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Western perspectives on Hong Kong’s gallery scene: Interview with Graham Steele and Robin Peckham

White Cube’s Graham Steele and the US curator Robin Peckham discuss their new spaces in the Central district

In March, the British gallery White Cube inaugurated its first overseas branch, a 550 sq. m space on two floors in Hong Kong’s Central district, a short distance from the building that houses the Gagosian Gallery and Ben Brown Fine Arts. Designed by the London architects Maybank and Matthews, the gallery opened with a show of 22 new works by Gilbert & George and is directed by Laura Zhou, who previously worked at the Shanghai gallery ShanghART for 14 years. We spoke to Graham Steele, White Cube’s Asia director, about the outpost.

The Art Newspaper: Why have you opened your first international branch in Hong Kong?

Graham Steele: What this city has always represented to us is a dynamic opportunity to be in a thriving territory with an English heritage which is a gateway to the rest of Asia. What’s really interesting about Hong Kong, as opposed to Seoul or Tokyo or Beijing, is that there’s a vacancy in the cultural landscape here. Of course there’s Para/Site and the Asia Art Archive [not-for-profit research and exhibition spaces] and M+ [the long-anticipated museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District] is opening in five years, but in terms of a substantive grand space in which to stage contemporary international art at the level people are used to seeing from White Cube, there are very, very few opportunities for people to see that in Hong Kong.

How important was Art HK, now in its fifth edition, in reassuring you that something viable is happening in the city?

Magnus [Renfrew, the director of Art HK] and his team do an amazing job with that fair, there’s no question. They bring the right people in, the standards are of the highest calibre, but the art fair is symptomatic of the larger movement that’s going on here. There’s an opportunity here all year round, not just in May, and that opportunity is to stage great shows. This year we’ll have an Anselm Kiefer show to coincide with the fair.

Would it be fair to say that you don’t expect to be selling lots of art in Hong Kong immediately, but that the gallery is a long-term investment?

Absolutely. We’re cultivating a group of people in Hong Kong and there are also fantastic collectors in Taiwan, in Korea, to a lesser extent in Japan and Indonesia, and in mainland China.

How will you differ from the Gagosian Gallery’s outpost in Hong Kong, which has staged two Damien Hirst exhibitions since it opened a year ago?

We have a very different way of doing things. We opened with Gilbert & George. The most expensive piece in our Gilbert & George show is £90,000. It is also a new body of work that they’d worked on for six years; and our show in Hong Kong was a world premiere of a body of work. It’s about showing respect to Hong Kong, about displaying something new and challenging, which isn’t necessarily going to be immediately loved. It’s photography-based work, which is not traditionally a hot seller. And also pictures that have titles like Die, Die, Accused, Rape, Murder are not easy for audiences in the West, let alone for people that are metabolising them for the first time.

Will you continue to show established artists or can we expect some of your less well-known artists to also be shown in Hong Kong?

We will definitely be showing some of our younger artists. Our show in November is of work by one of our younger artists whose art has been shown in several biennials and it is priced well under $50,000, although I can’t say who the artist is yet. There will be modern masters, and there will be dynamic young talent. And potentially there will be some Chinese artists shown as well.

Are you looking to add more Chinese artists to your roster?

We look for artists in Beijing in the same way that we look for artists in São Paulo. If the artist is a right fit for White Cube we will definitely do so. To coincide with the fact that we opened with Gilbert & George in Hong Kong, we put two Chinese artists that we’ve been looking at for a long time, MadeIn Company [founded by artist Xu Zhen] and Liu Wei, on display in our Bermondsey Street gallery in London. We’ll also do another project with a young artist Jia Aili later in the year. Whether or not we come to represent more artists is something that White Cube takes very seriously. It takes a long time to come to representation. We won’t take on an artist just for the sake of nationality.

The US curator and writer Robin Peckham moved to Hong Kong from Beijing two years ago and last November opened Saamlung, a project space and gallery in the Central district. He represents nine artists, including Nadim Abbas, Chen Chien-Jung and Adrian Wong, all of whom live and work in Hong Kong or Beijing. We spoke to him about the art scene in Hong Kong and the likely impact of international galleries such as Gagosian and White Cube.

The Art Newspaper: You seem to be doing something specifically tailored to the Hong Kong scene.

Robin Peckham: In terms of exhibitions what we’re doing is a third Western, a third from Hong Kong and a third mainland Chinese. In terms of who we represent it’s important that we’re primarily working now with artists who are based in Hong Kong because there are so few options for those artists to show their work. When we work with US artists, often it’s more about them bringing something to the gallery, whereas with the artists in Hong Kong it’s much more about us creating a platform for them to gain new levels of visibility for their art.

What is the art scene like in Hong Kong?

There are very few serious galleries in the city, partly because there is a very small art scene, particularly on the artist side of things. Art education models are very outdated, there isn’t much available in terms of training and post-training, resources for finding a studio and to build a career, but there are a few very sharp artists working here who haven’t yet had the opportunities they need.

Do you expect the artists you represent to work with you exclusively?

We are helped at the moment [by the fact] that we don’t have other galleries working on similar types of projects so it’s less of an issue of keeping our artists exclusive and more an issue of making sure their work is presented here. We discourage our artists from doing other projects in Hong Kong simply because there’s very little that they could do here that would be adding to their career.

Many Western galleries have opened branches in Hong Kong. Is it really a land of possibility as they seem to believe?

It’s a long-term proposition. The potential is here but the actual market in terms of sales is small. This surge of interest in Hong Kong beginning with the fair and the arrival of Gagosian and White Cube and others means that standards are going up in terms of how an exhibition is made, which is important for Hong Kong where the galleries are usually small to begin with. And they’re dark and cluttered and unprofessionally maintained so how the art is being shown in these Western galleries is very important. Artists who are here or who are passing through from other parts of Asia are picking up on how to present their work more professionally.

How much of an effect has Art HK had on the region?

It’s largely because of the art fair that everything that has happened in Hong Kong since 2007 has happened; contemporary art has become a place to be seen, particularly in socialite circles. It’s been very successful. But even during the professional preview there’s no sense yet of it being a professional meeting place the way there is at most other fairs. It’s very public, very loud from the very beginning. Because we don’t have so many art world professionals in Hong Kong, China and Asia, there’s not so much going on in terms of professional conversation.

Western galleries in Hong Kong seem to be running very similar programmes there to the ones they run in New York or London. Do you think this is a commercially viable option for them?

I think they actually are changing their programmes in Hong Kong. Gagosian is a good example because it’s an international gallery and represents a massive stable of artists, which includes some more emerging artists, yet in Hong Kong they are only really showing the very top tier of the most established artists. They’ve done two Damien Hirst shows already. I think the day that we see an Albert Oehlen show in Hong Kong is still many years off. That worries me a little bit. They’re not doing too much to push the standards of the work that is being shown in Hong Kong. It’s more about hosting these big names that they know people will be paying attention to, even people who are outside of the art world here.

Arguably these galleries need to establish a network of clients here before they can push their programme in more exciting directions.

The market in Hong Kong is really shallow. Our gallery is focusing on a more professional group of collectors who are involved with Western museums and sit on acquisition committees and spend a much larger proportion of their time on art, and are very smart about how they’re collecting; they’re tracing lineages of influence and are interested in Chinese and Western artists but they are not necessarily the wealthiest collectors. I think what Gagosian and White Cube are trying to do is draw out this massive wealthy population in Hong Kong which doesn’t yet have a relationship with contemporary art. Hopefully, in the end that’s good for everybody but we’ll have to see if it works.