Hong Kong’s Art Market Goes Global
Near East, Launch Issue, 2013
The bets are well and truly in. Hong Kong is now the world’s biggest fine art auction market after New York and London – a fitting title for a city that takes pride in its status as an international financial centre. With no import tax on artworks, low corruption, reliable logistics and a strategic position (well placed to capitalize upon mainland China’s economic boom) it was, perhaps, only a matter of time before the city would host a major art fair. ART HK was founded in 2008 and quickly became established as the leading event of its kind in Asia. Held annually in the city’s Convention and Exhibition Centre (site of the 1997 Handover Ceremony) the fair has mushroomed from 100 galleries and 19,000 visitors at its inaugural edition to 266 galleries and 67,000 attendees. Only a few short months ago the MCH Group (owners of the market-leading Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach fairs) announced their purchase of a controlling stake in the event, but even before this deal was being struck a rash of heavy-hitting international galleries (including White Cube, Gagosian, Lehmann Maupin, and Galerie Perrotin) were setting up their Hong Kong outposts. In a city that loves status symbols their offerings of Hirst, Murakami and other “brand-name” artists represent a play for the well-heeled consumer jugular. It seems the market is undergoing a wholesale sea change.

Hong Kong’s gallery scene was small throughout the 1990s. The high price of real estate and most residents’ pursuit of money, not culture, conspiring to produce an unadventurous topography (only consistently redeemed by the work of Hanart TZ). It would take the post-millennium boom to fire the imaginations of would-be collectors and, predictably, this was a partial spin-off of financial-world hype around BRIC economies. Chinese art was like Chinese equities – “buy now”. When wealthy mainlanders began to showcase their considerable spending power at the city’s auction houses it heralded the birth of a certifiable contemporary art-market phenomenon. It was then that the seeds were sown for a whole new crop of dealers (many peddling poor imitations of Yue Minjun’s smiling grotesques) and serious interest on the part of Western players. The appearance of ART HK would eventually address the imbalance between cash and quality in spectacular fashion – if only for a few short days a year. With some of the world’s most prominent galleries putting down roots, it now appears that the Hong Kong art market has finally become as globalized as its financial sector.

Gagosian gallery is home to Richard Serra, Cy Twombly and many more of the West’s most prominent artists. The Hong Kong outpost is its eleventh worldwide. As its Director Nick Simunovic relates, it was perhaps the first blue-chip outfit to stake a claim in the territory. “I moved here in the summer of 2007 and we opened the space in January 2011 […] I’ve been here for almost six years, so I appreciate that ART HK has given tremendous development to Hong Kong as a cultural hub, but we were already sold on Asia even without the art fair”. A former employee of the Guggenheim, Simunovic recounts his impression, in 2006, that there were “no galleries” addressing the needs of serious collectors in the region – “We felt they had been underserved, because it’s quite daunting to pick up the phone and call London and New York if you live in Taipei or Jakarta. I saw that Asia was a wide open playing field, that there was very little happening here as far as Western art was concerned”. It was this judgment that led to a conversation with Larry Gagosian – a discussion that would take Simunovic away from the museum world and into the cut and thrust of this emerging market.

“When I arrived we didn’t know what to expect – which artists would be most in demand, or which geographies we would have the most success in. We knew there were pockets of sophisticated collectors in places like Japan and Korea but the idea of coming to Hong Kong was [an attempt] to work from a platform in the heart of Asia with good infrastructural links to the rest of the region; to have a space from which we could work with collectors across the wider geography”. Simunovic re-emphasizes their multi-national strategy: “It’s not just about Hong Kong. It’s not just about China. We’re happy to be on mainland China’s doorstep, but really we wanted to bring the artists that we work with to greater attention and prominence across the whole region”.

