Analysis China

Where next for Hong Kong, Asia’s art hub?

As Art Basel Hong Kong opens, will the art fair have the same effect that it has had on Miami?

A streetcar named desire: next stop Art Basel Hong Kong

As the Art Basel Hong Kong fair opens its doors to invited guests, there is no doubt that, culturally speaking, the Hong Kong we see today is very different from the place that fair impresario Tim Etchells visited, for the first time, in 2006.

“I was on my way back from Australia,” he says, “and I decided to stop off and investigate the arts scene.” In the back of his mind was the idea of starting an art fair in Asia, but he wasn’t sure where. “I found around 35 galleries in Hong Kong, of which only around a third were of a good level,” Etchells says. “And the museum infrastructure was weak, but I felt there was potential.” He went to the Hong Kong Convention Center’s management but was told, he recounts, that there were ten other candidates ahead of him, also wanting to hold an art fair there.

Undeterred, Etchells tried another tack: he found two partners and, through a contact, bagged the precious space in the convention centre. Hong Kong’s first major international art fair, then known as Art HK, unveiled its first edition in May 2008. The renamed event is now part of the prestigious Art Basel fair group; this year’s edition is the first under its new name of Art Basel Hong Kong.

In a few years, the cultural scene in Hong Kong has also grown enormously, particularly in the commercial field. Local dealer Jean-Marc Decrop, who has just opened Yallay Space in Aberdeen with Fabio Rossi of London’s Rossi and Rossi (1C40), has seen radical changes in his 20 years in Hong Kong. “When I first moved here, Hong Kong was not at all international,” he says. “The art on offer was Chinese art. The few collectors were interested in traditional wares such as jade, ceramics and ink brush painting. And the galleries mainly sold rather decorative things, with the exception of a few significant spaces, such as Schoeni [3D16] and Hanart TZ [3D07].” Collectors in Hong Kong were motivated by a desire to amass and preserve their heritage, rather than a desire to explore more avant-garde art, he says.

A key moment that reinforced Hong Kong’s growing importance as an art hub was the decision by Sotheby’s and Christie’s in 2008 to hold all their sales in Hong Kong and no longer in other regional centres such as Singapore. This inevitably brought in collectors from around Asia, and other auction houses—from Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Taiwan—also started holding sales in the territory, only increasing its strength.

Hong Kong, with its tax-free status, excellent financial services and ease of doing business, gradually became the hub for the Asian art market. Some of the world’s top international galleries have set up spaces here, among them White Cube (1D12), Gagosian Gallery (1C05), Simon Lee (1D38) and Lehmann Maupin (1C09). At the last count, there were around 100 commercial art galleries operating in the territory, according to the Hong Kong Art Galleries Association, which was formed in May last year.

Hong Kong is also the gateway to mainland China and its growing potential as a market for contemporary international art. Today, it is easy to forget how quickly China has achieved its position as the second biggest art market in the world. In 2006, according to the art economist Clare McAndrew, it had only 5% of the global market—a percentage that had soared to 25% by 2012. The question that remains unanswered, however, is how many collectors of contemporary Western art there are on the mainland, as a lot of their buying focuses on traditional Chinese art.

As for Hong Kong’s museum infrastructure, there are institutions such as the Hong Kong Art Museum, Kowloon, the University Museum of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Arts Centre, as well as the non-profit organisations Asia Art Archive and Para Site. But “for a major city, the institutional scene is still pitifully weak”, says the curator David Elliott, formerly an adviser to the Central Police Station, a planned contemporary art space. “Hopefully, that will be rectified by the forthcoming M+ museum in West Kowloon and the Police Station,” he says.

So to what extent has the fair contributed to the growing cultural offer in the territory and its international profile? “There was an art scene, but the fair definitely boosted it,” Ben Brown (3E16) says. “People said there were few collectors, but when I did my first show with Johnson Chang [of Hanart TZ gallery] in 2005, I was amazed by how many people came out of the woodwork. I sold around 25 works by Western artists, such as Ron Arad, Candida Höfer, Boetti and Warhol, much to my surprise.” And even if the consensus is that there are still not many contemporary art collectors in Hong Kong, its position as a hub means that it attracts buyers from all over the region.

Art Basel has, of course, another model in its stable of fairs: Miami Beach. Its US fair was inaugurated in 2002 (the planned 2001 first edition was cancelled in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks) and has certainly had an effect on the cultural scene there. Art Basel Miami Beach brings in thousands of collectors and up to 20 satellite fairs, meaning that more than 1,000 galleries are represented during its art week in December—with the predictable boost to local businesses.

There are differences, however. The museum scene in Florida was growing before the fair arrived, with a number of major private art spaces, such as those founded by the Rubell family and Marty Margulies. But the fair certainly boosted cultural confidence in the city. The transformation of the Miami Art Museum into the Pérez Art Museum Miami, which is due to open in a Herzog & de Meuron-designed building on Biscayne Bay this autumn, promises to be a game-changer. Able to host major travelling exhibitions and with an extensive programme, the institution should put Miami squarely on the international museum circuit.

The commercial sector has not developed in the same way in Miami, however. The Parisian dealer Emmanuel Perrotin, who has a gallery in Hong Kong, opened a gallery in Miami’s Wynwood district, but soon closed it, and no one else has dipped their toes in the water since.

So for those dealers who have opened in Hong Kong, the comparison with Miami Beach is only true thus far. “Hong Kong has traditionally always been a marketplace in the region, with amazing infrastructures, and does everything to facilitate trade,” says Graham Steele of White Cube (1D12).

“Although it had little investment in culture, that is now being corrected. And Hong Kong is the gateway to Asia, and everyone is looking for ways of connecting with mainland Chinese collectors,” Steele says. Art Basel Hong Kong, he says, “demonstrates to the world that there is a desire here to contribute to the art dialogue”. At the same time, he sounds a warning note. “There are probably more collectors of contemporary art here than we know about, but fewer than Western dealers are dreaming of.”

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23 May 13
11:2 CET


As much as Hong Kong may be perceived as a "gateway" to China and Asia as a whole, its local art scene has, regrettably, been rather circumvented by international dealers, curators, and collectors, over the years, preferring to orientate their interests towards art from mainland China. That is, until fairly recently, as more exhibitions, at least six in as many months here in the UK, have showcased artists from what is now called the SAR. My hope, as someone who has a tremendous amount of admiration for Hong Kong artists, both inside and those of the diaspora is that, more "home grown" visual artists, will begin to catch the eye of international audiences there for Art Basel Hong Kong and that they will be able to experience the many challenging, often inspirational and at least, thought- provoking works by those Hong Kong artists that are definitely now raising, a voice of their own.

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