Commercial galleries Contemporary art Fairs China

The art fair is crowded and galleries are buzzy

Contemporary art has never been so fashionable in Hong Kong, which art fairs and commercial galleries have helped make happen. But turning the curious into collectors will take time

Galleries in the Pedder Building attract the hip and trendy as well as serious collectors. Photo: © Norm Yip

On any regular Saturday afternoon, the stairwell and the lifts of the 1920s Pedder Building in Hong Kong’s central business district fill up with smart-looking young professionals, camera-toting students and the occasional art collector. They go up and down the building for hours and hours, visiting art and inhaling “Fierce”, the inescapable and distinctive “signature scent” of the Abercrombie & Fitch flagship store on the ground level. For visitors to the Pedder interested in contemporary and Modern art, the whiff of change about the gallery-driven scenes in cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore is impossible to ignore.

Once known for reasonable rents in one of the world’s most expensive neighbourhoods, the Pedder Building was filled with second-hand fashion shops and doctors’ offices. Now the building has gone glam and much more upmarket, in lockstep with the increased per-square-foot prices, and is now home to several art galleries, including Hanart TZ, Gagosian, Pearl Lam, Simon Lee, Lehmann Maupin and Ben Brown Fine Arts.

The list of international artists having their first shows in Asia is long, and audiences are learning quickly what they like and don’t. The great hope among art dealers was that “if you build it, they will come”. Dozens of new galleries have turned up, but after months and years of investment, many are asking: where are the big-spending new buyers from Asia? One clear answer is that as much as the Chinese collectors continue to acquire traditional Chinese arts and antiques and break world price records every few weeks, the market of mainlanders interested in putting down large sums for high-value international art, old or new, may remain a very small one for a while longer.

The opening of London’s Ben Brown Fine Arts in Hong Kong in 2009 was heralded as a new era for global high culture in the city. Brown, whose parents lived in Hong Kong, launched with an ambitious series of shows ranging from design by Ron Arad and photography by Candida Höfer to paintings and drawings by Picasso. The shows were aggressively marketed, covered widely by the media and certainly not inexpensive to mount. Since then, the list of European and US dealers has expanded to include White Cube and Perrotin, which are based in a building five minutes’ walk from Pedder. The galleries celebrated their arrivals by presenting work by international names, such as Gilbert & George and Kaws respectively.

Coming to terms with how much more needs to be done to develop a bigger collector base in Asia, the flood of big names to Hong Kong has slowed. The week of Art Basel Hong Kong, which draws an international audience, is now when everyone puts in the most effort to present high-impact gallery shows. Ben Brown, for example, has Not Vital and Frank Auerbach in his Hong Kong space from late May, while in recent months he had also begun to include Asia-based artists. In April, he showed works by the popular Hong Kong painter Simon Birch. Opera Gallery has been putting its resources into a Chagall show in time for the fair.

The French dealer Pascal de Sarthe, who opened his gallery two years ago in nearby Ice House Street, is going all-out this month with a show of Rodin early-cast sculptures, mounted in collaboration with Nevill Keating Pictures. The works are priced from $300,000 (HK$2.33m) to $6.5m (HK$50.44m) and include early casts of The Kiss and Eternal Spring. De Sarthe, who has been dealing with collectors in Asia for nearly 30 years, says that since opening a space in Hong Kong, he has decided to change the direction of his exhibitions. “Initially we were going to do more shows in Hong Kong, but we find that while collectors buy, there are often clients we [have] had for a long time and they don’t come to see exhibitions. So, instead we will now just do four or five shows in Hong Kong, some group shows, and in Beijing we will have more primary market works, of Chinese artists and some young ones,” he says.

Most international gallery transactions in Hong Kong are in the secondary market, says De Sarthe. “If we just had an office in Hong Kong I could serve them the same way. The collectors will say, ‘I want Zao Wou Ki, Picasso—find me the best’, so I look at my database and find the work,” he says. But he feels that, during the fair, a show on Rodin, whose work he has previously offered to buyers in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, might be enlightening for more serious collectors as well as instructive for the generally interested. In Asia, many still do not appreciate the difference between a late-cast piece and one made during Rodin’s lifetime and why the early casts are more valuable.

At White Cube, which is showing the Chapman Brothers (until 30 August), the programme has also adapted to include a wider range of artists. Last year, it showed rising star Elad Lassry’s work. Alongside solo shows by artists such as Takashi Murakami, Gagosian also mounts group shows, such as one on Pop art that included works by Richard Prince, Dan Colen, Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst among others.

Without a resident culture of dominant, widely followed art critics and curators, the other focus for galleries has been to invest more in education and communication. The number of PR companies that specialise in culture—or luxury goods PR firms that have now taken on art—has exploded in Asia. The hope is that with so many new players, demand for such services will follow.

All across the region, galleries are creating new converts to their programmes. At weekends exhibitions can be crowded and the numbers of visitors attending fairs such as Art Basel Hong Kong are impressive. But while growing numbers of wealthy people in Asia are spending money on art, and despite the emergence of budding collectors, the majority are still developing their tastes and budgets. The rapid progress in raising a general interest in art and engagement by the public at large in Hong Kong and Singapore are laudable and a marked success for the auction houses and galleries, in the absence of strong, established arts institutions and museums. But in the art business, people looking is welcome as long as it is matched by significant buying.

Meanwhile, in Singapore…

Singapore’s government backed the ambitious redevelopment of the Gillman Barracks, a former British Army compound, which opened in 2012 as an arts district to house dozens of galleries. Most of the dealers there are from outside Singapore: Berlin's Matthias Arndt and Michael Janssen, Sundaram Tagore of Los Angeles-New York-Hong Kong and Tokyo's Tomio Koyama, among others.

Singapore’s government backed the ambitious redevelopment of the Gillman Barracks, a former British Army compound, which opened in 2012 as an arts district to house dozens of galleries
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