Gagosian Hong Kong’s collectors hail from as far afield as Japan and Australia. But this widening of the gallery’s client base isn’t necessarily being paralleled in their artist roster. As Simunovic explains, “We are probably best known for showing Western modern and contemporary artists; for being the gallery of Koons, Twombly, Ruscha and Picasso – and we wanted to do all those kind of things here”. “Of course we’re open exhibiting Asian artists”, he continues, “and we work with Zeng Fanzhi, but our motivating strategy was not to come here and sign up five or ten Chinese artists. […] We want to work with those who we think will have a major retrospective at MoMA in five or ten years”.

The new owners of the art fair are also keen to stress that they are bringing international quality to Asia, rather than chasing local tastes. The rebranding of ART HK as Art Basel Hong Kong might seem unnecessary given the event’s success at building an international profile but, as their communications director Calum Sutton explains, the change is meant to send a clear signal to art market players. “The idea is that all three fairs will be of equal quality. So it’s not about the ‘original and best [fair being the Swiss edition]. The message we want to get across is that this is an Art Basel quality event.”

One implication of this message is that the artworks in the fair need not be subject to some of the more prosaic conditions affecting the local marketplace. Conditions which Robin Peckham, owner of the Hong Kong based Saamlung gallery, outlines: “Hong Kong commercial galleries on the sub-blue-chip end of the scale are fighting an uphill battle due to the mechanics of rent and artist sales. Collectors tend to live in relatively small places here, which means sales of big pieces are few and far between”. In this respect, the fair can be said to float above the everyday – as comments by Magnus Renfrew (former Fair Director of ART HK, now Director Asia for Art Basel) confirm: “Dealers consider the fair a hub for the region. It’s not just about Hong Kong. It’s also about Taiwan, Korea, Southeast Asia and of course Australia. There are different circumstances in each of these countries with regard to the cost of real estate. But at ART HK we had works from our public projects section find homes in Asia, so scale is not necessarily an obstacle”.

For any gallery, being admitted to Art Basel and its Miami sibling is notoriously difficult. Might applicants to the Hong Kong fair view it a back door to these more established events? Renfrew is doubtful. “The selection criteria for all three fairs is very stringent, so to get into Art Basel in Hong Kong is not an easy thing to achieve. I can’t speak for all of them”, he says, “but I think the majority of the galleries that are coming here are doing so in order to introduce their program to the Asian collector base. It would be a very expensive enterprise if you weren’t anticipating engaging with them.” He continues – “The younger generation of galleries are really seeing what the future looks like. Asia is playing a more important role in all our lives and they want to connect with that.”

Wary of any perceived trade imbalance, the fair is eager to stress their commitment to giving regional galleries an international platform. The numbers appear to back up their claims. Art Basel Hong Kong will feature more Asian galleries than its previous incarnation. Of the 171 galleries in the main section, the percentage is 43%, up from 40% in 2012 and much more than other international fairs. This represents an endorsement of the region’s galleries by the fair’s owners. But does it presage more Asian visibility in their Swiss and American endeavours – which are, by far, the worlds most significant in terms of sales? “I think that it’s going to be a matter of evolution rather than revolution” says Renfrew “The natural circumstance will be that the selection committees for the other fairs will attend Art Basel Hong Kong and become more familiar with interesting galleries from the region. They’ll also hear things from colleagues who are participating. So, yes, I’d anticipate that as time goes on more Asian galleries will be represented.” Renfrew’s seven years in Asia – five of them spent in Hong Kong – will be called upon as a resource during the selection process, which might bode well for Asian participation. However, he does not have voting rights, so the future is still an open question.

Global interest in the Hong Kong art market has increased dramatically since the establishment of the fair. But with foreign galleries prioritizing the regional collector base and championing “international” rosters aren’t local artists and dealers in danger of being suffocated? Peckham takes an optimistic position. “ART HK has demonstrated to a long-isolated art scene that Hong Kongdoes have meaningful contributions to make to global culture. I personally believe that it's been this exposure to the international rhetoric of contemporary art that has allowed a few younger artists here to break out onto the wider exhibition circuit. I also think that the transformation into Art Basel Hong Kong will allow the pulling power of its brand to bring a number of younger, edgier galleries to the city, and that's what excites me most”.