Chasing the Chinese dragon, galleries open in Hong Kong
Major dealers are opening spaces, but getting business isn’t always easy
By Katie Hunt. Art Market, Issue 244, March 2013
Published online: 14 March 2013
The New York dealer Lehmann Maupin will be the latest high-wattage international arrival on Hong Kong’s gallery scene when its Rem Koolhaas-designed space in the city’s financial district opens on 14 March, bringing the likes of Tracey Emin, Lee Bul (opening exhibition, until 11 May) and Juergen Teller to the region’s collectors.
Lehmann will occupy the pre-war Pedder Building, along with fellow New York gallery Gagosian, which opened in Hong Kong in 2011, and joins London’s White Cube and Paris’s Galerie Perrotin, which opened its first Asian branch in the former British colony last year. The Asian expansion of the West’s blue-chip galleries is gathering steam, but is the long journey paying dividends?
Reasons to be cheerful
There is certainly a compelling business rationale. China has 250 dollar billionaires (second only to the US), a long tradition of art collecting and scope for growth in the ownership of contemporary Western art. There are also challenges: eye-watering rents, elusive collectors, economic ill winds and different art-market dynamics.
For Ben Brown Fine Arts, the first big-name gallery to set up in Hong Kong, divining how to reach out to collectors has been a “stony path”. The gallery’s director Andreas Hecker says: “Here you have to fight for every single sale.” The gallery, which opened in 2009, has staged popular exhibitions by the French sculptors Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne and the Brazilian photographer Vik Muniz, but a survey of German photography failed to impress.
Galleries have found that footfall is low and that sales often happen in private, says Jehan Chu, who runs the consultancy firm Vermillion Art Collections. “There is not as much name recognition for galleries here, and I think it’s a shock to the system,” Chu says. Hong Kong has few of the museums and institutions that proliferate in the West and little art reporting in the local media. As a result, galleries have to work harder to convince clients of their artists’ stature.
The international arrivals have mostly chosen to follow the money, clustering around the Pedder Building, amid banks and luxury brands and in an area where prime retail rents are said to be twice as expensive as those in New York and four times higher than in London.
This does not always translate into expensive, big-name exhibitions. Although White Cube has shown Gilbert & George (2 March-5 May 2012) and Damien Hirst (until 4 May), it has also shown less bankable artists, such as Elad Lassry. “We’ve been careful not to pander in any way,” says the gallery’s director, Graham Steele.
Defying the downturn
Jehan Chu says that this approach is “ballsy” but that galleries are in “a race against time to build an educated client base… before the rent and associated costs drag them down”.
Operating in Hong Kong has already proved too much for some with shallower pockets. South Korea’s Cais Gallery shut its Hong Kong branch because of high rents, and Robin Peckham’s Saamlung gallery closed in January. Peckham, a US-born curator, said that the quality of the local audience and collector base for the underexposed artists he championed had “failed to improve” and “even seemed to be weakening”.
Courtney Plummer, who will run Lehmann Maupin’s Hong Kong outpost, says the expansion has been partly driven by the gallery’s artists, who are keen to raise their profile in Asia. She says the foray is a long-term venture, and that the gallery has not been deterred by the slowdown in China’s economy, which precipitated a drop of more than 50% in the value of art sales at auction in 2012. “There will be a learning curve, but I think collectors are made of the same thing all over the world – they love beautiful objects,” she says.
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