museums,” says Berger. “It will be a place where contemporary artists can produce exhibitions, try things out, and where the public can see art that is relevant to a contemporary Hong Kong discourse.” Poised to host six to eight exhibitions annually, it will also accommodate film screenings, a library, music, performance, and workshops.
While anticipation for the Central Police Station is high, it’s the long-awaited M+ that is truly out to cement Hong Kong’s status as a world-class arts hub upon its opening in 2019. The crown jewel of the West Kowloon Cultural District—which, at 40 hectares, will be Hong Kong’s largest arts and cultural project to date—the museum will be housed inside a space by TFP Farrells and Herzog & de Meuron. M+ will “present a very comprehensive view of the intersections between art, culture, and design in Hong Kong, and the region,” says curator of visual art Pauline Yao of the museum’s wide-ranging remit.
M+’s potential impact is wide-reaching. Despite China’s museum boom, which has seen thousands of new institutions open in recent years without similar investments in museum management training, the world’s second largest economy still lacks a world-class example for those smaller museums to follow. And despite M+’s history of false starts and resignations—most recently that of executive director Lars Nittve—expectations continue to mount for what is admittedly still a distant development. “I think it’s vital that M+ puts in a new leader and continues on its path,” says Peel, adding, however, that there is work yet to be done. “They have a great team, great momentum, but there’s also a need to bring people together and cultivate a spirit of philanthropy and private giving.”
Ahead of its physical site, M+ already plays a part in Hong Kong’s broader ecosystem—currently via a series of traveling exhibitions including “M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art” at ArtisTree. Come July, an online portal will forge new space above and beyond the density of Hong Kong. “A digital presence is a way for us to have a range of curatorial spaces for experimentation, for working and sharing information,” explains Yao. “Everything will be bilingual to reach a range of audiences. It’s an important way for us to have another outlet for sharing our work and collection.”
Clearly, Hong Kong has the drive, the intrigue, and crucially, adequate government support to make things happen. But as Hsu cautions, these drivers are at risk. “This can-do attitude Hong Kong has prided itself on in the past has become increasingly tested, as witnessed with the Umbrella Movement that gripped the city and much of the world just over a year ago.” As Beijing’s influence is increasingly felt in Hong Kong’s political, educational, and media landscape, many are concerned that these new institutions’ curatorial independence could also be compromised, be it through self-censorship or that of an external hand.
As Hong Kong prepares for its seminal 2017 chief executive elections, time will tell how the city might further rise to publicly accommodate and facilitate culture. Citing the case of Singapore, Peel says, “The successes there have happened because of government enablement of the National Gallery Singapore and Singapore Art Museum. In Hong Kong, initiatives have been largely commercially or privately led. We’re all waiting for Hong Kong to endorse its commitment to visual art.”
To what extent Hong Kong politicians will meet Peel’s call is uncertain. More uncertain yet is the fate of the Hong Kong market, as various economic indicators unravel on the mainland. In order to survive economic or political upheaval, the Hong Kong art scene needs to further diversify, empower its growing base of artists, and become yet more public-facing in its presentation of their work. “A multiplicity of voices, density, and depth are essential for a healthy art ecology,” reminds Hsu. Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine any city better suited to take on the challenge.