Hong Kong: An art hub minus grassroots buzz
Hong Kong is a place that makes art dealers giddy.
At last weekend's Hong Kong International Art Fair (ART HK), notable sales include "No. 313, 1969" by Chinese artist Chu Teh-Chun that sold for more than US$3 million and Alighiero Boetti’s “Mappa” (1984) that sold for €1 million.
These headlining sales are a regular phenomenon in Hong Kong, the world's third-largest art auction house after London and New York.
But why are Hong Kong artists and art critics still frowning?
Hong Kong artists inhabit a third space in the global art scene, that is not the West nor China.
"Hong Kong is logistically an art hub," says Robin Peckham, whose newly founded Saamlung gallery has shown Hong Kong and Macau artists. "But a logistical hub is not an intellectual hub."
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The art fair was selling T-shirts emblazoned with "Money Creates Taste," but even Hong Kong's big bucks can't buy creativity.
Peckham observed that many up-and-coming Hong Kong artists don't live in the city full-time -- Lee Kit lives in Taipei, Adrian Wong lives part-time in the United States -- whether to avoid rent pressure, find better jobs or to immerse themselves in a more nurturing art community.
Market pressures reduce the opportunity for Hong Kong artists to experiment and take risks. Local isn't what sells here and the boom in the city's international art trade is disproportionate to the slow ripening of the local art scene.
Show us the money
Art collectors are well catered for when they visit Hong Kong. The big boys have all set up shop here recently, Gagosian Gallery and White Cube being two prime examples.
Sotheby’s opened a permanent gallery space in Hong Kong this week, underneath its office in Pacific Place.
"Art collectors from Asia contribute as much as other places, they deserve a complete Sotheby’s experience,” says Kevin Ching, CEO of Sotheby’s Hong Kong.
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Zero sales tax on artworks and the strength of Chinese buyers fuels Hong Kong art transactions. Five years ago, only four percent of Sotheby's collectors came from China, compared to 40 percent today.
Most of them want to buy art that they're familiar with -- Chinese art, produced by mainland Chinese artists.
"The art fair is reflective of the new reality," says Magnus Renfrew, ART HK fair director. The fair has a 50-50 Asian and Western gallerist participation. "There are great artistic productions all around the world. It's not just about Europe and the United States anymore."
But Hong Kong artists have yet to find their place within that equation. The gold from the art hub rainbow is slow to trickle down to local creatives.
Artists Gum Cheng and Clara Cheung founded the C&G Artpartment, a space in Kowloon that holds events to encourage dialogue within the local art community.
They see a clear distinction between Hong Kong and mainland China when it comes to creating and selling art.
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"Hong Kong is not 'Chinese' enough in a sense," says Gum Cheng. "Hong Kong artists inhabit a third space in the global art scene, that is not the West nor China."
And that is not an advantage right now. Cheng remarks that even art produced just across the border in Shenzhen has a higher value than Hong Kong art.
While the growth of the art fair does benefit a number of Hong Kong artists who are represented by galleries, it's a very small percentage.
What the art fair does is put the big picture into focus. Hong Kong is now firmly on the global art map and Renfrew is positive that the momentum of international sales will indirectly drive the quality of local art.
“I think we are witnessing an increase in self-confidence and the probability for Hong Kong to become an Asian cultural hub,” says Renfrew, while adding "there is still a way to go."
Hong Kong is gaining all the institutions needed to become "cultural." The upcoming M+ Museum, the right galleries, an art fair that will be taken over by Art Basel next year, as well as strong auction buyers.
"It would be a pity, though, if Hong Kong became a place where international art was consumed by international visitors, with the art world effectively bypassing the local community," says Hong Kong-based artist Simon Birch, who is currently co-curating Daydreaming with... exhibition with James Lavelle.
Add to that the local artists.
Galleries and exhibitions mentioned in the article:
White Cube Hong Kong, 50 Connaught Road, Central, +852 2592 2000, Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.- 7 p.m., whitecube.com
Gagosian Gallery Hong Kong, 7/F, Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, +852 2151 0555, Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.- 7 p.m., www.gagosian.com
Sundaram Tagore Gallery, 57-59 Hollywood Road, Central, +852 2581 9678, Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.- 7 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.- 7 p.m., www.sundaramtagore.com
C&G Artpartment, 3/F, Sai Yeung Choi St. South 222, Prince Edward, Kowloon, +852 2390 9332, Thursday-Monday, 2- 7:30 p.m., www.candg-artpartment.com
Sotheby's Hong Kong Gallery, 5/F One Pacific Place, +852 2524 8121, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m., www.sothebys.com
Daydreaming with… Hong Kong edition, May 4- June 7, Artistree, Taikoo Place, Daily 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m.